Every generation has had its Christmas classics, films that have become as much a part of the holiday family traditions as Christmas trees and candy canes. For me it has been the more modern A Christmas Story with ol’ Carl Kolchak himself, Darren McGavin. Kids today have taken more of a shine to even more recent films, but for more than one generation, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Since 1947 the film became a seasonal fixture in neighborhood movie houses across the fruited plain. In the 1970’s the film temporarily fell into the public domain and was played relentlessly on local television stations as each holiday came and went. Unfortunately, these were usually prints in horrible condition, so that scratches and splice marks became a part of the experience, not to mention ads for department stores touting their early bird specials. It is with that experience that I as did most from my generation become acquainted with Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. When the home video market began to bloom with VHS in the mid 1980’s a better print resurfaced, so that the experience improved dramatically, along with the loss of those commercials. Of course, this new resource of home entertainment created a fight for the rights to the film to once again be restored to a single owner. It ended up being the film’s score that would allow the rights to be enforced once again. The crappy television prints disappeared, and by the early 1990’s efforts to restore the film began.
These restoration efforts invariably turned to the controversial subject of colorization. If anyone remembers Ted Turner’s push to colorize RKO films, including King Kong, you will also remember how bad those films looked. The color was an added texture of hue covering the picture so that the subject’s textures and subtleties were obliterated. It was almost as if some child decided to finger paint all over the negative. There was nothing magical or at all realistic about the process. It’s A Wonderful Life has been colorized no less than three times. In both 1986 and 1989 the film got the colorized treatment, both failures. Now in 2007 It’s A Wonderful Life has been colorized by a new process developed by Legend Films. This new process allows films to be colorized naturally, retaining all of the detail and texture of the original print. These are the guys who are working with legendary Ray Harryhausen to colorize and restore many of his classics. The new process uses a 16-bit grayscale which offers over 64,000 shades of just gray. The process, called “Photo-Real”, can reproduce HD quality pictures with stunning life-like color. I was a very cynical skeptic of the process and was prepared to rip this color print to shreds in my review. I was blown away by how natural the color looks. You will be hard pressed to believe this wasn’t an original color print. Not only are the colors realistic, but the print retains the particular color palette of the 1940’s, so that the film still looks like one from the correct era. I know you’ve seen incredibly bad colorization before, and it likely has made you unwilling to even give this one a chance, but you owe it to yourself to check it out.
In case there is still anyone in the world who is unfamiliar with the story, let us briefly visit said tale. George Bailey’s life has been fraught with bad luck. The family business has kept him from pursuing an education, and he has been trapped in his small town of Bedford Falls. He has constantly given up his own dreams for others. As a local banker, George has helped pretty much everyone in his town, fighting to keep the town’s finances from falling into the hands of the obvious Scrooge character Henry Potter. When Potter manages to get his hands on the bank’s receipts, George is in real trouble, facing ruin and likely prison if he can’t come up with the money. Driven to despair, George heads to a local bridge with the intent of killing himself when he is intercepted by Clarence. Clarence, it seems is a guardian angel in training. If he can help George out, he’ll earn his wings and become a full-fledged angel. Since George argues that Bedford Falls would be better if he’d never been born, Clarence allows him to see life in Bedford Falls if George hadn’t come along. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville, and the evil Potter has ruined many a life. George’s journey through this alternate world makes him realize just how much he has meant to the people here. Clarence returns George to his own reality where his new found faith and confidence is rewarded by all of the folks he has touched for the better.
Frank Capra is, of course, far more renowned for his war film noir efforts that have almost become a genre unto themselves. It’s A Wonderful Life is quite an odd outing for Capra and is now likely to be his most memorable. The film underscores that what Capra has always done best is allow the talent of his actors to inhabit real characters. The result is a film that so many can relate to. Haven’t we all felt like George at one time or another? You must put off the fact that in 2007 the plot has been overused in film and television and attempt to place yourself in an era where the Dickens-inspired plot is something new and unique. Jimmy Stewart gives what has become the performance of his life. Lionel Barrymore brings an evil dimension to the role of Henry Potter that goes beyond the Scrooge elements and makes him a man we understand is feared by the whole town. Henry Travers does perhaps the best job of the bunch as the often overlooked angel, Clarence. Finally, Donna Reed has had far better roles than her token character here. She serves mostly as just another thing George might lose. This isn’t her story at all, but she manages to bring some significance to the part in the few instances where she’s given the opportunity.
It’s A Wonderful Life is presented in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. You get two discs here. Both have 1080p images from an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at a bit rate average of nearly 40 mbps. One contains a restored black & white image, while the second gives you the newly colorized version. Both prints are excellent restorations. There isn’t a scratch or print defect remaining to ruin the effect. The colorization process I covered in the text of the review, but I’ll say here again, it is fully natural and true to the film’s era. On both discs essential black levels are filled with depth. Shadow detail is remarkable for a film this old. This is perhaps the best restoration of a 1940’s film I’ve seen to date.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is faithful to the original material. There are some rather mysterious pops on the disc that I am not sure are a problem with the transfer or simply with the original recording. If the later is to blame, more careful attention could have been given to eliminate these distracting sounds. Dialog is really what’s important here, and you get every word just fine. The music in the film is a tad rough, but still sounds as good as it likely has since first-run theaters presented the film in 1947.
Making Of It’s A Wonderful Life: (22:45) SD This 1990 tribute hosted by Tom Bosley is nothing new. It has actually appeared on DVD before, and fans of the film probably have it. If you don’t, it’s a rather heartwarming affair. You’ll get some rather interesting anecdotes about the film’s stars and Capra’s struggle to polish the story.
Christmas Bell for your tree
There really is so much more that can be said of It’s A Wonderful Life. The film has been the subject of many film classes and long-winded enough thesis papers that there is a wealth of information out there. Again, this is not my favorite Christmas film at all, but I have an appreciation for its place. My mission here is mostly to convince the stubborn among you to give the colorized version a try. I understand the feeling. I have still refused to see the colorized King Kong. But I know what the process back then was like. This new process is another thing entirely. Put this one in your holiday collection, and maybe every year about this time it’ll give you a chance to say, “Merry Christmas movie house…”