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“It’s a Wonderful Life” makes a second 4K splash

Updated: Oct 29, 2022


George Bailey (James Stewart) begs for his life and discovers his lip is bleeding and police officer Bert (Ward Bond) recognizes him as George Bailey, owner of the Bailey Building and Loan Association.


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1946; unrated; Streaming via Amazon Video, Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube

Best extra: Restoring a Beloved Classic

FORTY-NINE weeks ago Paramount who owns the rights for "It's a Wonderful Life" released the restored 4K version with expansive High Dynamic Range grayscale - exclusively on digital platforms. The results were pretty spectacular compared to older Blu-ray versions.

But finally, Frank Capa's ageless Christmas tale premieres on 4K disc and surprisingly it's leaps and bounds more refined and detailed compared to the digital versions. The larger your screen is the greater the difference. The film grain is more evident from top to bottom and across each of the frames scanned with a new special 4K scanner at Technicolor's post-production house in Los Angeles. The digital versions featured on Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Google Play, and Vudu seem to be missing the full HDR spectrum found on the 4K disc version. The digital is less dynamic - a flatter grayscale, plus missing the smallest of detail in the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights. I was shocked by how much better this new version looks.

(1) "It's a Wonderful Life" was a Liberty Films production and released by RKO, receiving five Academy Award nominations. (2) Young Mary Hatch (Jean Gale) has eyes for George Bailey. (3) Young George (Bob Anderson) makes a wish for a million dollars at Mr. Gower's Drugstore. (4) Now 21, George dreams of traveling the world.


For many “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a family holiday tradition no matter how many times you've watched it from five times, 10 times, 30 times or 100 times.

“It’s a privilege and honor to take care of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a huge burden to make sure we do it well,” says Andrea Kalas, senior vice president of Archives at Paramount Pictures during the featurette “Restoring a Beloved Classic.”

Over the years, Paramount has given Frank Capra’s ageless Christmas tale of small-town hero George Bailey (James Stewart) lots of attention – checking the camera negative every couple of years at the studio's archive vault. There was a period during the 1970s and ’80s when the movie accidentally fell into the public domain and inferior prints popped up and were shown on almost every local TV station across the U.S. That’s where the film grew its fan base and how it became a national treasure.

Capra and Stewart both considered it their favorite film, and the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time selected “It’s A Wonderful Life” as No. 1, topping “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Schindler’s List.” It also received five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Sound and Film Editing. Inexplicably, however, it lost money during its original theatrical run.

During their latest inspection of the negative, Kalas and Laura Thornburg, Exec. Director of Film Preservation at Paramount discovered the film was showing signs of deterioration. They felt the time was right for a complete 4K restoration using the latest digital advancements.

(1) George talks with his father about having his young brother Harry to take (2 & 3) At Harry Bailey's high-school graduation party George is reintroduced to Mary Hatch during a dancing contest. (4) George and Mary sing "Buffalo Gals" during their walk home after falling into the high school swimming pool.


The original 35mm camera negative was nitrate-based, just as were all other movies made pre-1950. The high silver content was the origin of the term “silver screen,” which produced a “sparkly and lustrous look about it,” says Kalas. But that film stock was extremely flammable and a number of studio fires forced nitrate film into extinction by 1950.


A special 4K scanning device at Technicolor was used to preserve the original film (1.38:1 aspect ratio) without using the sprocket holes to guild the film through a series of rollers. Each frame was scanned twice – with and without the sprocket holes – to optically stabilize the image. Thirteen of the 14 original reels survived, but portions of the ends revived the biggest issues. Two second-generation fine grain negatives, struck in the late 1940s, filled the gaps. Those were also scanned in 4K. Final decisions were made on a shot-by-shot basis for the best source, plus digital tools gave them the ability to fix tears and cuts in the higher resolution that had been impossible in years past.

Capra’s production values were superb, and “Wonderful Life” was Stewart’s first film after serving during World War II, when he flew combat missions over Germany. The craftsmanship is a testament to Capra’s vision and, although three different cinematographers captured the story, it looks “remarkably consistent,” says Thornburg. “We really appreciated the quality of this negative. Not all of our negatives are this perfect,” says Kalas.

