"It's a Wonderful Life" the 2 Disc Collector's Edition, on DVD
Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" has a well-deserved place in the hearts of millions and has become a holiday season staple.
The story of George Bailey, a bright young man with lots of potential who keeps getting sidetracked from his preferred path through life, is a tale that takes its characters - and the audience - from the heights of joy to the depths of despair and back again.
James Stewart is the unsinkable George, whose all 'round decency gets him through a life in which his choices are often forced upon him by circumstance. Many times he could have chosen to follow his dreams, but precisely because he's such a wonderful guy he always chooses the path that ends up seeing him submerge his own ambitions in favor of doing right by others.
Life is good for George, though he doesn't know it, until one Christmas eve when his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8000 of their Savings and Loan's money and it looks as if George's reward for his years of selfless hard work will be disgrace and a trip to jail.
Here, the movie takes a decidedly ugly turn as a desperate George lashes out at everything near and/or dear to him. Then, realizing he's worth more dead than alive (thanks to his life insurance policy), he decides to jump off a local bridge as the solution to his insurmountable problem.
Enter Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), George's guardian angel, whose task it is to not only save George's life, but to heal his soul as well. He accomplishes this by showing George that, rather than being the failure he thinks he is, he has had a Wonderful Life in that he has people he loves and who love him even more in return - as well as his playing an important role in a world that, without him, would be a decidedly uglier place.
James Stewart is wonderful as George Bailey as he runs the gamut of emotions from joy to despair and desperation. Donna Reed is perfectly cast as Mary, George's eventual wife. She's smart, sexy, and strong - just what George needs to make life in the straightjacket of Bedford Falls bearable. The chemistry between Stewart and Reed is magical; the telephone scene where they first really get together is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed - yet there's nothing even close to nudity or sexual content (in fact, they only kiss and embrace at the very end), just sparks that positively leap from the screen.
The supporting cast is equally outstanding. Not only do Travers and Mitchell turn in remarkable performances, but Lionel Barrymore's villainous Mr. Potter is probably the best screen baddie since Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West and until George Lucas/James Earl Jones/David Prowse' Darth Vader.
The fullscreen DVD has been lovingly remastered, and the image is crisp and sharp. For a comparison, check out the "making of" documentary that accompanies the film to see footage of how the film looks unrestored.
The big reason to look at this DVD release as opposed to the earlier, 60th anniversary one, is the colorized version on Disc Two. Though it could still be considered painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, colorization has come a long way in the past 20 years or so. This time around, the flesh tones are awful, making everyone look as if they're from another planet (or just plain ill) but everything else looks absolutely great. There's wonderful depth to the scenes and the colorization has lightened up the whole look of the film (the advantages or disadvantages of which could be argued). Check out the textures of the fabrics and the settings, and you'll see just how well colorization can work.
Too bad about those skin tones, though.
The best thing about having the colorized version inflicted on us is the inclusion of the orginal black and white one, so you can choose which one you like the best. We'll probably go back to watching the original now that we've seen the color version, but that's a personal choice and Paramount has, wisely, left the choice to us.
The audio is Dolby Digital and it sounds fine considering the age of the source.
The documentaries are pretty good, though by no means new now. The first one is a 22 minute (a half hour TV show, sans commercials, we assume) feature hosted by actor Tom Bosley and it gives some nice insight into the film. The second feature is hosted by Frank Capra Junior. It's a tad shy of fifteen minutes in length and, while it covers much of the same ground, it's also worth watching. But they're also available on the 60th Annivesary version.
In all, the digital remastering of "It's a Wonderful Life" is a welcome touch, indeed, and fans of this classic can finally see it in a version that does it justice. Plus, you can watch it in color now if you want to.
It's a Wonderful Life, from Paramount Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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