It's A Wonderful Life Review

It's A Wonderful Life is a Christmas film. The snow falls, the main street glistens with festive street lights and in the front room of the Bailey house sits a Christmas tree. It lacks carol-singing, the giving of gifts and for all that it's set on the night before Christmas, there is not a mention of Santa. In its own way, it celebrates the Christmas message, one of the importance of looking beyond the tinsel and the tree, the turkey and its trappings in favour coming together as a family, as a community and as a people to cheer in the festive season. And as a nod to the ringing of bells over Christmas, it promises us that every time we hear the tinkle of a bell, another angel gets its wings. No one, not even the wickedly seasonal figures of Scrooge, Abner Brown and old Mr Potter could object to that.

As everyone knows, It's A Wonderful Life is a tale of George Bailey, a man who finds that he is worth more dead than alive and who, on Christmas Eve night, throws himself off a bridge into the freezing cold waters below. Rescued by an angel, he is shown how different the lives of those he counts as friends would have been had he never lived. Those he thought were alive, saved by his good deeds in life, are now dead. Those who kept themselves free of debt thanks to the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan are now in hock to the bank. And the druggist whose error he once corrected is now a bum begging for drinks in a gin joint. The snow falls once again and George Bailey returns to Bedford Falls in love with life once again and crying out a merry Christmas to the movie house, the Emporium and to the wonderful old Building and Loan where he's spent most of his days.

Perhaps it's the fault of watching it only once a year, usually at Christmas when it's well suited to dark nights and a roaring fire, but It's A Wonderful Life is not really about that at all. Clarence (Henry Travers) is our angel but he is little more than a sparkling constellation in the night sky at first. For most of the film, he is nothing more than a voiceover watching as It's A Wonderful Life replays moments in George Bailey's life and it is these moments that we get to know something of Bailey and why it is that he matters so much that Heaven itself intervenes in his life. Starting as a boy, Bailey saves his brother's life when the ice they are playing on breaks. George dreams of travelling the world but his break from Bedford Falls is forever thwarted by events at the Building And Loan company that his father and uncle run. He is given a second-hand suitcase and packs to leave the morning after a party but his fortunes change forever that night when he meets the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed) and is called home urgently as his father falls ill. After his funeral, George Bailey remains in Bedford Falls rather than see the Building And Loan fall into the hands of Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He puts his plans of travel on hold.

War breaks out and while Harry joins the Air Force and is hailed as a hero, George stays at home, ensuring that the town backs the war effort without exception. He marries Mary but before they can honeymoon, a run on the bank forces them to remain in Bedford Falls, using their savings to secure the Building And Loan. Eventually, his investment in the town allows the Building And Load to build homes of their own full of, "...the prettiest little houses that you ever set eyes on." But on a Christmas Eve and on the day that the banking examiner arrives to audit the Building And Loan, his Uncle Billy mislays $8000. Bailey and his Building And Load are ruined. He discovers that he is worth more dead than alive and finds himself praying to God as he stands on a bridge over the freezing water of a river. He throws himself over but Heaven delivers him Clarence Oddbody to prove to George what a wonderful life he has had.

From it now being a traditional part of the Christmas season, academia has been visited It's A Wonderful Life more times than seems reasonable. Once, it was simply taken at face value, as a heartwarming film that celebrated all that was good in life and it did so memorably. An alternative point of view was taken in which it was claimed that It's A Wonderful Life was simply nothing of the sort. Instead, and as was proved by events in the version of Bedford Falls free of George Bailey, people are generally an awful lot who will take an active part in ruining their perfect little town in return for a quick buck or two. Some see it as a tale that celebrates the American dream, including the power of the individual to change society while the FBI investigated it as a piece of Communist propaganda. According to a memo released by the FBI, it was believed to smear American institutions, including free enterprise and the triumph of the little man over big business. In particular, the FBI took exception to the film's portrayal of Potter, banking, profit, big business and free enterprise, as the Scrooge-like villain of the piece. They suggested that the film would have been better had it not, "...deliberately maligned the upper class [as] mean and despicable" and had it shown Potter, " a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown." Only that doesn't sound like very much fun at all. Indeed, in his Frames Of Protest, Franklin & Marshall professor John Noakes said the FBI, in searching for communists, overlooked the central narrative of the film, in which the hero of It's A Wonderful Life is also a banker.

It's A Wonderful Life is all these things. In his saying, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" Clarence celebrates both the power of the individual and of the strength of a society in which he is a part. But later, he tells George Bailey that, " man is a failure who has friends", which is as clear a sentiment as any as regards how little value ought to be placed on money. And just as well-being, rather than wealth, seems the message of the film, along comes everyone in Bedford falls with dollar bills, loose change and bottles of wine and spirits, all in the hope of saving George from the banking examiners. In all of this it's a fair reflection of Frank Capra, a man who could produce life-affirming films like this, which some would dub Capra-corn, but who testified before the HUAC and acted as an informer for the FBI but who would express some criticism over the government's actions in their communist witch-hunt. As much as Capra was a man of contradictions, so too is his film.

