It's a Wonderful Life gets a new lease on life in 4K
By Jim Bray
Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life is back on disc yet again, but this time it sports a new 4K restoration and remastering that has this movie masterpiece looking and sounding better than it ever has on home video.
The film has earned a well-deserved place in the hearts of millions and has become a Christmas season staple, even though only a small part of it is actually set at Christmas, and this new package not only contains the new, 4K version, there's also a colourized Blu-ray in the package for those who just can't bear to see the movie the way it should be seen.
As you undoubtedly know by now, it's the story of George Bailey, a bright young man with lots of potential and ambition whose life keeps getting sidetracked by reality. It's a tale that takes its many characters – and the audience – on a journey that goes from the heights of joy to the depths of despair and back again.
James Stewart is outstanding as the unsinkable George Bailey, whose basic honesty and decency propel him through a life in which it seems that no matter what his preferred choices might be, Murphy's Law is on hand nearly constantly to throw a Monkeywrench into his plans.
These speed bumps in life are usually forced upon him by circumstance, rather than any kind of "enemy action" or evil plot. George could have chosen many times to follow his dreams, or to take the easier and more personal path, but because he's such a wonderful guy he always ends up choosing the road less taken, one that sees him submerge his own ambitions in favour of doing the right thing regardless of how he feels or what his dreams may be.
Still, life is pretty good for George overall, though he doesn't appreciate that fact until one fateful Christmas eve where it seems his entire not-so-wonderful life comes crashing down around him, and it looks as if the reward for his years of selfless hard work and dedication will be disgrace and a jail sentence over $8000 that was misplaced – not by him but by his idiot uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell).
At this point, It's a Wonderful Life takes a turn toward darkness, as George lashes out desperately at everything near and/or dear to him. This "black out" leads him to a local bridge off of which he plans to jump because the main villain of the piece (Henry Potter, played deliciously by Lionel Barrymore) has pointed out to him that he's worth more dead than alive, thanks to his life insurance policy.
Then comes Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), George's guardian angel sent down from Heaven in answer to George's (and nearly everyone else's) prayers. Clarence's task is not only to save George's life, but to heal his soul as well (or perhaps that's just a wonderful bonus). To do this, he pulls George out of his normal space/time – in which George thinks he's an absolute failure – and shows him what the world would have been like had he never actually been born.
The Bedford Falls of George's experience is gone, replaced by Pottersville, a kind of "Back to the Future II" place after that trilogy's timeline is changed and big, bad Biff takes over Hill Valley. It's an ugly place with ugly and unhappy people and George is just as well not to be a part of it. Yet the experience Clarence gives him shows clearly that, while George may not be satisfied with life as it has turned out, his mere presence has touched the lives – and saved many – of literally hundreds or thousands of people, some of whom he never even knew (such as the crews of the ship saved by his brother Harry).
James Stewart's performance should have earned him an Oscar (according to http://www.littlegoldenguy.com, the award went to Frederick March for "The Best Years of our Lives", which is also an excellent film), but his isn't the only great performance: Donna Reed is cast perfectly as Mary, George's eventual wife. She's smart, sexy, and strong – just what George needs.
The chemistry between them is magical, and I've long felt that the telephone call in Mary's house, where they first really get together, is one of the sexiest scenes ever – yet it's basically just two heads in closeup, with nothing even remotely close to nudity or sexual content. The sexual sparks fly, though! It's remarkable.
The supporting cast is also great. Travers and Mitchell's performances are excellent, and Barrymore's Potter may just be the best screen baddie since Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West.
I've reviewed versions of this film on DVD and Blu-ray and while this new 4K version isn't the revelation I had hoped for it's still mighty fine and easily the best version of this film I've ever seen. As you'll see in one of the supplements on the disc, Paramount went right back to the original negatives (rather than just upconverting an existing version, such as the Blu-ray) as a means to not only offer the best version possible but also as a way to ensure the survival of the film over the long haul (they also struck a new, film-based version from this digital restoration).
Film grain is very much in evidence, which isn't a bad thing for a film-based film, but it's never overpowering. And while some of the longer shots don't really leap off the screen the way I'd hoped they would, there are innumerable other shots, including many close ups and medium shots, where the fine detail practically leaps off the screen and drags you into it.
I was taken particularly by the textures on the clothing, from George's tweed coat and the snowflakes that almost seem like a character in the film. I even noticed details I'd never seen before, such as the water on George's face after he's caught in the rain, the tears in his eyes and running down his face later, when his world is collapsing around him. There are many such moments, enough that it was almost – almost – like watching the film for the first time.
Audio is now in Dolby Digital True HD, and Paramount resisted any urges to remix it into a surround track (and that's fine). It sounds like an old movie, but the soundtrack is far louder and with more presence than that of the colourized Blu-ray that's on the other disc. In all, I'm very satisfied with how this version sounds.
As mentioned, among the extras (which for some reason are on the 4K disc instead of the more usual tack of putting them on the Blu-ray), is an interesting documentary on the actual restoration of the film. It shows just how deteriorated some of the shots were and outlines the hard work it took to bring the film into the digital era. It's reminiscent of the feature on the old DVD release of the restored "Lost Horizon".
There's also an interesting look at the production itself, with lots of behind the scenes stuff (including footage of the wrap party after shooting finished) that's quite interesting and which I don't remember having seen before in the other video versions. And lastly, there's some other footage from that party, quite a bit of which is recycled from the previous feature.
The colourized version that's on the Blu-ray disc in the package is a mixed bag. I loved how the opening credits looked and overall, I'm quite impressed with the actual colourization. Alas, the flesh tones make the cast look like they're doing an all-Zombie version of "It's a Wonderful Death," and I had trouble getting around that. Still, if you or the kids are "black and white-deniers", you might find this version enjoyable.
In all, I'm glad Paramount has given this Frank Capra classic the attention it deserves and if you're looking for the best version of It's a Wonderful Life you can get, this is definitely it.
Now, how about working the same movie magic on Michael Curtiz' "White Christmas"? That's another classic – and a colour, widescreen one – that could really use a great 4K treatment.
Copyright 2019 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.