It's a Wonderful Life Review
It isn’t Christmas until you’ve seen George Bailey (James Stewart) running down the street yelling, “Hello, Bedford Falls!”, a place as synonymous with the festive season as 34th Street or Nakatomi Plaza. It’s a Wonderful Life is simply perfect, embracing a magical wish-fulfillment sentimentality without ever descending into using it as a mawkish crutch.
Capra’s movie and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (released the same year) followed the template set by 1941’s Here Comes Mr Jordan to tap into the shared sense of loss generated by the Second World War. Prior to the 1940s, stories were less likely to fantasise about an afterlife. Naivety would have been acceptable, and probably rendered both films as forgettable fluff. Instead, in the perennial Greatest Film Ever Made discussion, It’s a Wonderful Life would qualify as Hollywood’s most pure entry in any such silly competition. It is everything cinema was intended to be and truly timeless.
Maybe it’s because it is a film everyone can love. The modern equivalent might be The Shawshank Redemption, but even that has a violence enough to shock your granny, whereas Capra could offset sentimentality with enough irony and honesty to make it relatable. Everyone talks about Clarence (Henry Travers) the befuddled angel, rescuing George from a suicide attempt, which does sound twee on paper; but it’s the last act. The story is really about how he gets to that lowest of points, so if you have it in your head that it is a fairy story for children, you would be surprised at how deft the drama is played.
The frequent scenes with Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter (cinema’s greatest unsung villain) lean into realism rather than classic melodrama, especially where Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy makes his terrible error. The whole film feels sparky and modern and the plot isn’t neatly contrived into a solution. Instead, it asks "what if?”, and reminds us to believe that people will ultimately do the right thing.
It’s a Wonderful Life is Capra's finest film though that’s not to belittle the superb Mr Smith Goes to Washington or You Can’t Take It With You. Capra and the cast, working from as sharp and witty screenplay as they come (by Capra, with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett), play their roles with such subtlety that there isn’t a note out of place. I always think of the scene where George returns home on Christmas Eve, at the end of his tether and hiding his shame by lashing out at his family. It is sublime mise en scene; this is a most apt moment to which the term should be applied.
Stewart was Capra’s muse before he was Hitchcock’s and he was arguably never better than as George Bailey. Possibly Vertigo, but again, in a film so easily taken for granted, there are layers to George you may not expect to find. Mitchell and Barrymore are both excellent too, but even the bit-parts like Ward Bond have their moments and all make a mark. Donna Reed is the most inspired casting though; again, a role that’s doing a lot of leg-work for the narrative without being showy. And finally there is Clarence of course, played by Henry Travers. A relatively small part, ubiquitous to the story.
Capra is often dismissed, unfairly so, for sticking to his lane of good hearted fantasy drama, but it's through that prism we can best understand the life around us. It's a Wonderful Life is relevant still, to all of us, 74 years on. Possibly more so than ever as the importance of mental health has never been so appreciated. George's despair is a drip at a time that even he didn't notice, of which all of us should be cautious. Perhaps it is to this simplest power of cinema that Martin Scorsese recently intended to discuss; even a story about interfering angels can be true while set pieces and narrative contrivance are always lies, no matter how fun. There's room in cinema for all kinds of hero, but ones like George Bailey and Atticus Finch are real, simply by being one of us.
It isn’t the Greatest Film Ever, of course. Such a notion is absurd. But it might be at least in the top one.
I recently reviewed The African Queen, a classic much-loved film that leaves me cold, but the disc is a must-buy because it reflects on Hollywood history, regardless of how you take the movie. This is the other way around. If you haven’t seen it then, fine, get this release (also, what on earth have you been doing?). If you already have the last Blu-ray, there’s not enough of a jump in quality to justify shelling out again until you upgrade to 4K.
This review is of the Blu-ray release and the image is certainly improved. There's a perceptible silvery gleam to some scenes and the contrast is balanced beautifully to enhance detail without creating too much noise. The painstaking work on preserving the film by creating a 4K scan and a new 35mm print is astonishing. There were two cinematographers (Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc) and a great deal of effort has been made to enhance but also unify their work in the same film.
The original mono is presented clean and centred. Some scenes slightly betray the studio work but it's crystal clear throughout. Again, the scene of a distraught George returning home is the most raw and the use of sound fascinating; the focus of the sound is on him, isolated, despite the cacophony of children around him.
The multiple releases of this film have left a trail of extra features, never to be carried over. There's a brilliant feature about the restoration and footage of the cast and crew larking about in a wrap party-cum-holiday. It's fun, but we're missing the making of documentary not seen since DVD.
While Arrow, Eureka and Criterion continue to embrace the prestige format, it's frustrating that a film such as this, even following an incredible restoration, is left on such a standard release.
- 4K Blu-ray
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dir: Frank Capra | Cast: Donna Reed, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell | Writers: Albert Hackett (screenplay), Frances Goodrich (screenplay), Frank Capra (screenplay), Jo Swerling (additional scenes), Philip Van Doren Stern (story)