DVD Review: It's A Wonderful Life (Two-Disc Collector's Set)
Release Date: November 13, 2007
Distributor: Paramount Home Video
· Frank Capra
· James Stewart
· Donna Reed
· Lionel Barrymore
· Thomas Mitchell
· Henry Travers
· IMDb: It's A Wonderful Life
by Paul Schultz
Published: December 24, 2007
Of all the American traditions observed on Christmas Eve, an enduring
activity has become viewing the Frank Capra classic, "It's a Wonderful Life." Since the film fell into the public domain in the 1970's, it began being shown incessantly on network television and captured a new audience while becoming a nearly-unavoidable holiday staple. This Two-Disc Collector's Set appears only a year after the 60th Anniversary Edition was released, with
its only added-value being a second disc containing a brand new high definition colorized version of the film.
Far from being standard Capra-corn, "It's a Wonderful Life" starts
out in decidedly unsentimental fashion, as suicidal small town businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) stands distraught on a river bridge on Christmas Eve. In retrospect, this might account for the cool reception the movie received upon its initial theatrical run during the holiday season. Inexperienced Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) is dispatched to Earth to keep him from jumping. Clarence gets up to speed on the situation that brought George to these dire straits in a series of flashbacks detailing his life.
George saves his brother Harry’s life at age nine in an ice sledding
accident, with lifelong hearing loss in one ear the reward for his heroism. Later on, as an assistant to local pharmacist Mr. Emil Gower (H.B. Warner),
he prevents the old chap from accidentally poisoning a child through sloppy
dispensing of medication. All the while, George harbors ambitions to see
the whole world by becoming an architect, a dream he shares with childhood
sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). While Mary hides naked in a bush, with George holding her robe and considering the possibilities (that's one of those scenes where it's better to say "you have to be there" than attempt to explain it), he is informed of his father's death and his best-laid plans are put on hold.
George works to keep the family business -- the Bailey Building and Loan Association -- out of the clutches of Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the rich old coot who is buying up every institution in town in pursuit of profit by any
means. Harry (Todd Karns) goes off to college and returns with a new wife
(Virginia Patton) in tow, and a well-paying job with her father's company. So, George is stuck in Bedford Falls, watching friends such as Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) go on to wealth and success with the opportunities for travel he so longs for.
Mary returns to her hometown and obviously still has a "thing" for
George, even though she's entangled with Sam. After a hypnotizing scene in
which George and Mary shared a telephone receiver and sparks fly in the close proximity (another one of that's "you have to be there" scenes), they
deny their love for each other no longer, and marry soon thereafter. They
use their honeymoon money to stave off a bank run, and settle in to years of
low-key existence, having four children along the way. George continues to
finance the working poor through the Building and Loan as Harry becomes a Navy pilot and war hero.
On that fateful Christmas Eve, George sends Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell)
to the bank to deposit $8,000. He runs into Mr. Potter there and pridefully
shows him a newspaper article of his nephew Harry, who is being bestowed with the Medal of Honor by the President. Unfortunately, he also leaves the deposit tucked in the paper, which now sits in Mr. Potter's lap. Of course the
unscrupulous bastard doesn't tell anybody, and lets poor George twist in the
wind when the bank examiner show up to inspect the records. He even spurns hat-in-hand George when he appeals for help. "You're worth more dead than alive!" is his ringing pronouncement, when all George has to offer for collateral is a $15,000 life insurance policy.
Here's where Clarence intervenes as George flies into a rage seeing his
family's happy holiday celebrations as his life is going down the tubes.
He rushes out, intent on ending it all from that river bridge, when Clarence
becomes a drowning victim to be saved. Thereafter, Clarence reveals
himself to be George's guardian angel, who must help him in some way to earn his wings. George wishes that he had never been born, and Clarence sees an opportunity to assist by showing him how things would be if that were true.
Bedford Falls is now called Pottersville, with the downtown littered with
decadent dance halls and taverns. His mother (Beulah Bondi) is a poor widow eking out an existence running a boarding house, his friend Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) is a randy dancer, and Mary is a spinster librarian. Mr. Gower was convicted of poisoning and is now a pan-handler, while Harry never saved lives in the war since he perished in that childhood accident, without George there to save him. Nobody recognizes George and he flees to the bridge over the river once more to calls upon Clarence, and then to God, to let him live again.
Okay, now the film gets really sentimental as George returns home to find friends and family have rallied to collect money to save the Building and Loan, Harry is home from the war, and at the sound of a tinkling bell, his daughter proclaims the famous line, "Look, daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his wings." I can't even write this
paragraph without tearing up, that's how powerful the scene is -- either that,
or I'm a pathetic, mushy sentimentalist (or both).
Based on the original story "The Greatest Gift," written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939, "It's a Wonderful Life" has fabulous complex characters and elicits a wide range of emotion. In Production Code Hollywood, it's curious that Mr. Potter is never called to account for his evil deeds, though one can fancifully imagine that he eventually gets his A Christmas Carol comeuppance. The rich story, even before the "you were never born" gimmick, gives the tale depth that bears up to repeated viewings. Though hard to believe, I've only seen "It's a Wonderful Life" in its entirety within the last half-dozen years, and already have a preference to the black-and-white imagery versus the colorized version that is also available on this release. So, settle in this Christmas Eve, and get caught up in the story of desolation and redemption that will have you declaring "it is a wonderful life!"
The Making of "It's A Wonderful Life" - This 1990 TV special is hosted by Tom Bosley (Happy Days) in a sweater, next to a fireplace, narrating the genesis of the project, with James Stewart, Frank Capra, and Sheldon Leonard contributing remembrances. It's filled with nice bits of trivia, like pointing out Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer of Our Gang fame as the love-scorned kid who opens the gym floor in the dance scene, or that the Sesame Street characters weren't really based on cops Bert (Ward Bond) and Ernie (Frank Faylen). Subtitles are an option. (22:44)
A Personal Remembrance - This 1991 featurette is narrated by Frank Capra Jr., and repeats some of the same information from the other documentary, but with a more personal touch, including footage of his father recalling the production. It's a little bit more about the impact of the film, rather than it's creation. (14:05)
Original Theatrical Trailer
Previews - "Last Holiday"