It's a Wonderful Life review, It's a Wonderful Life Blu-ray review, It's a Wonderful Life DVD review
Starring
Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
Director
Frank Capra
It's a Wonderful Life

Reviewed by Will Harris

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I

’m downright chagrined to admit this, but before sitting down to review the latest reissue of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I had never before seen the film in its entirety. I’m sure I’m not the only one who hasn’t, but, still, it almost makes me feel like a card-carrying Grinch to admit that I’ve made it to the age of 36 without making it a point to have seen an inarguable holiday classic.

So why did it take me this long? Well, my parents never really went out of their way to watch it. Mind you, I do have friends who have assured me that it isn’t Christmas if you haven’t watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I can only presume that my reasons for ignoring their statements were some form of rebellion on my part.

All right, fine, I’m bluffing. I know exactly why I’ve never watched it. It’s because, to me, Christmas entertainment means “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “A Year Without a Santa Claus,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and…well, you get the picture. Basically, Christmas has always been about cartoons and kids’ programming. If I were to change that vision to include “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wouldn’t that mean that I was - gasp - all grown up?

I’d sooner you tell me that there’s no Santa Claus.

Given the release of this 60th anniversary edition of the film on DVD, however, I decided to finally break down and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and – no shock here – it is, indeed, wonderful. Like you needed me to tell you that. But if by some small chance you’re a freak like me and have also never seen the film, here’s a nutshell synopsis: small-town banker George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) reaches an all-time low in his life on Christmas Eve and contemplates suicide, but he’s brought bank from the brink of despair when Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian from Heaven, shows him what things would have been like had he never been born.

Capra uses the framing device of beginning the film with Clarence being assigned the task of saving George Bailey as a way of earning his wings; as such, Clarence receives a briefing on George’s life up until that point. It’s the perfect way to educate the audience on both George and his surroundings, giving us a tour of his family and friends, as well as his hometown of Bedford Falls. We find that George’s good-hearted nature caused him to stay in town even when he had a desire to go away to college, but that the town wouldn’t have been the same without him; George is the saving grace of Bedford Falls, the antithesis of the town’s evil banker, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), even if he does underestimate his worth.

The cast also includes Donna Reed as the love of George’s life, Mary Hatch (who surprised the hell out of me when, after being asked by her mom “what’s going on down there,” she responded, “He’s making violent love to me, Mother!”), and Thomas Mitchell as George’s Uncle Billy, who accidentally sends George into his downward spiral by losing a major deposit intended for the Savings and Loan, putting the entire town in jeopardy. In the end, of course, Clarence’s lesson to George is a successful one. The revised history of Bedford Falls – now called Pottersville, since there was no one around to stop Mr. Potter from taking over the town – proves so dramatically different and depressing without George’s presence that he can’t help but realize how important he is. Clarence puts things back the way they were, the townsfolk rush to George’s rescue and save the bank, and Clarence gets his wings. (Attaboy, Clarence.)

So, does any of the above sound familiar? Surely it does, whether you’ve seen the film or not. You’d never be able to round up every homage, tribute, or parody of “It’s a Wonderful Life”; it’s so ingrained in popular culture that you really don’t need to see it to feel as though you know everything there is about it. So why see it, then? Well, there are two really good reasons: 1) Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Mr. Potter makes for one of the nastiest onscreen villains this side of Darth Vader, and 2) Jimmy Stewart’s performance is an acting tour de force. (It’s no wonder Capra never had any alternative choice for the part.)

So I guess this means I’m finally all grown up. Oh, well, it had to happen eventually. And now that it has, I suspect I’ll be watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas from now on, because it ain’t just hype; it really is a true holiday classic.


Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:

So you’re probably wondering why this only gets four and a half stars if it’s just been declared a classic. Well, the so-called “unforgettable special features” seem somehow…lacking. Yes, there are two featurettes – “The Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” and “A Personal Remembrance” – which are both extremely interesting; the former is hosted by Tom Bosley, while the latter is hosted by Frank Capra, Jr. In the personal remembrance, archival interview clips with both Stewart and his director, Capra, are certainly interesting, as are discussions on how the original script would have gone (instead of a life without George Bailey, Clarence shows a world with an evil George Bailey), and the making-of special is as comprehensive as a 22-minute documentary could be… but there’s so much more that could have been included on this set with very little effort.

Why no audio commentary, either from a film critic like Roger Ebert, or even from the film’s unofficial biographer, Jimmy Hawkins, who’s not only written three books about the film but was actually in the film? (At four and a half years old, Hawkins played George Bailey’s son, Tommy.) Or how about including “Merry Christmas, George Bailey,” a 1997 PBS special where the film was performed as a radio play, with an all-star cast including Nathan Lane as Clarence, Martin Landau as Mr. Potter, and everyman Bill Pullman playing George Bailey? C’mon, Paramount: if you’re gonna keep reissuing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” at least put something else on here to make it worth buying again. And no, the color version doesn't count.

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