It’s a Wonderful Life Platinum Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

Buffalo Gal

The iconic images from It’s a Wonderful Life come from its final minutes. George Bailey, running through the streets of Bedford Falls, wishes the movie house a Merry Christmas. Soon after it’s Bailey at home, daughter in arms, talking of angels. These scenes are not only iconic – they’re perfect, encapsulating holiday sentimentalism. After two hours of George Bailey battered by cruel circumstance, bum luck, and bad timing, it’s worth it. Better than his dreams of escape. Better than money.

Frank Capra’s work is the ultimate Christmas spectacle, but it’s work to get there. No wonder audiences shied away in theaters, leaving the film to die at the box office. A little more than a year removed from World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life captures reality: Deceased siblings, alcoholism, depression, and rationing. Those beloved scenes later on linger like our own selective memories, weeding out the bad, leaving only pleasantries. It’s a Wonderful Life first deals in what’s real, A Christmas Carol where the perspective reverses away from Uncle Scrooge, turning into no less of an economic fairy tale in the end.

… beloved scenes linger like our own selective memories, weeding out the bad for stories of pleasantries

Like the film itself, Bailey doesn’t age even as the film progresses through the desperation of the depression and through World War II. Excusing its angels, there remains a little glimmer of visual fiction at work. And ageless it is because working class stories never left popular cinema. The story of a grouchy, rich banker foreclosing on homes carries equal weight now as it did for a post-depression society. If anything will never change, it’s society’s shared resentment for their mortgages and bills, the ultimate real world villain.

Jimmy Stewart is magnificent as Bailey, arguably one of Hollywood’s greatest and irreplaceable casting decisions. Few during the period could handle the film’s pendulum-like emotional center, and certainly not with the same soft spoken empathy as Stewart. Angels note he’s not sick. “Worse, discouraged,” an early line which balls up post-war anxieties and then projects them onto a single person in Bailey. Everyone wants to see some of themselves on screen. Superheroes manifest our pride and strength. Space faring sci-fi captures our desires for exploration. But Bailey – the working stiff making $45 a week – he seems too close to ourselves for the escapism of cinema. Thus, it failed financially.

For that failure, like Bailey himself, It’s a Wonderful Life gained an important long term affection. Ironic, really, for this piece of filmmaking to be left forgotten. As it grew older, audiences realized they couldn’t live without. As Bailey is guided through the scenery of a world where he wasn’t born, guardian angel hanging onto his arm, it doesn’t appear any different than a world without this movie. Minus its intelligence, its somber realizations, its cheers, its endearing optimism, we can only wonder how different things might be.

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Video

While it runs counter to the movie’s themes of appreciating what you have, the 70th Anniversary of this classic isn’t treated with the class or reverence it deserves. If you own It’s a Wonderful Life on Blu-ray already, then you own this. Paramount slaps the same encode onto a new disc, a presentation nearing the end of its usable lifespan in this era of 4K scans.

While not awful, the age is showing. Visible resolution isn’t there, and low level filtering creeps onto the print. Grain reduction saps fidelity while compression bothers sprout now and then. When Mr. Potter offers Bailey a job, mosquito noise becomes visible around the font on the door. Grain also appears suspiciously frozen. Oddly, the snowfall, with hundreds of moving flakes, causes no visible problems.

Mostly clean, restoration work (whenever performed) pulls out any significant faults or dirt. Until the final act, little indicates age. Come those critical moments though, a tear (of sorts) runs down the extreme right edge of the frame. Hard to miss.

Those gaffes aside though, the disc maintains a brilliant gray scale. In the key shadowed sequence where Bailey visits his burned down home, black levels perform exceptionally well. All of the hazy glamor close-ups of Donna Reed avoid issues of banding.

For purposes of review, the colorized version (copyrighted in 1989) shows additional smearing due to the process. Damage, grain, and compression all still apply, along with gaudy flesh tones.

Audio

Here in 2016, Dolby Digital on major studio Blu-rays is still a thing. As if uncompressed codecs never came into existence, It’s a Wonderful Life still holds onto the old audio format. While thankfully no attempts were made to update away from the original mono (the only audio option), it’s time for a new codec at least.

Still, this is a clean track, as clean as the video; no popping, scratches, or other age defects. Strong fidelity maintains sharp dialog with a pleasant maturity after some 70 years. Peak moments, from the score and Bailey shouting on the streets, hold together without fault.

Extras

The 22-minute, VHS-era making of hosted by Tom Bosley is the only extra. The colorized version (on its own disc) doesn’t count. This is less than the DVD edition which offered a remembrance of Frank Capra.

Note this Platinum Anniversary edition hold a physical bonus, some postcard size lobby card/poster replicas. A stylish slipcover wins design points too, but this film deserves a lavish special edition by noe.

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.

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process. Patreon supporters were able to access these screens early, view them as .pngs, and gain access to exclusives. In this case, Patreons receive a full set of 28 screen shots from the color version.