However, what can't be taken away from Capra is his ability to look beyond this hodgepodge of points of view to produce a film that tells its story with conviction. The first ninety minutes, while not without faults, do a remarkable job of telling the story of George Bailey, not only to Clarence Oddbody but to the film's audience. There may not appear to be any structure to this part of the film but its vignettes will be reprised in the horror of Pottersville by the film's end. Out of these, the highlights are George and Mary's dancing the Charleston over the town's swimming pool, their walk home that night, during which George promises to lasso the moon for Mary, and their marriage on the day of the Great Depression and their rain-soaked honeymoon in a draughty old house, decorated with posters of faraway places and accompanied by Bert and Ernie serenading them from outside.

Eventually, these moments of comedy and romance give way to drama and to George finding himself rescued from the water by Clarence and getting his wish to never have been born. This is the film's most memorable act as nice guy Jimmy Stewart finds himself in Pottersville, a nightmarish reflection of Bedford Falls. The small-town charm of one is replaced by nightclubs and bars. Violet, a nice girl who does little more than catch men's eyes, is now a good-time-girl dragged away by police while Mary is mousy, unmarried and screams at George as he tries to make her remember him. His children were never born. In the graveyard, George finds the headstone of his brother Harry, dead at the age of nine having fallen through the ice with his big brother not there to save him. Even the men on the transport died when Harry wasn't there to save them and all because George wasn't there to save Harry. Stewart's look to camera says it all. He is horrified by what he sees and turns to Clarence, "Help me Clarence, please! Please! I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again!" The small-town bustle is also gone and in its place comes a howling wind. There's no peace in Pottersville and so George Bailey returns to the bridge to mourn his own passing and to plead for another chance.

Like many, I suppose, It's A Wonderful Life gets me every time. I can usually hold out until Mr Gower arrives with the telegram from Sam Wainwright instructing his office to advance George whatever he needs in cash. Donna Reed is already in tears, James Stewart is close to them and so I join them from my own place on this Earth. Sometimes I try to hold out but it's no good. I was almost in tears skipping through the film to take the screenshots for this review. That's not quite reason enough for why this has lasted as well as it has but it's part of the reason. Others are as described here. It has moments of comedy, of drama and of horror. It evokes a very special sense of the small town and of the people in it. It is, as Clarence might say, good for the soul. And, in these weeks before Christmas, as fine a film for the season as any.


I expected better. In fact, I expected anything at all other than what we have here and that is exactly the same disc that Universal first released some years back. That was one of the earliest discs that I bought and thought it fine without really knowing any better. Much later and very many excellent restorations later, it's obvious that Universal's choice not to touch this masterpiece is letting the film down, particularly when a much better version of the film exists in Region 1, albeit that it comes complete with a colourised version of the film. Perhaps we're being saved from that at the expense of having our black-and-white version being left untouched. The screenshots below tell the whole story. Try finding any difference between them (and no, before anyone asks, these are taken from different releases). Then, having done so, head on over to DVD Beaver to see how much better the Region 1 release is.

1999 Release Of The Film (Above) / 2008 Release Of The Film (Below)

1999 Release Of The Film (Above) / 2008 Release Of The Film (Below)

1999 Release Of The Film (Above) / 2008 Release Of The Film (Below)

Once running on an upscaling player, it is just about watchable but played through a cheap and cheerful player, it's a blurry mess of a thing. The mono soundtrack is just a little bit better. There is some background noise, which hasn't been cleaned up, and the later sections of the film, particularly in which Stewart confronts Mary on her leaving the library, does feature some distortion. Like the picture, little effort has been made with the soundtrack. Finally, there are English subtitles.


The only bonus features on this disc are the same as Universal have included on all previous releases in Region 2, an Interview (13m54s) with Frank Capra jr and a Feature (22m43s) on the film introduced by Tom Bosley. Taken together, they do a fair job of telling the story behind the film, of the short story that inspired it, of the making of the film and how, after an unsteady start, it became a Christmas favourite. Having always thought Bedford Falls was a real town somewhere in the United States, I was surprised to learn that it was built on a set, one of the longest ever constructed in Hollywood, and while there's some details on the production of this kind, there's not quite enough. That said, it's worth watching for scene in which Tom Bosley introduces it. Nothing, not even It's A Wonderful Life, says Christmas like a pullover, a log fire and a tree.

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