The reservoirs of black blood that flow beneath the surface of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life are, by now, no big secret. Resentment, disappointment, unwanted domestication, mortality, jealousy, greed, and deep-seated indignation can be felt in nearly every frame, beginning with the rollout of still shots of houses, accompanied by a symphony of pleas to God to lend George Bailey (James Stewart) a hand before he takes a leap off a bridge into the frosty depths of the local river, that opens the film. In the cosmos, a conversation takes place and a schlubby guardian angel is dispatched, but even with this (admittedly unquestioned) reassurance that things are being looked after by that highest of powers, Capra's film is soaked in dread, down into the molecules of the film stock.
Still, Manny Farber, the guru himself, panned the film, going so far as to condemn Capra for consistently taking the "easy, simple-minded path" with his characters. To be fair, we're talking about a narrowly averted tragedy based on an upper-middle-class white bank manager who finds himself in a fight with the town's major financial leader; when you get right down to it, these are ultimately midrange concerns at worst. But to say the path is an easy one is more than a bit dismissive and shows a curious lack of empathy, especially when the film in question largely condemns capitalism and boasts something approaching a quasi-socialist fantasia that's hard-won by Bailey.
Indeed, when first seen as a young adult, George Bailey is the very picture of rebellious, intellectual youth, preparing for a trip around the world before he starts college. Alas, the trip becomes a pipedream when George's father passes away and the fate of the local Building & Loan, the only business seemingly not completely under the thumb of Mr. Potter (a very good Lionel Barrymore), a bitter, power-hungry tycoon, lies squarely at the feet of young George. He takes the job and abandons his adventuring dreams, content to settle down with Donna Reed's peppy, devoted Mary, with whom he has a litter of kids; even their honeymoon, a long-planned second chance to see the world, is tossed overboard to help with a town-wide fiscal crisis.
Despite these small setbacks, including a failed attempt to hand over the keys to the Building & Loan to his war-hero brother (Todd Karns), the small-town life is kind to George: He's beloved by his family, owns a nice fixer-upper house, has a steady, important job that he's good at and, perhaps most importantly, is a cornerstone of the Bedford Falls community. Capra, working from a script he co-wrote with Albert Hackett, France Goodrich, and Jo Swerling, does a marvelous job of evoking a full sense of the people that make up Bedford Falls, from Ward Bond's congenial copper to Gloria Grahame's flirty spinster to George's loving, absent-minded Uncle Billy, played wonderfully by Thomas Mitchell. The communal catharsis that caps the film demands a sincere feeling that George's role is bigger than that of his place in his immediate family, and the director never falters in reminding us of all the people that depend on George.
Of course, all these people are also constant reminders of George's intermittently perceived stagnation. Grahame's Violet, for instance, is a phantom representation of all the wrong women George may have come across in his worldwide adventures; a feigned intimation of experience, both in sex and life in general. But she's also just an old flame that George cares about and wants to help, and the steady balance between these interpretations of character makes the world of Bedford Falls feel real, lived in, and in constant flux. So, when Mr. Potter takes advantage of Uncle Billy and sends George into a downward spiral ending in possible jail time, spurring the arrival of guardian angel Clarence (a splendid Henry Travers), we're immediately struck by the loneliness that George feels and are genuinely effected by the lugubrious alternate reality Clarence invokes to remind George of what's really important in life, ensuring that the plunge into the icy water never happens.
That nearly realized plunge recalls an earlier event, in which George's hearing was forever damaged when he saved his brother from drowning in a frozen pond. It's a marvelous, strictly visual manifestation of what George imagines was the basis of what might have been his downfall and Stewart, in these final scenes especially, fully conveys the all-too-familiar frustrations, agonies, and grief that are standard-issue when one errs on the side of humanism. Of course, it's hard not to be slightly irked by the not-so-covertly Catholic arc of the film, but to claim that Capra ignores the real pains of the sacrifices he asks his protagonist to accept suggests a sort of secular tunnel vision. And speaking as someone who only first saw It's a Wonderful Life in its entirety earlier this year, I can report that Capra's film needs no caked-on nostalgia to be remembered as some sort of classic.
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You could call this a bit of a scam, seeing as this is the same exact transfer that was offered with the regular Blu-ray release of the film, which came out two years ago. Nevertheless, the film looks gorgeous with Paramount's 1080p transfer, replete with a consistently stunning level of detail. The black-and-white cinematography boasts spectacular clarity and sharpness and despite my misgivings, the colorized version looks surprisingly excellent when all is said and done. The monaural Dolby soundtrack is strong, but not the blow-open-the-doors auditory experience one might have expected with such a title. Still, music, sound effects, and atmosphere are balanced nicely while dialogue is crisp and out front. Not an essential disc, but certainly worth a look.
I'm dismayed to report that there's really very little to speak of here. The making-of documentary is suitable and efficient but not what you would hope for, considering that we're talking about one of the most universally adored works in the history of American cinema. The colorized version of the film is patently useless, especially when one takes a look at Frank Capra's use of shadow (see the makeshift honeymoon Mary provides for George or their post-dance walk back to her mother's house). A theatrical trailer and box set with a booklet and a collectible ornament are also included.
Frank Capra's unlikely, uplifting paean to the pitfalls and pleasures of a simple, small-town existence remains a vital work and Paramount has done a respectable job transferring it to Blu-ray.