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It’s A Wonderful Life 75th Anniversary

by Glenn Erickson Nov 30, 2021

It’s the Gold Standard of Christmas movies and likely the oldest feature still broadcast on network TV during the holidays: Frank Capra’s sentimental favorite is his most human movie, the kind of show that convinced people that raising a family is a great idea. Although we’re now a full three generations removed from the world events that surround the story of George Bailey, his problems haven’t dated. Paramount’s anniversary disc gives us a new encoding from a 4K scan, a repressing of the older colorized version, a good making-of piece by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, a reel of home movies from the film’s wrap picnic in the summer of ’46. . . and a set of ‘Bailey Family Recipe Cards.’


It’s a Wonderful Life 75th Anniversary
Blu-ray
Paramount
1946 / B&W + Colorized / 1:37 Academy / 130 min. / Street Date November 16, 2021 / Available from /
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Virginia Patton, Argentina Brunetti, Sheldon Leonard, Charles Lane, Marian Carr, Adriana Caselotti, Ellen Corby, Charles Halton, Carl Switzer.
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc, Joseph Walker
Art Director: Jack Okey
Film Editor: William Hornbeck
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling from a story by Philip Van Doren Stern
Produced and Directed by
Frank Capra

Most Americans that can remember the WW2 war years first-hand are now gone, leaving my generation to ponder the influence of those times on our parents, and ourselves as well. Frank Capra made lively comedies, and then after 1934’s It Happened One Night he turned socially and politically ‘serious’ for a few years. It was a winning formula that resulted in some of the most successful movies of the 1930s. The war changed everything for Capra, motivating him to make his personal statement about the consensus American experience. Said to be inspired by a story included in a Christmas card, It’s a Wonderful Life remains the movie one might screen for an extraterrestrial, to explain the ‘real life myth’ of family-community harmony that was the American dream.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a hardcore film blanc, that subgenre postulating an organized afterlife in a protective, optimistic universe. Frank Capra’s movie can’t quite reconcile its faith in goodness with an equally profound, conflicting anxiety about impending personal catastrophe. Capra never came to grips with its darker implications, at least not in his autobiography. The show’s real power comes from its split between forces blanc and noir.

Twenty years ago nobody needed a synopsis for Wonderful Life, but things may have changed. Alerted that small town businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) is about to commit suicide, heaven’s powers-that-be dispatch an Angel Second Class, the inexperienced Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), to intervene. George set aside his personal ambitions to dedicate himself to his family and his community, but on Christmas Eve he finds himself the victim of an ignominious scandal. George decides that he’d be better off dead, a statement that inspires Clarence to teach him a lesson: the Angel shows Bailey what his town would be like if he had never been born.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life did only moderate business when new. Several prestigious critics rejected Capra’s movie as insufferably saccharine. James Agee compared it to A Christmas Carol but resisted its tone: “. . . in its pile-driving emotional exuberance, it outrages, insults, or at leasts accosts without introduction, the cooler and more responsible parts of the mind.” The 1946-’47 movie season was celebrating an opposite mood of downbeat realism. The show that took all the prizes that year was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Instead of ending with a Hallmark card chestnut about Friends, Best Years saw a veteran embracing his sweetheart with a statement that sounds almost defeatist: “You know what it’ll be like, don’t you Peggy? It may take years to get anywhere. We’ll have no money. No decent place to live. We’ll have to work, get kicked around.”

Wonderful Life fell out of distribution and Capra’s career never recovered its pre-war glory. He made the cynical, shrill State of the Union and then some un-funny Bing Crosby movies. He thought nobody would want to see Wonderful Life.

The film’s first wave of popular revival occurred in the early 1970s when it fell into the Public Domain and suddenly became ubiquitous on local TV stations, often heavily edited for time. I remember seeing an airing that began after the ‘heavenly’ introduction of the flashback, and another that eliminated the flashback entirely. UCLA had a surviving 35mm print, but it had also been substantially cut down for reissue on double bills. Many scenes were missing, like the Martini family moving into their new home. Ditto a big chunk of the nightmare flashback, including the ‘undead’ George Bailey’s attempt to talk to his mother.

With Frank Capra’s blessing UCLA associate professor Bob Epstein led an effort to restore the movie. He promoted the cause with a screening at the County Museum of Art, cleverly synchronizing 35mm and 16mm projectors to re-integrate the film in one go. Our screening classes were given funds for film rentals. “Shall we rent an expensive film to project in class, or can we see something from the Archive’s holdings, and donate the funds for the restoration instead?”

 

By 1976 newly restored repertory 35mm prints were in circulation, and the buzz was that a great American classic had been rediscovered. And sometime in the 1980s the film’s copyright was re-established through a legal maneuver involving either the movie’s music score, or the original Philip Van Doren Stern story. No longer threatened, Wonderful Life often screens at Holiday time, along with The Wizard of Oz.

