Not since old man Potter stole $8000 from Uncle Billy and the Savings & Loan has poor George Bailey had to deal with so much misfortune on Christmas Eve. At least, that’s what I thought when I was skimming PlutoTV last night and discovered, to my horror, that the version of It’s a Wonderful Life streaming on the service’s 24-hour channel dedicated solely to that movie has an alternate score. Indeed, Dimitri Tiomkin’s classic score has been replaced by a new score that sounds like it was lifted out of a Hallmark holiday movie. No, scratch that. That’s not fair to Hallmark movies. It sounds like the kind of score you’d hear in a Canadian Hallmark rip-off or something on the Great American Family Network. And that’s not it. The movie also has a new title, A Wonderful Life, and the credits claim it’s based on “a story by Charles Dickens.” WTF? For the record, It’s a Wonderful Life has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. It’s based on a short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. I tapped out after 10 minutes, but if anyone else happened to suffer through more of this bastardization, then by all means, let us know in the comments.
So what gives? It comes down to a rights issue. One of the interesting things about It’s a Wonderful Life is that the film was a notorious flop when it came out in January of 1947. Audiences at the time, perhaps reeling from the fallout of WW2, were more interested in film noir than an upbeat Christmas movie (albeit one with a heavy dose of noir-inspired melancholy worked in), stayed away, and the film sunk into obscurity. It was put out by a short-lived company, Liberty Films, founded by the movie’s director, Frank Capra, but it went under, and Capra’s career never recovered. Most of the company’s films lapsed into public domain, including It’s a Wonderful Life. Oddly, that was the movie’s salvation, as TV networks could show the film for free whenever they wanted to. It became constantly shown around the holidays beginning in the seventies, and that’s how it became a holiday staple.
Eventually, Republic Pictures (now owned by Paramount) could resecure the copyright because while the film elements were no longer protected by copyright, the musical score was. Thus, while still being shown by networks like NBC (who are still showing the legit version), the movie was no longer free to air. However, some ad-supported streaming services who don’t want to shell out big bucks for the streaming rights have found a way around this legal loophole by (badly) muting the score by Dimitri Tiomkin and replacing it with a cheap new version.
To me, this is nothing short of artistic vandalism. It makes a movie that’s distinctly not cheesy or cheap come off that way, and places like Pluto should not be allowed to do this as it trashes the original film’s legacy and sets a bad precedent. Studios are better at protecting the copyright of their movies than they were back in the forties, but there are a lot of classic films from that area in the public domain, and God forbid they get the same treatment.
Luckily, the version of It’s A Wonderful Life available on good old physical media (or for purchase through digital retailers) is the real deal. So do yourselves a favour and skip this Pluto TV bastardization (also showing on TubiTV and Roku in the States) in favour of the legit version.