Plus, the advances in HDR technology has given “It’s a Wonderful Life” a much broader range of grayscale with new detail, especially with the highlights and dark shadows during the film noir Pottersville sequence. The film grain is also more noticeable and controlled on the 4K, without any signs of dirt, marks or scratches. They also removed any jitteriness in the frames and perfected seamless cuts between the original negative and the second generation. Those moments required adjustments with the contrast, the grain, and density between frames to make it cohesive. The 4K also extracts details never seen before, such as background objects, and facial expressions on distant characters.

(1 & 2) After the death of George's father, he took over the operation of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, which derailed his international travel plans and college. (3) George's brother Harry returns with a new bride, which means George must continue running the Building and Loan. (4) George calls on Mary after she returned home from college. She takes a call from Sam Wainwright, a longtime friend of Mary and George.


“We’re really sensitive to restoring a movie to make it feel film-like. And that involves backing off on the contrast, plus new technology and better color spaces help us out.” – Laura Thornburg Exec. Director of Film Preservation at Paramount

Paramount also struck a new 35mm negative to be stored in the cold vault and several new 35mm prints were produced to be exhibited in rare theatrical presentations. The audio is the simple and straightforward Dolby TrueHD mono soundtrack, matching the original experience.


Additional featurettes include “Secrets from the Vault,” which offers insights from film historians Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, who are fully-versed on the production. They offer plenty of backstories from Capra’s decision after WWII to start Liberty Films, his own independent company. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was its first production and directors William Wyler and George Stevens joined Capra’s studio, which set up shop at RKO.

The streets of Bedford Falls were filmed at the 89-acre RKO Encino Ranch, with its large nostalgic main street and storefront façades. The winter scene was actually filmed during a heatwave in the summer of 1946, and salt, gypsum, and plaster were used for the snow on the ground, trees, and buildings. Previous films bleached corn flakes to mimic falling snow, but the crunching sound they made when stepped on forced actors to rerecord their dialogue. Capra knew Stewart’s best dramatic performances were during the first takes, so they developed a technique using firefighting foam as the falling snow. It was lightweight and could be sprayed from high-pressure hoses and then blown into the scene with high-powered fans.”It’s a Wonderful Life” won a Technical Achievement Oscar for simulated snow falling, and a variation of the foam is still used in films today.

Other featurettes consist of eight minutes of home movie footage from the film’s wrap party, showing Capra hitting a double during a softball game; and a 1991 piece hosted by Capra’s son, Frank Jr., containing interviews with Stewart and Capra.

– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1 & 2) The 89-acre RKO Encino Ranch, with its large nostalgic main street, provided the backdrop for Bedford Falls, N.Y. George Bailey and his new bride Mary, (Donna Reed) witness a run on the Potter Bank while heading out of town for their honeymoon. (3) George spots a crowd in front of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan and Uncle Billy tells George there's no money. (4) Mr. Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) majority shareholder in the Building and Loan calls George and asks if they're open for business? (5) George and Mary used their honeymoon nest egg $2000 to payback the customers. (6) The newlyweds celebrate their first night together in their rundown home.


(1 &2 ) George starts Bailey Park, an affordable housing project and helps the Martini family move into their new home. (3) Years later, Mr. Potter tries to convince George to join his empire with a $20,000 salary. (4) George demands Uncle Billy to remember where he misplaced the $8000 deposit for Potter's Bank.


(1) On Christmas Eve, George realizes the Building and Loan is short $8000. (2) On the Bedford Falls bridge, George encounters Clarence an angel. (3) Clarence shows George what Bedford Falls would be like without him. George and Mary's home is abandoned. (4) Bedford Falls has turned into Potterville and Main Street is full of nightclubs and pawn shops.


(1 & 2) Mary is a spinster librarian and doesn't recognize George.

(1) "Get me back to my wife and kids. Please, I want to live again, I want to live again." (2) George is reunited with his children. (3) Friends and neighbors come to the rescue with a basket of money. (4) George holds his youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes).




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