“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Frank Capra’s now-beloved classic, his first post-war film, only reached its current status decades after release when it left copyright and became a staple on TV networks. It’s a Wonderful Life falls into the cadre of films set at Christmas but not really about the holiday, despite the film’s structure serving as an inversion of A Christmas Carol — George Bailey is a generous man who, in a fit of suicidal despair, needs to be shown by an angel how much worse off the town would be without him. This could easily have been saccharine but James Stewart deftly portrays George as a charming dreamer who struggles against his familial duty and is frustrated by his inability to escape his hometown. His idealism in supporting regular folk, pitted against the avaricious mogul Henry Potter, sets a moral tone without browbeating the audience. Although remembered for its final act, much of the film’s strength lies in seeing George’s earlier years, including his slowly blossoming romance with Mary — it is evident though unspoken that George’s reluctance lies in the fear that she will be another anchor tying him down to the town wants to leave. It’s a Wonderful Life is deservedly a classic, and one that remains every bit as enchanting today.
“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part.’ Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
The quickfire repartee between Grant and Russell is a delight as the newspaper editor tries to win back his ex-wife and top reporter before her imminent wedding. The subtext about clinging on to a former lover is questionable, but Walter Burns is plainly a manipulative and duplicitous man and — despite all of Cary Grant’s charm — Hildy Johnson is fully aware of this, recognising his machinations sometimes more swiftly than the audience. Agency always rests with Hildy and whether she is truly ready to give up her career, toxic as it may be. The press room can at times devolve into a scripted cacophony that is impossible to follow, but the other newspaper men are really just a backdrop in order to demonstrate Hildy’s superiority both as a journalist and as a human being. The opening credits include a pointed dig at the press, noting that these depictions are historic and of course bear no resemblance to journalists any longer; 80 years later, it is even starker that the ever shortening news cycle has only increased the extent to which having a story is prized over the truth. His Girl Friday does, however, make one wistful for a time when the press were actually capable of holding mendacious politicians to account.