We film students embraced It’s a Wonderful Life the same way we found positive values in John Ford’s The Searchers, another picture that distilled the conflicts of our parents’ generation, without apology. The show provides food for thought for anybody trying to make choices about life — whether to have a family, how to cope with adversity, how to relate to a world where nice people seldom come out on top. George Bailey tries to avoid becoming ‘warped and frustrated,’ as he likes to describe his nemesis Mr. Potter. Is the world a cynical and corrupt place, where only fools are kind and optimistic?

Most of the movie’s demonstrations of love and joy are honestly earned. The heavenly Angels are not omnipotent: Clarence can only influence Bailey, not solve his problems for him. Capra’s biggest shortcoming is his assignment of human worth in relation to one’s position on the playbill. The audience is asked to prioritize Mary and George’s needs and welfare first. We also sympathize to some degree with the alcoholic Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and George’s Mother (Beulah Bondi), a widow. Other characters, like George’s office staff, are allowed the condescending role of comic relief. For some individuals the script shows no mercy, like Charles Lane’s rent collector or Charles Halton’s grumpy bank examiner (“I guess people do those things”). Capra shows no subtlety in the film’s central conflict. George is given a wicked nemesis, the Ebenezer Scrooge clone Henry Potter, ‘The Meanest Man in Town.’ Rather than admit that the world is a complicated place with conflicting values, Capra allows Potter to personify all Evil. Mustn’t muddy George Bailey’s subjective dilemma with moral shades of gray.

 

Just as an exercise, it would be fun to write an alternate-Universe, Fascist version of It’s a Wonderful Life told from Henry Potter’s point of view. Potter only wants to bring order and frugality to an irresponsible, mongrelized population. That upstart pipsqueak Bailey keeps gumming up the works.

But all of Capra’s characters seem alive, and some seem to have lives outside the movie proper. What is the sordid truth behind poor Violet Bick’s Saturday nights?  Did Uncle Billy’s transgressions drive his brother Peter to an early death?  For what exactly did Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) need the $17.30 ?  While George was propping up Bedford Falls, did the notorious playboy Sam Wainwright run Harry Bailey for congress on his war record, so Harry could promote legislation favoring the plastics industry?

Special resonance is reserved for a character seen only for a few seconds, schoolteacher Mrs. Welch’s husband (Stanley Andrews). Mr. Welch slugs George on New Year’s Eve for the understandable reason that George screamed at his wife on the phone and made her cry. We immediately form an image of life at the Welch home. They have no kids. She’s underpaid and he’s out of work. They’re trying to be cheerful on Christmas Eve when an unreasonable parent accuses Mrs. Welch of endangering a student, Zuzu. Mrs. Welch breaks down in tears, and Mr. Welch stomps out to get drunk. It sounds like something from James Joyce.

James Agee and other critics may have turned thumbs down on Wonderful Life because of a problem it shares with many films blanc: why is George Bailey singled out for heavenly intercession?  What makes George’s particular suicide so special?  Plenty of George’s neighbors have troubles, too. Maybe Ernie the taxi driver has an alcoholic wife. Does heaven not care about Violet Bick’s reputation?  Or do all of these people also have personal Angels, that they don’t hear?  Is Bedford Falls crowded with invisible Angels, like Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire?  The person who could really use an angel advisor is Henry Potter, which leads us right back to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

 

The film’s brilliant stroke of storytelling is its Nightmare Alternate Reality sequence in which George Bailey has never been born. Because George was not there to secure the working-class economy of Bedford Falls, Potter has transformed the town into Pottersville, a soulless, debt-ridden place where every storefront is a bar or a dime-a-dance hall. Poor George: heaven has held him personally accountable for the general ills of society. The role of FATE in George’s life is stronger than in a Fritz Lang movie.

Capra almost made the nightmare sequence too vivid: it undermines the complacent assumption of a ‘happy, clean-living’ normal America. One slip-up and Bedford Falls becomes a Sin City, a Sodom and Gomorrah. Families are crushed by poverty, cops shoot first and bitter old Mrs. Bailey no longer mourns sons that drowned or died in childbirth. All this horror literally hits George Bailey in the face. He stumbles from his mother’s porch into a close-up of paralyzed doom … to face the existential nightmare of his own non-existence. George thought that suicide would be the answer, but it’s really a trap; Clarence has drawn him into a mind-warp of psychological dislocation.

George argues to hold onto his own personality, which Clarence calmly tells him no longer exists. In fact, it never existed. George isn’t even a ghost: he’s nothing.

 

If It’s a Wonderful Life is a film blanc, its Alternate Reality scene is a self-contained film noir nightmare. George Bailey is ‘backed into a dark corner,’ fighting desperately for his existential soul. It’s great, great fantasy storytelling.

In his autobiography Capra blamed the failure of Wonderful Life on a ‘trend’ of negative movies about murder, cruelty and violence that he felt betrayed decent moviegoing values. He quotes the nasty ‘lady down the staircase’ killing in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. The irony is that his family values fantasy  expresses noir values better than do most films noir.

