Ring All the Bells

George Bailey becomes a saint at one specific moment in It’s a Wonderful Life. He does many great things before – Bailey helps people afford homes, he rescues them during a run on the banks, a woman is saved when the pharmacist swaps her drugs with poison – but it’s resisting Mr. Potter’s influence that gives him a halo.

In a meeting, Potter (Lionel Barrymore) offers Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) $20,000 a year if only Bailey will leave his long suffering bank behind. Stewart, stunned, drops a cigar in his own lap, and reaches over to shake hands. Stewart contorts his face in a way to show absolute disgust, a moment of pure cinematic performance. He then lets go, wipes his hand of the dirt, and angrily storms out.

Bailey made it through the depression. Then, World War II. He never got the world trip he dreamed of and never made it to college. Certainly, he doesn’t need Potter’s help if he came through all of that. In this way, It’s a Wonderful Life continues to capture the best and worst of American values, no matter the current year. In one way, it’s about helping one another, being selfless, and always considering greater good. Then with Potter, that overwhelming sense of capitalism, removed of any basic empathy or humanity. The hero, of course, becomes “the richest man alive.” Nothing in that phrase is in consideration of wealth.

Maybe old-fashioned in its idealism, but something like It’s a Wonderful Life should never be out of style

It’s a Wonderful Life opens with prayer. That’s another bit Frank Capra’s iconic piece of Americana. Belief is tantamount to success. Bailey’s challenges wane on him; he eventually breaks down after losing $8,000 (stolen by the ever cruel Potter). Invoking A Christmas Story, Bailey sees a life where he didn’t exist. Capitalism ruled in his absence, turning the idyllic town into a Vegas-like spectacle in the hunt for an easy buck. Before this, Mary (Donna Reed) asks the kids to pray for their father. They do.

When he comes back home from a suicidal depression, an angel has pulled Bailey from despair. Those deep rooted Christian values power the closing moments, arguably some of the most memorable of all American cinema. Bailey shouting, “Merry Christmas” to a movie house, his daughter speaking of angels getting their wings, the hundreds of people crowding the home to help Bailey on Christmas Eve; all of it is a bundle of emotional perfection. It’s not schmaltzy. Maybe old-fashioned in its idealism, but something like It’s a Wonderful Life should never be out of style.

Video

Restored to 4K from the original nitrate negative (and an additional second generation source in spots), the results certainly better the original Blu-ray. That source was aggressively noise reduced; this new master is not. Intact grain displays an unusual consistency – suspect, even – with a definite perkiness that avoids the appearance of digital noise.

Sharpness succeeds too. The level of texture visible in places gives It’s a Wonderful Life… life. You can easily see the stitching on Bailey’s football uniform after the dance. Long shots inside the loan office handle remarkable levels of definition.

With a subtle hand, Dolby Vision bolsters contrast. Shadows bulk up, pristine in those key moments when Bailey wanders through his home’s ruins. Brighter spots is where It’s a Wonderful Life’s 4K presentation turns challenging.

Medium shots often carry a processed look. The closest comparison is Paramount’s Forrest Gump 4K UHD release, although to ensure absolute clarity in that comparison, this is not as smudgy. Still, there’s a distinct digital fog to some scenes. That’s particularly apparent as Bailey visits Potter early on. Instead of texture, blotchiness and a slight hint of banding fills Potter’s face. Undoubtedly, It’s a Wonderful Life posed a restoration battle. Likely, the need to keep things consistent led to these smoothed over moments – hence, the suspect grain density that never shows any change.

Audio

Bringing over the TrueHD mix made for the Blu-ray, the mono soundstage replicates dialog with masterful precision in its decidedly analog era source. There’s warmth to the treble-firm audio.

The score struggles at the highest points (opening credits especially), yet still holds up. Balance handles complex moments, including the dance with the crowd and music. It’s all intact, pure, and beautiful in its vintage form.

Extras

This is odd. Paramount includes a Blu-ray inside, yet only with the colorized version, sans all bonus features. Three new bonuses show up on the UHD only, including an informative 13-minute look at how the restoration was done. Sadly, the HDR seems incorrectly applied and dims the comparisons.

A 22-minute piece digs into It’s a Wonderful Life’s history, pulling out various facts and details. Finally, silent 8mm footage from the wrap party is great to see.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

It's a Wonderful Life
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Movie

A deserving classic, It’s a Wonderful Life is close to being a perfect film, with laughs, morals, drama, and a feel-good celebration of doing right by all.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our Patreon-exclusive set of 39 uncompressed full resolution 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: