It’s a Wonderful Life is such a pervasive presence on broadcast TV during the holidays that one almost has to wonder if there’s actually any value in owning it. It has been in USA’s rotation since Thanksgiving and will air there and on NBC as well right up until Christmas Eve. If you care at all about this beloved Frank Capra classic, you have ample opportunity to view it for free, and if you don’t, it almost seems hard to escape this time of year. So why would you spend your hard-earned money to make it part of your permanent film library, when—let’s be honest with ourselves here—you’re just going to ignore it again until your next big tryptophan overdose in late 2021?
Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR download of It’s a Wonderful Life provides a pretty compelling answer to that question, actually. Because I promise you, whether you’ve seen the film once or you binge it like the sugary confection it is, you’ve never seen it looking as good as it does here.
Working with the best elements they could get their hands on, the Paramount Pictures Archive restored the film in 2019, which was no easy task given that only 13 of the film’s 14 original camera-negative reels survived, all with significant deterioration at the ends. The team also had two complete fine-grade nitrate prints from 1946 to work with, which they used to fill in the gaps.
The result is quite frankly astonishing—rich in detail and organic nuance, with a healthy level of very fine grain but none of the noise that often plagues nitrate films of this
WONDERFUL LIFE AT A GLANCE
An impressive restoration and a 4K HDR upgrade turn this once-a-year holiday ritual into a movie collection must-have.
The restoration, coupled with a subtle application of HDR, results in impossibly gorgeous imagery throughout.
The two-channel mono soundtrack’s limited dynamic range can be occasionally harsh and have an impact on dialogue intelligibility, but this is still the best the movie has ever sounded.
era, especially those sourced from multiple generations of assets. The movie has also been given a very subtle but effective HDR grade, the likes of which you certainly won’t see on broadcast TV.
Comparing it to the standard-dynamic-range HD release (sourced, I believe, from the same restoration), you won’t notice much by way of enhanced highlights, even from the neon lights that line the streets of Potterville toward the end of the film. But what you will notice is a broader and smoother range of midtones, as well as enhanced shadow detail and depth closer to the bottom end of the value scale.
This really stood out to me in one scene in particular, when George Bailey sits with his father at the dinner table discussing the future. In the HD transfer, George’s jacket is a medium gray, since taking the image much darker would have swallowed
the folds and details in the fabric. In the 4K/HDR transfer, the jacket is very nearly black, and yet all of the subtle textures and contrasts that give it shape shine through, despite the overall darkening of the image here. The effect is to give the scene a greater sense of intimacy, to make it look and feel more like a family dinner than a brightly lit movie set. And you can see that sort of benefit from HDR throughout the film. Never does the image get much brighter than you’ve
seen it before, but HDR allows it to get properly darker in places without losing any detail or crushing any blacks. It simply gives the film a more consistent look from beginning to end.
There are times, by the way, when I suspected I could see where the second-generation nitrate prints had been substituted for the original camera negative—the sort of thing you can normally pick out much more easily in HDR. A few shots here and there are ever-so-slightly plagued by diminished midtones and a loss of highlights. The occasional camera angle looks a little more dupe-y, a little less pristine.
Watching the excellent 13-minute documentary about the restoration process, though (included on the UHD Blu-ray but not available on Kaleidescape, sadly— but embedded in this review, above), I’m inclined to believe I was mistaken in blaming these very minor issues on the restoration. You can see in the doc, especially at right around the 7:45 mark, that the second-generation elements were so seamlessly integrated into the original camera negative that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart unless you know exactly where the splices are. So the occasional second or two of subpar imagery in the movie must be an artifact of the original production. And I’m even more inclined to believe that given that every shot of Donna Reed looks like the lens was slathered with five pounds of Vaseline before “Action!” was called, something that’s even more noticeable given the enhanced resolution.
This handful of visual booboos is hardly a distraction—nowhere near the level of something like The Blues Brothers Extended Edition—and they’re only worth nitpicking at all because the rest of the film simply looks so impossibly gorgeous. What can be distracting at times is that the dynamic range of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (labeled as stereo, but in actuality two-channel mono) is so
limited that, especially in louder scenes—like Harry Bailey’s graduation party—the sound can get a weensy bit harsh, and dialogue intelligibility suffers in spots. But this is still the best the film has ever sounded, so it’s hard to complain.
So, should you buy It’s a Wonderful Life in 4K? If you care at all about the film, I say yes. Absolutely. I’ll admit (whilst hiding behind some protective cover) that I’ve always been a bit “whatever” about this Christmas mainstay. But watching it in 4K with the benefit of HDR, once I got past the insufferable scenes with the kids in the drug store early in the film and the laughably bad outer-space sequences, I enjoyed it in a way I never have before.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.