It’s a staple of the Christmas season, at least across the pond where it is perhaps better suited to the idea of the American Dream while we here in the UK have the spiteful miser Ebenezer Scrooge as our seasonal ambassador. It remains a wonderful moving and uncynical experience, one which has often been imitated (Nicolas Cage’s The Family Man is one recent, less than successful example) but never bettered.
In fact you’d do well to run this as a double bill with Gremlins, whose home town of Kingston Falls is a loving geographical echo of the home of George Bailey. Also it’s Dave Lister’s favourite film and who are we to argue?
Ostensibly the film is about the moment one Christmas Even when George Bailey, a much loved everyman, stands on the verge of financial and personal ruin. His business is on the verge of collapse, hounded by a rich business rival best described as a cantankerous carpetbagger and his usual good humour turned sour and then to anger which he unleashes on his family. So we find George about to leap off of a bridge at the edge of his beloved Bedford Falls reasoning that his life insurance will do some good when he is gone. Only then, when George is at his most vulnerable does Clarence descend from the heavens (he’s an angel of course) and set his suicidal chum right.
Just as Scrooge is shown the perils of his future if he does not deviate from his current path our man Bailey is shown what life would be like if he had no path in the first place. Not only did his brother not survive the childhood accident of falling through an ice covered lake (as George was not there to pull him out) but his wife never married and frankly everyone seems a lot more sullen and the town of Bedford Falls is far from the idyll he left behind.. What I like most about Clarence’s intervention is that George is allow to walk in the world and talk to his friends (who have never met him) and his wife (who has glasses and the requisite spinsters attire, and runs screaming from him, as she too has never met him). Appearing to add insult to injury Clarence proves his point until he returns George to his own reality and to his happy home and the welcome embrace of his townsfolk.
I defy anyone with a heart to remain unstirred by the end scene. It’s impossible. It gets me every damn time, at the moment James Stewart gives a pantomime wink to the heavens and proclaims Attaboy Clarence’.
There is a reason this film has endured down the generations and it is a relatively simple notion. Life is hard, and things don’t always go your way; the regret of your life may not be the path you didn’t take but in refusing to see the life you have from an outside perspective. Coming out in 1946 it’s a far harsher film than you might expect, but there’s a level of theatricality about the whole affair, a necessary undercurrent of nostalgia which is what made the film so relevant throughout the years.
The Blu-ray transfer is pretty decent, with the third act’s shadowy alternative reality giving a clear examples of the deep blacks and hard edges of the snow-covered buildings. There is a welcome sharpness to the picture which elevates this from its DVD forebear though the extras which accompany this film are limited to a picture in picture comparison (more on this in a minute) and a trivia track. Surely there’s more to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life than this. Though I couldn’t stand more than a couple of scenes of the newly Colourised version of the film (a process that Frank Capra was very keen on) it may find favour with a few people but I’ve yet to see a colourised version of any film which enhances the experience. Like slapping make-up on a zombie was how I described it last night on Twitter and I remain unconvinced of its use.
That said it is the film which sells this Blu-ray, with a dearth of extras and a fine, but unsensational, transfer it is still one I would recommend to everyone. For all its (necessary) world-weary cynicism it remains one of the most uplifting and uncynical films around and it’s hard not to want to invite James Stewart round for Christmas Lunch after seeing this.