Last year, It's a Wonderful Life was chosen by the AFI as the most inspirational film of all time. Who am I to argue with that? Or, for that matter, to argue with the legions that have made it a Christmas holiday tradition year after year? I'm not the person to argue those points. I am also not the person who is going to have a dissenting opinion just to be a contrarian.
What I am is a new convert to the legions of fans that have made this film such an important piece of cinema and an integral part of the holiday season. That's right, you read that correctly, new convert. Before viewing this Collector's Edition DVD I had never — and I mean never — seen the movie before. Done gasping? It's okay, take a few deep breaths, that feeling will pass.
I catch a lot of flack for the number of films that I have yet to see, in particular the big films that have been recognized for their greatness — the biggest being The Godfather. Now stop it; I'll get around to it and the shocked gasps are a little old. Now I can cross one more off the to-see list. On the chance that you have not yet seen it, I implore you to take the time. Catch one of the television broadcasts, or better yet, get your hands on this DVD release!
What can I say that will add to what has been said over and over about this film over the years? Probably nothing. The story is well known to everyone, even those who haven't seen the movie (which included me until just recently).
It is the tale of a man, George Bailey (played by the inimitable James Stewart in his first post-WWII role), whose life never amounts to the dreams of his youth. His strong sense of responsibility always manages to keep him in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls, with no responsibility other than to the Building and Loan Association that helped grow the town and kept the film's villain, Mr. Potter, at bay.
The further into life, family, and business George goes, the further away he moves from his dreams of seeing the world. There is something else too; he is finding it increasingly difficult to keep his family together and the business afloat. Before too long, George is slipping into despair. His despair brings thoughts of suicide and a fortuitous meeting with Clarence, his guardian angel. Clarence shows George that he should not despair, showing him what life would be like if he had never been born.
It is a moving and uplifting tale that goes a long way to show the positive effects that we all have on each other even if we don't realize it. No matter how alone we feel, or how much we may believe we have screwed up, there is always somebody that wishes us well, somebody whose life is enriched by having us in their lives. The next time you are with your family, just look at them, carefully; you will know doubt sense the warm feelings and love they have for you.
It is a sentimental film, and sentiment is not always a good thing. Thankfully, we have Frank Capra at the helm, and he knows how to work the sentiment to the benefit of the film. It's a Wonderful Life is the best kind of sentiment; it is uplifting, but never schmaltzy. On top of that, it never shies away from the darker sides of life, almost surprisingly so.
Now as great as the film is, the tale of its journey from ignored feature to revered classic is almost as interesting as the movie itself. Upon its release in 1946, it received mixed notice and scarcely made its money back at the box office — all despite the film being nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor).
Once it was out of theaters it was pretty much forgotten, that is until the mid 1970s. It was in this decade that the film fell out of copyright, as the owners neglected to renew it. Television stations around the country pounced on the film, putting it into heavy rotation during the holiday season. It was during these broadcasts that audiences found the film and recognized its sublime beauty. Critics, who gave it almost unanimous praise, also rediscovered it. Thus a legend was born.
Let us not forget the technical achievements. First there is the set, one of the largest built up to that time. A main drag 300 yards long, complete with more than 80 buildings and businesses and decorated with 30 full-grown transplanted oak trees, was the centerpiece of the production. There was also the new development in fake snow, which eventually won an Oscar for its advancements. Snow was originally made of painted corn flakes, but Frank Capra wanted to use live audio, so the crunching had to go. Enter a new silent formula.
This is a movie that was firing on all cylinders.
This two-disk set is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the gorgeous black and white photography has been restored and looks fantastic. On the other hand, this classic has been colorized. Now, all together — shudder.
It is not the first time that colors have been applied to the video. The original coloring was so awful that James Stewart tried to watch it but couldn't because it made him sick. He's not the only one.
Colorizing black and white films is a complete and utter travesty. However, there is one good result of the process. In order to do the process properly (not the right word for it, but you already know that), the black and white film needs to be restored. Fortunately, this color presentation comes complete with the restored black and white.
I will say that the color version is one of the more naturalistic colorizations I have seen. That said, I doubt I will ever view that disk again.
Rounding out the DVD set is a pair of featurettes. The first appears to have been an old television program on the making of the film, simply titled The Making of It's a Wonderful Life. It is hosted by Tom Bosley and features interview footage with both Frank Capra and James Stewart. It covers the seed of the story as a Christmas card and how the writers for RKO could not figure out what to do with it. It was ultimately sold to Frank Capra, who worked his magic on it. There is also information on the technical side of Bedford Falls' creation and casting options. My favorite was Vincent Price's consideration for the role of Mr. Potter.
The second featurette is a remembrance by Frank Capra Jr. It covers some similar ground as the first featurette, but it has a more personal touch as it is delivered by the great director's son.
Finally we have the original theatrical trailer, always a welcome addition.
Bottom line. It may have taken me awhile to get around to seeing it, but I did and am glad for it. It is a heartwarming story that is timeless in nature. It matters not when you see it, or what part you catch it in, you will be sucked up into the drama. We should also not forget that this was Donna Reed's first lead role, and what a role it was!