By this point in cinema and television history, everyone knows the fictional story of George Bailey, or someone like him. An individual so aggrieved by their circumstances that they wish with all their might for a change. But as Oscar Wilde said in “An Ideal Husband, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” It’s at that moment in the narrative, utilized many times over, where our besmirched protagonist discovers that their life isn’t so bad, only to wake up and discover that their topsy-turvy life never occurred. There’s a sense of renewed purpose and appreciation in that discovery, one which, supposedly, continues on even when things turn bleak again. Perhaps that’s why director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has become so tightly connected with Christmas, a time when the idea of giving, of appreciating the love that surrounds you, is most agreeable to a majority of the planet. Even those who do not partake in the nativity can relate to Mr. Bailey as he learns that even the smallest acts of kindness create a ripple of events the likes of which we cannot fathom in the moment. As the holiday season for 2020 approaches, Paramount Home Entertainment invites you to revisit Capra’s story with a special edition steelbook that includes the film 4K UHD black-and-white, colorized edition on Blu-ray, and both via digital beginning November 17th, 2020.
For those who aren’t as familiar with George Bailey and his adventure, here’s a brief summary of events:
Growing up the oldest of two boys in Bedford Falls, George (Jimmy Stewart) always had dreams of leaving his small town and traveling the world. The problem is, at almost every occasion where George is going to do something for himself (go to college, travel the world, seek glory and fame), an event occurs in which George must choose either the thing he wants or the thing which would do his town the most good. After years of trying to do the right thing and believing he’s failed, George considers suicide as the last available means of protecting his family. Unbeknownst to him, his fellows see his strife and pray for help, only to have it be answered in the form of Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), a spirit whose been trying for 200 years to earn his wings and sees George as the ticket to do so. With time running out and hope seemingly lost, Clarence grants George his wish of having never been born in order to show him how significant his life truly is.
Just to get this out of the way: preparing for this home review is the first time I’ve ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life. (pause for shock and/or outrage) You’re probably wondering how someone could exist on this planet at nearly 40 years old, especially someone who studied cinema, and never watch the film. The flippant answer is: Just lucky I guess? But the real answer is that growing up in small-town Virginia, being one of a handful of Jews at my school, I felt constantly inundated by Christmas whereas Hanukkah (that crazy holiday that keeps moving (silly lunar calendar)) and my birthday (what’s up, fellow December babies!) were inevitably overshadowed. The idea of spending my time watching Christmas movies just never enticed me; especially after seeing Miracle on 34th Street (1947), White Christmas (1954), A Christmas Story (1983), and Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), it seemed like there just wasn’t really anything in this story for me.
I was wrong and the timing of watching Wonderful Life was oddly perfect.
Expectations are a killer in many ways. They lead you to believe something that may, in actuality, not be true at all, OR be exactly what you thought, just not in the way you thought. I’d expected Wonderful Life, like all the sitcoms and serials that have used its tropes since, to spend the bulk of time showing ole’ George how life sucks with him gone. Instead, it focused primarily on the connections George forged, how the little kindnesses lead to incredible successes, and that service to others is far more rewarding than service to self. The film makes this fairly plain with Lionel Barrymore’s businessman/banker Mr. Potter trying to milk the town of for everything he can, completely disinterested in how foreclosing on the people will destroy countless lives all so he can have more money. Even after surviving the Depression, Mr. Potter tried again and again to buy up property, kick out families, and otherwise remake Bedford Falls into Pottersville, a town of angry citizens without any semblance of hope. I couldn’t help but think of the election taking place, the countless individuals working the polls so that the citizenry of the United States of America could engage in the daring act of voting. I couldn’t help but think of the incredible acts of kindness, the notions of caring for our neighbors, of ensuring the health and well-being over selfish needs, that each vote against the current administration signifies. I couldn’t help but think of all the times capitalism won over the purity of goodness and I was overcome. Wonderful Life isn’t a film about Christmas, though it does end there, and it’s not a film about faith, though it opens with a conversation between G-d and angels depicted as celestial bodies. No, It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about how being the best version of yourself, the one who looks out for others, is what it means to be a citizen in any town in any state in our country.
Finding out, also, that George’s actual interaction with Clarence takes place in the last 30 minutes of the movie wasn’t even the most jarring part of my broken expectations, it was the slow burn build of rage within George, played beautifully by Stewart. Running at a surprising 130 minutes, Wonderful Life paints such a complete portrait of George that your heart breaks for him, yet swells with pride and joy each time he makes the hard choice to put himself second over his own desires. The film takes great pains to take you through a series of small interactions, never glossing over anything, so that by the time George is faced with the threat of jail and humiliation that incites his thoughts of suicide, we rage along with him. We yell and we scream right beside him. How cruel can the world be if a lifetime of good works can leave someone in ruin. Then, the answer comes, not with a swinging climax wherein George beats down Mr. Potter, but from the recognition that our connection to those around us is our real legacy, that how we’re remembered is the barometer of wealth, not how large our bank account is. This is wholesome with a capital “W” and not in a way that is easily mocked or shamed into hiding, for it is a wholesomeness that we, members of a country locked in a battle between its demons and better angels, would do well to remember. Winning should never be the goal when it comes to a compassionate life. Put another way, as conservative an idol George Bailey is, the man is entirely a collectivist, caring more for his community and his family than he does for himself. We could use more George Baileys these days.
That said, let’s move onto the accoutrements of this particular release.
To the best of my understanding, It’s a Wonderful Life first released on 4K UHD October 29th, 2019, and this release is identical save for the packaging and accompanying mini vintage-style film poster. That means that the 4K UHD disc includes the black-and-white version of the film restored from three separate sources, while the Blu-ray includes colorized version of the film, along with several bonus features. If you were looking for something new as an enticing measure, the only thing this edition possesses is a lovely steelbook design and the aforementioned poster. That may not be enough for the average consumer to purchase a new copy, but for first-time owners, collectors, and steelbook enthusiasts, the packaging just may seal the deal. The front design is a lovely 1947 Americana-style drawing of George lifting his wife Mary (Donna Reed) into the air, the full moon shining brightly behind them (a fun tribute to George’s promise to lasso the moon for her). The spine and back of the case are red with the famous quote about bells and angels written across two carol bells. The design is subtle but is quite evocative for fans of the film. Similar to Paramount’s Paramount Presents label, the inside of the case is clear so that, when opened, it displays a frame from the finale of the film taking up both the left and right inside liner area. Tucked neatly in fours on the left side, opposite the double discs, is the mini vintage-style poster of the film.
For a closer look:
If, like me, you’ve been putting off watching It’s a Wonderful Life, or you know someone who’d enjoy receiving the film for the holidays (whichever you celebrate), then you won’t go wrong with this cinema classic. It truly does live up to the hype.
It’s a Wonderful Life Special Features
- Black-and-white film in 4K high definition (4K UHD disc/digital) (2:10:52)
- Colorized version on Blu-ray (Blu-ray/digital) (2:10:52)
- Mini reproduction of the vintage film poster
- Three previously released featurettes:
- “Restoring a Beloved Classic” (13:03)
- “Secrets from the Vault” (22:09)
- “It’s A Wonderful Wrap Party” (7:58)
- And more!
Special edition 4K UHD Combo steelbook available November 17th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.