Sunday, December 9, 2012

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Blu-ray (Liberty Films 1946) Paramount Home Video

In his first post war production director Frank Capra alienated audiences with the somber tale of an 'every man' who, after being driven to the brink of suicide, is given the very great gift of being able to see what life would have been like if he had never been born. There are many today who regard It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as the American Christmas Carol; its apocalyptic last act rivaling Ebenezer Scrooge’s carpet-hauling to his own grave, illustrating for our world-weary protagonist the perils of wish fulfillment in an alternate universe where all that was goodness and light while he lived has been turned into the rank and murky chalk of social iniquity in his absence.    
Capra’s rare gift for looking into the human condition and finding its’ raw emotional center had always been the director's strength, particularly through a series of memorable movies made at Columbia during the 1930s. Capra’s repatriation into the war effort in the early forties, coupled with a split from his alma mater upon his return from service created a minor disconnect within his filmed output and continuity. Indeed, like fellow film maker, George Stevens, Capra returned from the war a changed man; arguably, a more precise individualist and unafraid to stare into the brooding darkness of men’s soul to face the fear and loathing that might be found from within – something Capra’s heroes from the 1930s never did, or arguably, could even attempt.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a far more mature movie than audiences were willing to embrace in 1946. Perhaps they simply had tired of those terrible years of war or were unable to connect with a protagonist who wished himself gone from the earth at precisely a time when so many were merely grateful to be alive after the dust had settled on that global conflict abroad. By now, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is so much a part of our yearly televised tradition that it seems all but impossible to regard it as a flop. Certainly, from an artistic standpoint, it never was one. But at the time of its theatrical release the story skillfully scripted by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Capra himself found utter indifference at the box office and this, of course in retrospect, is a genuine shame. Despite five Oscar nominations, the film entered and exited the box office with a resounding thud that effectively ended Capra's dreams of establishing his own independent production company.
Yet of all the stories Capra committed to film, It’s A Wonderful Life is perhaps his most disturbingly profound and emotionally satisfying. One is taken on the complete journey this time: through a man’s flawed trajectory in life - the thwarted desire to pursue his own dreams interrupted by the desires and needs of others, his gradually resentment at constantly being the buffer against social injustice without any tangible reward for his efforts, his temporary temptation to succumb to the moral ambiguity, and finally, his penultimate self-loathing at even contemplating such a betrayal of his principles that force him to attempt suicide – only to be shown the error of his judgment through divine intervention. Capra exploration is both astute and succinct, and, in 'every man' James Stewart he is immeasurably aided by an individual and a talent for whom the audience justly has respect, can relate to and finally, champion throughout his many emotional deluges. 

George Bailey (James Stewart) has led an exemplary life. In his youth, he saved his younger brother, Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning on a frozen lake. He prevented the distraught, drunken chemist, Emil Gower (H.B. Warner) from accidentally poisoning one of his patients with a flawed prescription. Assuming the burden of sustaining his home town of Bedford Falls with the only independent financial institution to rival tyrannical millionaire, Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) after the death of his own father, George has also married the prettiest girl in town; Mary Hatch (Donna Reed).These are no small feats. All of them are responsible for building George's moral character as a fine and upstanding citizen. Yet, George considers the arc of his life's work a complete and utter failure because he never achieved the basic dreams he aspired to – adventure, travel and financial security.