Wonderful Life remains a showcase of Capra’s fine direction. James Stewart’s acting ranges from uncommon sensitivity to his fallback display of emotional grandstanding, in George’s tirade against Potter. Capra and Stewart pull off one of their most impressive scenes at the railroad station, in one unbroken shot. When George realizes that his brother Harry isn’t going to take over the Savings & Loan, his face darkens in close-up. For a moment George looks as murderous as one of Stewart’s later cowboy heroes. As the shot tracks, this look fades. George finds a smile and asks Harry’s new wife for more details on the situation. George has the ability to put other people’s feelings first; that’s why we like him.

That’s also why we’re worried on Christmas Eve, when everything goes wrong and the helpless frustration is just too much for him. At his worst, George screams at his children and explodes in destructive rage. It’s a Wonderful Life is more complicated than it looks. Is he showing his true self under pressure?

 

The film’s only embarrassing dated moment is in the nightmare, when we meet the alternate-reality Mary Hatch. Without George, Mary has become a grossly exaggerated spinster, introverted and timid. The scene reveals Capra’s painfully patriarchal limitations, insisting that Mary couldn’t navigate life without George. Nothing short of shock treatment could turn that assertive woman into such a neurotic mouse. This scene raises suspicions about Clarence’s nightmare vision of Pottersville. Is it really what would have happened if George had not been born, or has Clarence rigged a cheap illusion of what he wants George to think would have happened?  Does Heaven Lie?

Old movies can elicit a ‘phantom’ nostalgia, a longing for a fantasy in which we all lived in neat houses with picket fences, without the uglier problems of modern living. If a war came along there were no doubts about its purpose or merit. It’s a Wonderful Life may reinforce this fantasy but it also expresses a strange mix of doubts and fears. The film’s stated message — “No man is a failure who has friends” — is greeting-card lite, the kind of nugget we wish could change our lives. It’s a Wonderful Life tries to express a deeper conflict with its strange vision of America as Hell. How odd that a ‘sappy Christmas tale’ should be so profound.

People love movies with relatable positive values, that we recognize as a glimpse of Utopia. Latter-day fantasies with philosophies that might even improve on It’s a Wonderful Life are Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day and John Patrick Shanley’s Joe vs. The Volcano.

One last note: Who knew?   Former CineSavant ‘neighbor’ Adriana Caselotti, the famed singing voice of Snow White, can be glimpsed in It’s a Wonderful Life, singing in Martini’s bar.

 


 

Paramount’s Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life 75th Anniversary is not promoted as a new restoration, and a 4K disc came out two years ago. The HD image is very good; on a big monitor it’s a match for the 35mm prints we saw at UCLA. Dimitri Tiomkin’s effective music score is stronger than ever. Just when we think the music will stick to variations on the song ‘Buffalo Gals,’ Tiomkin sneaks in eerie passages that would be a good fit for his The Thing from Another World..

It’s a two-disc set, with the second disc dedicated to a colorized version that appears to be a re-pressing of the same transfer seen back in 2009. The menu is the same as well. ‘Tinted’ is a better word than ‘colorized’ because the colorization process cannot add chroma to dark parts of the image. That’s why the entire film has been lightened in contrast. The blood on James Stewart’s lip looks like dark grape jam, or motor oil — they can’t make something jet black look red.

 

Now and then the colorization works against the movie. In the nighttime walk after the dance, Mary and George are now in the middle of a lot of brightly colored flowers, a drastic alteration to the art direction. The nightmare sequence uses a color scheme identical to the normal nighttime footage. The bright neon signs drain away the bleak, sinister ‘noir’ aspect: downtown Pottersville seems an exciting and attractive improvement over dull Bedford Falls.

Paramount has opted to make a change in the extras, dropping the old roster of VHS-era video pieces in favor of three new featurettes. In other words, no more Tom Bosley in NTSC. Restoring a Beloved Classic explains how films are graded for picture quality and digitally cleaned, which also touting Paramount’s much-appreciated attention to its library. That’s followed by Secrets from the Vault hosted by special effects expert Craig Barron and audio specialist Ben Burtt. They work through the show’s special effects, many of which are extremely good. We get a detailed talk about fake snow (the movie was filmed in a hot California summer). We even see some special effects outtakes. The third extra is a reel of home movies of the film’s wrap party, shot by an unidentified person. It’s very good; we can pick out a number of the actors and see Frank Capra hit a baseball.

Included for fun are ten recipe cards taken from a book called The Official Bailey Family Cookbook. I wonder if the Baileys eventually cooked that crow that hangs around Uncle Billy, like some kind of omen of doom.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


It’s a Wonderful Life 75th Anniversary
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Restoring a Beloved Classic; Secrets from the Vault with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt; It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party with home movies from 1946.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 27, 2021
(6617wond)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.