Monday, November 4, 2019

It’s a Wonderful Life 4K Ultra HD Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Take a trip to Bedford Falls to experience the life-affirming message of director Frank Capra’s much loved classic all over again now that It’s a Wonderful Life has been re-released again on Blu-ray Starring James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), Lionel Barrymore (Key Largo), Thomas Mitchell (Three Wise Fools) and Henry Travers (The Bells of St. Mary’s), the film has made an indelible impact on popular culture and continues to be a beloved part of many families’ holiday tradition. An ideal holiday gift for everyone on your list, the Platinum Anniversary edition of It’s a Wonderful Life Blu-ray comes with a beautifully colorized version of the film in high definition and the original, fully restored black-and-white movie in high definition as well.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)

The movie opens on Christmas Eve and we can hear snippets of prayers on their way to heaven from multiple residents of Bedford Falls on behalf of George Bailey (James Stewart).  Those prayers travel up to the cosmos above where they are received by glowing lights that represent two angels named Franklin and Joseph.  The two of them call a subordinate angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to come review George’s life with them.  By going over his life, they hope to see how things have turned out so badly for George.  Their first stop back in the past is when George is twelve years old and is playing on the ice with his friends and his younger brother Harry.  When Harry accidentally falls through the ice, George jumps in the water and saves his brother but doesn’t escape unscathed since the rescue costs him his hearing in his left year.  Later they observe George working in a pharmacy where he is working as an errand boy.  When his grief-stricken boss tells him to deliver medication for a young child that George believes was mistakenly filled with poison, he doesn’t deliver it which saves his boss from making a terrible mistake when he’s proved right.
Time and time again, the angels witness George’s selfless personality, but the one ambition he does have for himself is to travel around the world.  And time and time again, that dream is shelved when he is needed by others.  First he has to wait for Harry (Todd Karns) to graduate from high school before leaving.  When Harry finally graduates high school, George thinks he’s free but then he finds out that Harry wants to go to college so he sets his plans aside once more.  It’s not all bad for George since he is reacquainted with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) who has had a crush on him since she was a little girl.  George falls in love with her against his will since he knows a relationship with her will affect his plans for the future.  When George’s father dies he’s forced to take his father’s place at the Bailey Building and Loan Association to prevent the ruthless Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over.  George knows that accepting his father’s position will be the final nail in his plans.  He never wanted to follow his father in the loan business or to stay in Bedford Falls but letting Potter completely control the town is an even worse fate to George.
Most of the town is under Potter’s control and his only opposition and constant thorn in his side has been the Bailey Building and Loan, who has been giving loans to people that Potter would never consider.  Potter is a heartless slumlord who enjoys making loans so exorbitant than his lenders can barely scrape by which makes them even more likely to need another loan from him.   Because of their interference with his plans, Potter hates the Bailey’s especially George and he spends his time trying to figure out a way to exact his revenge on them.  When Harry returns after graduating college, he brings his new wife with him and some more bad news for George.  Harry’s  new father-in-law has offered him a great job which puts everyone in an awkward situation since Harry was supposed to take control of the Bailey Building and Loan from George once he finished college.  Knowing that Harry’s job offer is too good to pass up, George tells him to take the job which seals his own fate both personally and professionally.  When George and Mary get married and prepare to leave for their honeymoon, they witness a run on the Bailey Building and Loan by a large crowd of people demanding their money.  George and Mary are forced to use the $2000 they had set aside for their honeymoon to to keep their depositors afloat and to keep them as customers.
Years pass and George and Mary marry and have four children and George has continue to try to improve the lives of the town’s residents by building affordable housing projects like Bailey Park.  Mr. Potter’s hatred of George has increased now that Bailey Park is luring away his own tenants that are tired of paying his high rents.  Since every other scheme to remove George as a threat has failed, Potter changes his tactics and offers George a job to work for him with a generous salary.  Tempted by the money that he desperately needs, George ultimately refuses the job since he knows that without someone stopping Potter, he will have a complete monopoly over the town and there won’t be anyone to stop him.  The life that he didn’t want continues on for George and so does world events.  World War II is now being fought and George was disqualified for service because of his deafness in one ear.  His brother Harry joins the Air Force and ends up winning a Medal of Honor for shooting down fifteen enemy planes, including two that were about to sink a transport with 2,000 American troops.  When George’s Uncle Billy shows off the newspaper containing the news about Harry to Potter, Potter grabs the newspaper from him angrily not knowing until later that Uncle Billy accidentally left the Bailey Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit within the paper.  When he discovers the money later, he realizes that he can now finally get his revenge on the Bailey’s and remove their opposition to him once and for all.
With a bank examiner arriving to check the bank’s books, George becomes desperate and goes to Potter to beg for a loan.  Potter leads him on and asks if George has any collateral for a loan, but all George has is an insurance policy without hardly any equity in it.  Potter gleefully refuses to give him the loan and points out that George is worth more dead than alive because of the $15,000 insurance policy.  As if that wasn’t enough, Potter being the jerk that he is, swears out a warrant for George’s arrest for bank fraud.  Angry and bitter about Potter and upset about the disaster awaiting him, George returns home and takes it out on his family.  After yelling at his wife and children, George leaves even more ashamed and angry at how things have turned out.  He heads to the bar owned by his friend Martini and gets drunk and brushes off their concerns.  After leaving the bar, he crashes his car into a tree during a snowstorm and leaves it there, heading towards a nearby bridge intent on killing himself.
At this point, the angels decide to intervene and the junior ranked angel Clarence appears on the bridge and jumps off it before George does.  Pretending to be drowning, Clarence waits for George to come save him like he knows he will.  When George pulls Clarence out of the icy river, Clarence informs him that he is his guardian angel which George does not believe.  George bitterly wishes that he had never been born since he believes his entire life has been nothing but a failure and not the one he ever wanted.  Hearing those words gives Clarence and idea and he gives George what he wished for and changes reality to remove all traces of George’s existence.  Not content just to do that, Clarence also takes George on a trip through Bedford Falls, only now it’s called Pottersville since no one was there to stop the avaricious Potter.
Life in this new reality is a lot darker and lot different.  All of the family owned businesses are now sleazy nightclubs and pawn shops, his former boss at the pharmacy was arrested for poisoning a child, Martini no longer owns the bar, Uncle Billy is in an insane asylum, his family and friends no longer recognize him or care about him, his mother is a distrusting land-lady, his wife is a bitter spinster, and his brother Harry is long dead since George wasn’t there to save him from falling thru the ice.  And since Harry died long ago, that means he wasn’t around to save the troop transport, so an additional 2,000 lives were lost because of that.  Overwhelmed with grief, George runs back to the bridge and begs God to let him live again.
There’s a reason that It’s a Wonderful Life has been voted the most inspirational American movie of all time by the American Film Institute.  Most movies of this type would be saccharine sweet but this movie has a lot of darkness to it that prevents that from ever happening.  Even during George’s younger and seemingly happier years, there is an undercurrent of sadness that gets exponentially worse at each setback to his dreams.  Even when he finds love with Mary, there’s still a melancholic aura around George.  Then there’s Mr. Potter who without a doubt represents the polar opposite of George in every way.  Mr. Potter may not be technically evil in the traditional sense, but his greed and selfishness have caused much misery among his fellow townspeople.
Even though the film’s brilliance wasn’t recognized at the time of it’s release, it has now become a cherished classic that is enjoyed every Christmas by appreciative audiences worldwide. That’s due to the great script, the incomparable direction from Frank Capra, and because of the pitch perfect performances from the entire cast.  This movie was Jimmy Stewart’s first role after returning from his illustrious service in World War II and he was nervous about returning in front of the cameras.  Not that he had anything to worry about since he delivered an Oscar worthy performance as George Bailey and showed his true range as an actor that had only been glimpsed before.
Lionel Barrymore is also excellent as the ruthless Potter as is Donna Reed as George’s wife Mary.  Reed takes what is a typically a thankless wife role and makes Mary a pivotal figure in George’s life and his anchor.  Henry Travers also turns in a wonderfully playful performance as a low ranked angel that has to save George and get a pair of wings.  Capra said later that this film epitomized everything that he had always been trying to say in all of his movies but thought that It’s a Wonderful Life did it the best.  I won’t spoil the touching ending but the movie offers a bunch of inspirational messages that are as relevant today as they were when the movie was released.  It’s important to remember the value of even a single life and that success shouldn’t be measure by solely material things.  As Clarence says, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