Indeed, the Baileys are rich in only one thing – friendships – an intangible that George does not entirely respect or even understand for its true value. In fact, he has all but taken these friendships for granted. George’s modest living, and possibly his reputation are threatened when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the Savings and Loan deposit slated for the bank. Without this payment the organization his father founded will be cast into bankruptcy and scandal. Seizing the opportunity to ruin George once and for all, Potter first attempts to bribe George with the promise of wealth and authority in their small town, then threatens foreclosure, imprisonment and financial ruin when George refuses to play along. This leads George to believe that his family would be better off if he were dead.
If postwar America was anticipating another 'feel good' masterpiece from Frank Capra, they received it, albeit in a more subdued, though arguably just as undiluted form. To be sure, It’s A Wonderful Life dabbles in the familiar ‘Capra-corn’ with ample dollops of sugary sweetness. But these moments are counterbalanced by the harshness of living; the death of a parent and the surrender of a dream, or in George’s case – more than one.  
George and Mary's courtship is hardly that of the idyllic ‘hearts and flowers’ ilk that usually sprinkled the pixie dust in Hollywood romances – violin strings, starry-eyed montages and moony gazes exchanged across a starlit trellis or the rippling waters mirrored inside a wishing well. In fact, in some ways the romance between George and Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life owes more to the flawed and infrequently interrupted trajectory of the lusts and passions inherent of a noir hero; a strangely alluring undercurrent that is more superficially represented through several light-hearted vignettes.
George meets Mary at Harry's high school prom where Mary is a senior. The more worldly Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) openly flirts with George but Harry makes George promise to dance with Mary instead. Freddie (Alfalfa Switzer), a jealous rival for Mary’s affections looms large over George and Mary's immediate happiness, despite the fact that Mary has already set her cap for George. Hence, given half the incentive and all of the opportunity to wreak havoc on it, Freddie activates the gymnasium floor. It opens beneath the dancers revealing the school's swimming pool and George and Mary - along with half the attending guests - plunge into the waters. Strolling home afterward in oversized bathrobes and football attire, wet clothes slung over their shoulders, Mary confides in George her future aspirations for quaint domesticity. But these dreams are interrupted when Harry arrives in a borrowed jalopy to inform his brother that their father Peter (Samuel S. Hinds) has suffered a fatal heart attack.
From here on in Capra’s film increasing digresses away from this moderately sunny backdrop, culminating in a nightmarish third act that begins, ironically, when an angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) arrives to fulfill George's request that he has never been born. The fate of Bedford Falls and George's family are painfully revealed to George: Harry's childhood death by drowning, Uncle Billy's incarceration for fraud, Violet Bick's sordid sexual debauchery, Emil Gower's self-destruction – having drunkenly poisoned one of his patients by accident - and Mary's reclusive spiral into bookish spinsterhood.
What George has utterly failed to realize until this moment is how meaningful his life has been to his friends; how the kindnesses he has shown others along the way have helped to shape their lives in all sorts of positive ways and how much their successes are a reflection of his own triumphs as a man and as an unacknowledged, though never underappreciated pillar of their community. The penultimate moment of triumph for George is a return to that life he already had – not with the promise of greater glories ahead – but with the personal satisfaction of knowing what a help he has been to those around him. Yet here too, the elation – while a shameless tear jerker – is hardly garish or over celebratory.
We depart the theater at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life sharing in George’s gratitude for having been reinstated into the world, but without the satisfaction of seeing at least a portion of his own dreams fulfilled. Perhaps, it is enough to know that the man has had his own more intimate epiphany – not with a flourish of bombast and spectacle, not with a grand declaration or even a few kind words of thanks – but in a more quiet moment of complete isolation – in that vacuum far from the people he now holds so dear to his heart.

James Stewart’s performance as the every-man at the end of his rope is both heartbreaking and genuine. In the moments following his initial confrontation with Clarence we see George’s mind eagerly at work, believing the hoax, however elaborately conceived. Yet, it is the starker and more terrifying realization, that his void in that society has managed to destroy everything once immeasurably enriched by his presence, that eventually leads both George and the audience to coincide with the film’s penultimate message: that no man is a failure who has friends.

After releasing a restored B&W print on DVD two Christmases ago, and then a B&W and colorized collector's set last Christmas, Paramount Home Video has seen fit to debut It's A Wonderful Life on Blu-Ray and the results are most welcome. We get an immaculate image with startling amounts of clarity in fine detail - much more than anticipated, in fact. Yes, the colorized version also benefits from this 1080p upgrade, but if anything, the sharper image illustrates even more glaringly the limitations of the colorization process.

On the B&W version the gray scale has been impeccably mastered with stunning tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. All age related blemishes have been removed for an incredibly smooth visual presentation. Rare hints of edge enhancement are present but these do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but restored to its original brilliance. Extras are the anomaly here: we get the much regurgitated ‘making of’ featurette but lose the personal reflection from Frank Capra Jr. The original theatrical trailer has also been remastered in HD. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



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