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'It's a Wonderful Life,' no matter how often you watch it

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By Rich Heldenfels
Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When my children were young, one of the holiday rituals was to watch Christmas-theme screen favorites. “It's a Wonderful Life” was always on the list.

This was in spite of various indignities inflicted on the 1946 film. Colorizing cheapened and diminished a tale designed for black and white. When it was spending many years in the public domain, making it free to TV stations and home-video distributors, the available copies could be scratchy and skippy. Yet, even then, I would be drawn into the tale year after year, touched by an ending that — for all the bleakness around it — was so effective that the movie would end up topping the American Film Institute's list of the most inspirational movies ever made. (It was also top 20 in AFI's latest list of the best American movies ever.)

Some of the presentational weaknesses have faded over the years. Rights to the movie were re-secured, leading to a good restoration for DVD, Blu-ray and broadcast. The colorized version on sale at least comes in a set with the black-and-white take. On the down side, the new rights control also ended the years when, thanks to the movie being in the public domain, people could count on seeing it dozens of times across the TV landscape. Now, NBC holds the TV rights and limits showings to a couple of times a year, including at 8 p.m. Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

The NBC showing adds commercials, alas, enough to expand a movie that runs about 130 minutes to a full three hours. You would be better served by acquiring it on disc, and saving the ad time. But if the telecast is the only way to see it, then see it you should, especially if someone in your home has never watched it before.

Directed by Frank Capra, the movie involves George Bailey (James Stewart), a man whose dreams of a good life are about to be shattered in a financial scandal. As disaster looms, the film shows what Bailey's life has been like, the way he has helped others even when it meant putting aside his own ambition. As personal disgrace looms, an angel in training named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to help Bailey, which includes showing what things would be like if Bailey had never lived — that he has indeed had a wonderful life.

The cast, which also includes Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, is perfect. People who think of the movie as a sugar cookie of a holiday treat have missed the tougher side of the story. Even in its happy ending, the movie does not ignore the real world; Bailey may have survived one crisis, but the tough times around him have not changed. Yet, the power of its belief in the goodness of most people is eternal, year after year.

Rich Heldenfels is a staff writer for the Akron Beacon Journal.

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