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It's A Wonderful Life: 60th Anniversary Edition

One of the most beloved American movies of all time, Frank Capra's 1946 holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life may have been a forsaken sleeper in its day, but over the past two-and-a-half decades it has established itself as an irrefutable signpost on the cultural landscape. As anyone who hasn't been trapped under an ice sheet since 1970 knows, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a good-hearted small town dreamer always sacrificing his adventurous personal desires for the good of others until, one dark Christmas Eve when all seems lost, George is about to throw himself into an icy river but is thwarted by divine intervention. An aspiring angel (Henry Travers) proceeds to demonstrate through an alternate reality tour how much worse off the little town of Bedford Falls would have been had George not lived the rich life he's come to rue. It's hard to believe now that the film ranked at #11 on a recent AFI list of the "100 Greatest American Movies" only won a few minor awards during its day (eclipsed by the similarly titled World War II drama the Best Years of Our Lives — an error of voter confusion, perhaps?) and made little public impact, failing even to crack the top 20 money-makers of the year. Especially when the appeal of It's a Wonderful Life is not just that it is an effective, holiday-themed feel-good heart-warmer that makes for pleasant background noise during family get-togethers, but one that is so superlative in all facets of its production it easily weathers multiple attentive viewings and always feels fresh and powerful.

Foremost of It's a Wonderful Life's qualities is Stewart himself, so often mischaracterized an "everyman," when in fact his most famous characters are truly exceptional: flawed idealists broken by corrupt machines but ultimately salvaged by the inspiration of those he has touched. There's a ton of corny, old-fashioned can-do American dreaming in Stewart's characters — George Bailey paramount among them — but also a weakness to balance every strength, making his best performances indelibly empathetic rather than one-dimensional goody-twoshoeses. Stewart's realization of George Bailey (his first role since returning from heroic Air Force service during World War II) is so believably full of life and yet so crushed in defeat, so detailed in every small nuance, glance and inflection, that it's worthy of mention alongside the usual suspects in any list of the all-time great movie performances — none of which, it's worth noting, will ever elicit a fraction of the vast affections aroused by George Bailey. Donna Reed perfectly co-stars as George's wife, Mary, while Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, and Gloria Grahame also turn in performances that hit every note spot-on, making absolute gold out of the troubled screenplay-by-committee from the group of Philip Van Doren Stern, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Capra, and Jo Swerling. Lest It's a Wonderful Life be ignorantly written off by cynics as purely outdated cornpone, it's also as poignant a story of regret, despair, sacrifice, and self-doubt that has ever hit the screen, and while nearly every scene of It's a Wonderful Life can be arguably cited as a venerable favorite, the raw sensuality and desperation of the first kiss between George and Mary is still as electrifying as anything put out by Hollywood today.

*          *          *

This 60th Anniversary Edition of It's a Wonderful Life is underwhelming insofar as it doesn't add anything substantially new over previous DVD editions of the film. While the 1.33:1 transfer features marginally stronger black-and-white contrast than did Artisan's 2001 remastered edition, and a good monaural Dolby Digital audio presentation (this new version also features only English subtitles, with the only alternate language audio track in French, so it's more limited than previous versions in these regards), the key advantage to the 60th Anniversary Edition is that the recycled extras — the stilted 22-minute Tom Bosely-narrated retrospective "The Making of It's a Wonderful Life" and 14-minute "'A Personal Remembrance' from Frank Capra Jr." (with interview footage of Capra Sr. and Stewart) — are included on the same side of the disc as the feature, not the flipside. Also included is the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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