If you watch the "Restoring a Beloved Classic" extra, you will see the heroic effort that was put into restoring and saving this film for future generations. To create this new transfer, Warner Brothers was able to use 13 out of 15 of the original reels of film, but had to fill in the gaps using footage from two copies of the film that were made when the film was completed. Whichever scenes were the best from either film were chosen and filled in seamlessly to create a new transfer that will be used for the future. The end result of all of that work is a 4K transfer that looks better than it ever has. This has an impressive amount of detail for a film this old and the clarity is outstanding. Textures are rendered very nicely and black levels are pitch black and solid throughout. You will be amazed at the details that can now be seen thanks to this wonderful new transfer!

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Dolby TrueHD 2.0 (Mono) track is noticeably better that the previous releases. The dialogue is clear and the sound effects and music by Dmitri Tiomkin are all balanced well with each other. This is a front channel mix with not much in the way of ambiance for the rear speakers but every once in a while some directionality is attempted. 

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This is a bit of a mixed bag. While some great new extras have been included, we've also lost some from the previous release such as the fantastic "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life." I honestly don't know why the previous extras weren't ported over to give this ultimate edition the best possible extras possible.
  • Restoring a Beloved Classic - This is my favorite extra on the set as it includes an interview with Paramount studio archivists Andrea Kalas and Laura Thornburg who talk and show the process of this film's restoration. You get to see a behind the scenes look at the actual process as see the before and after shots as well. This is a great extra and I hope more studios do the same.  
  • Secrets from the Vault - An interview with film historian Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt(!) who talk about the film and share some interesting anecdotes about the making of it. Considering that the winter set film was filmed in July, they had to be creative on how to create the snow swept town and look of the film. We see their various tests of fake snow and learn that firefighting foam ended up working the best and that it's still be used today. 
  • It's A Wonderful Wrap Party - We get to see the cast and crew enjoy a picnic celebrating the wrap of the film. This footage is also included in the Scenes from the Vault extra and I'd recommend watching that one as you have Barron and Burtt narrating the film and pointing out the people involved. 
  • Colorized Version of the Film - For those that prefer to see the film in color, this Blu-ray edition is the best colorized version available.
  • Digital Copy of the film

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

This is a wonderful movie that show how one person can make a difference in many people’s lives. It took losing everything for George Bailey to realize how good his life was and these lessons could serve us all well too. This is my favorite Frank Capra film and it seems to me to be the definitive one that encapsulates the embodiment of his life philosophy. The cast in this are all amazing but special mention must be made about Jimmy Stewart’s heartfelt and earnest performance that ranged from a happy youth to a dissolute drunkard who is ready to commit suicide. This new 4K is an easy one to recommend with its fantastic new transfer which is worth the money alone. The extras could haev been more extensive, but this is a must own set anyway. This is a fantastic holiday film that will inspire and remind you of what’s really important in life and what a difference friends make. 
Order your copy today!

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