Release Date(s)1946 (October 29, 2019)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Both Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra have called It’s a Wonderful Life their best work, and it’s hard to argue the point. Stewart, in his first acting role after returning from service in World War II (he was a pilot in the Army Air Force) gives the performance of a lifetime as George Bailey, the likable everyman who yearns to leave his small town behind, to see the world, and make his fortune.
As fate would have it, of course, events conspire to keep George in tiny Bedford Falls, where he must bear the seemingly thankless task of keeping the family business (a tiny Building and Loan) afloat after the death of his father. To make matters worse, the greedy Mr. Potter (actor Lionel Barrymore, as the local miser and Grinch) will stop at nothing to put the Building and Loan out of business, as part of his bid to own everything in town. But George has the love, strength and inspiration of his childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) to help him endure, not to mention a whole town’s worth of friends and family. And in his darkest hour, a lowly, second-class guardian angel named Clarence is there to show George the true value of his life.
Few filmmakers have been as prolific as Frank Capra in exploring the human condition. Ever idealistic, Capra endowed all his films (among them Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take it With You, Lost Horizon and It Happened One Night) with a somewhat simplistic sense of hope and optimism, leading some to criticize his work. But that same optimism has helped to ensure that few filmmakers’ work has been as enduing as Capra’s. And no film is more exemplary of his ideals than It’s a Wonderful Life. Given that, it’s hard to believe that the film was largely unsuccessful when first released in 1946. Moviegoers then found it too dark and depressing to embrace. It was not until the copyright expired in the 70’s that it finally found a wide audience. TV stations around the country were suddenly able to air the film without charge, and air it they did, particularly around the holidays. The rest, of course, is history.
Like most films of its era, It’s a Wonderful Life was shot photochemically in 35 mm (at the 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio) using nitrate stock, which had a higher silver content (thus the expression “the silver screen”). For this Ultra HD presentation, the image was scanned in 4K from the original camera negative, 13 of 15 reels of which survive in good condition (though deterioration had begun to occur near the ends of reels, making this a critical restoration for preserving the film). For reels and scenes where the OCN had degraded too badly or no longer survives, two second-generation nitrate fine-grain prints (made at the time the film was completed) were used to fill in those gaps. The image was then digitally restored as needed and given a restrained high dynamic range grade (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available). The resulting presentation is simply stunning. In fact, it would be fair to say that people who attended the film’s original theatrical screenings didn’t experience an image this good. Except where the shots are a little optically soft as filmed, the fine detail is exquisite. There are things I’ve never noticed before—when George and Mary get married, the guests are holding old MJB coffee tins and Iris brand boxes full of rice to throw. You can actually read the labels on Mr. Gower’s medicine bottles now! Film grain is light-medium, but well controlled. The blacks are deep and detailed, while the brightest areas of the image are a little more luminous (note that given the B&W nature of the film, both HDR options are equally appealing). This restoration is simply tremendous—a gorgeous image. It’s also worth mentioning that, following this work, a new film out preservation negative was created and stored for future generations.
Audio is included here in lossless at long last in English 2.0 Mono in Dolby TrueHD format. The track is clean and clear, offering a modest improvement over the previous lossy Dolby Digital tracks. Additional audio options include English Audio Description, and Mono Dolby Digital in German, Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese. Subtitles are available in English, English for the Hearing Impaired, Danish, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.
Paramount’s 4K release actually offers some new extras—a surprising and unexpected treat! They include (shot in or upsampled to 4K):
- Restoring a Beloved Classic (13:03)
- Secrets from the Vault: It’s a Wonderful Life (22:11)
- It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party (8:04)
Created by veteran special edition producer Jon Mefford and his team at Five by Five (who I salute mightily for their efforts here—you guys get an A+ for your work), this content is really special. Restoring a Beloved Classic is actually one of my favorite extras in a long time. It features an interview with Paramount studio archivists Andrea Kalas and Laura Thornburg taking about the 4K restoration and the film’s preservation in general. You actually get a peek in the vault, you get to see the process of scanning the OCN at Technicolor, and Kalas and Thornburg give you a look at the digital grading and restoration—with before and after looks at the image. Secrets from the Vault features film historian Craig Barron and legendary sound designer Ben Burtt talking about the film and its history, Capra’s work, and the process by which the filmmakers created snow in the middle of a July heatwave for the film using a variety of techniques (including firefighting foam)—and you actually get to see newly-scanned test footage of the Bedford Falls set covered in the fake snow. And It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party is new too; it’s a look recently discovered 16 mm home movie footage shot at the film’s wrap picnic with the cast, crew, and their families—Frank Capra playing baseball anyone? It’s all remarkable stuff.
Of course, you also get a Blu-ray Disc—essentially Disc Two of the 2009 Blu-ray release (reviewed here at The Bits). But this is a really odd choice and one that makes you scratch your head at Paramount’s decision-making, because it means the package doesn’t include the B&W film in HD mastered from this new restoration. Instead, you get the previous colorized version of the film. The idea that anyone who is a serious enough fan of this film to buy a physical 4K version of it would want the bastardized color version instead of the proper restoration in HD is absurd. And it’s doubly absurd because making that decision means this package sacrifices the previous Blu-ray extras, which included The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life documentary (hosted by Tom Bosley) and the film’s theatrical trailer. Also missing is the A Personal Remembrance piece (narrated by Frank Capra, Jr.) from the previous DVD editions. You do at least get a Digital code.
So… Paramount has really unfortunately become a home video puzzle in recent years. For every great thing they do, they do two or three other things that are real head-scratchers. In this case, it’s both in one box. This release shows what the studio can achieve when they set their minds to it. And it shows how infuriating they’ve become to most cinephiles, A/V fans, and disc enthusiasts too. Had they included a proper 4K restoration on BD (sans the Crayola Crayon treatment) with the previous extras in addition to these terrific new ones, I’d have given the overall Extras grade for this release a solid A. (And again, the new special features on the 4K disc are simply outstanding.)
The thing is, no serious fan of this film is going to want to pass up on this stunning restoration; it’s a marvel. And I would love it if 4K fans and film enthusiasts alike purchased this release in huge numbers, because it would send a powerful message to the studio—one they really badly need to hear—which is this: Stop releasing so many great and much wanted catalog titles in 4K as iTunes Digital downloads only! War of the Worlds, Star Trek II, Beverly Hills Cop… people want the damn 4K discs! I’ve now seen It’s a Wonderful Life in 4K on both iTunes and this disc, and there’s no comparison. Streaming just does not have the bandwidth to compete with the quality of a disc. Bottom line for 4K fans: If you want the studio to get that message, it’s time to put your money behind it. This title is just $20 on Amazon. Don’t let the colorized version dissuade you; the new restoration and extras are more than worth it. And seriously Paramount: Pull it together. Every home video enthusiast in the world is rooting for you to, myself included. The Ultra HD disc in this package is, at least, a strong step in the right direction.
- Bill Hunt