The cinema’s champion of the everyman, Frank Capra lived out his own American dream and nightmare. Following the example of his resourceful, hard working parents the Sicilian-born immigrant toiled behind the scenes for years in Hollywood before finally carving a niche for himself as a director at the relatively late age of thirty. Though Capra soon reached the top of his profession he never felt secure, zealously fighting the penny-pinching and sadistic Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn for better and more prestigious projects. Having one foot placed on the outside of society couldn’t help but give Capra a unique perspective on what made his adopted country tick.
The great Capra films examine the delicate infrastructure of communities and how dangerously close they come to being shattered beyond repair. Certain critics have labeled his work as “Capra-corn”, winking at the sentimentality and dismissing the disturbing and panicky subtext. Seen today, Capra’s famous happy endings come as a source of relief instead of a Hollywood rite of passage. With Capra there is always more than meets the eye and what is revealed is not always pretty.
Capra graduated from the university which would later become California Institute of Technology in 1918. He drifted through a series of dead-end jobs before spending a hitch in the army in the waning months of the First World War. After the armistice Capra moved to San Francisco where he was given the opportunity to direct his first film, Fultah Fischer’s Boarding House. Based on a Rudyard Kipling poem about knife fight between two men over a woman in a seedy Calcutta bar, Fultah is raw and relatively minor, but it was competent enough to turn a tidy profit for its investors.
After spending a year learning his trade as a film editor Capra returned to Los Angeles where he found work writing gags for the Hal Roach studios. In time, Capra moved over to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio beginning a fruitful and fateful collaboration with the baby-faced silent comedian Harry Langdon.
After working on some two dozen scenarios, including Langdon’s first major hit Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (directed by Harry Edwards) Capra finally got his first crack directing the star in a feature, The Strong Man. Where Edwards tended to indulge Langdon’s penchant for milking the audience’s sympathy for his childlike tramp, Capra did a much better job ingratiating Harry into tightly-woven action going far to establish his reputation as a classic silent clown.
While not quite on the level of the best of Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, The Strong Man and their second collaboration Long Pants are wonderful near-classics made by a novice already possessing great filmmaking chops. Having been trained in the knockabout Sennett and Roach schools, Capra’s Langdon films are crisp works of comedy with a decided edge. Instead of merely letting Langdon’s deadpan expressions and slow-burn takes dictate the flow, Capra brings subjectivity to the narrative with Expressionistic overhead shots and surreal point of view sequences, adding a much-needed dose of absurdity to Harry’s plight.
Envisioning himself as the new Chaplin, Langdon soon chose to stray from the formula that made him a star to direct himself in a series of largely humorless flops effectively killing his career in Hollywood. Out of Langdon’s orbit, Capra signed on as a contract director at the lowly Columbia Studios where a great future beckoned.
Like so many of the studio moguls, Harry Cohn had a bit of the showman in him. A former vaudevillian and agent for local songwriters, Harry and his brother Jack formed Columbia Pictures in the early 1920s. By the end of the decade the Cohns’ fledgling empire was not as prodigious or profitable as MGM, Paramount, or First National (Warner Brothers) but it was attracting much attention in the industry.
Harry was also creating a reputation for himself as a crude despot but one willing to take a chance on the bright, idealistic graduate from Cal Tech. Cohn hired Capra to make B-movies for $1000 per picture and the young director began to turn out films at a remarkable clip. Saddled with mostly mediocre lead performers and tight budgets, Capra still managed to turn out several slick entertainments in a variety of genres.
The snappy and smart That Certain Thing chronicles the trials and tribulations of a young couple forced to fend for themselves after the groom’s father cuts his son (Ralph Graves) out of the family fortune because he rightly suspects his daughter in-law (Viola Dana) is a gold digger.
The Matinee Idol is a genuinely funny comedy about popular minstrel performer Don Wilson (Johnnie Walker) who skips out of town when his fame gets to be too much. While on holiday he joins a hopelessly amateurish acting troupe with a delectable leading lady Ginger Bolivar (Bessie Love). Don does little to distinguish himself on stage or in Ginger’s eyes but his Broadway producer thinks their bombastic Civil War drama is the stuff of comic gold.
The Way of the Strong is a surprisingly hard-boiled bootlegging saga with two rival gangsters trying to gain control over local turf and a couple of dames. In the tradition of Howard Hawks Submarine is an effective buddy picture with two friends (Jack Holt and Ralph Graves) at loggerheads over a peach of a girl (Dorothy Reiver).
Looking to tap into the booming popularity of the tabloids The Power of the Press is a fast-paced comedy/drama about cub reporter Clem Rogers (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who tries to retract his big scoop to win the heart of the girl whose reputation he destroyed. After getting fired from the newspaper, Clem sets out to solve the murder of a district attorney and clear the girl’s name in the process. Filled with rich characterizations, exciting car chases, and snappy humor, The Power of the Press was Capra’s best film since Long Pants leaving the young director primed to take on his studio’s next big obstacle.
Unlike many directors at the major studios (MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount & Fox), Capra’s experience in shooting on the cheap gave him the flexibility needed to adjust to making a sound film. His early talkies are certainly among the most spontaneously-acted films of the period (1929-31) and, if one can look beyond the melodramatic scenarios, they remain strong entertainments, as well.
The Younger Generation is a rags to riches soaper based on a story by Fannie Hurst. Shot as a partial talkie with silent and sound sequences YG turns out to be rather moving early example of Capra’s keen sense of family. Morris Goldfish (Ricardo Cortez) is a successful but insensitive Jewish businessman who uproots his father Julius (Jean Hersholt), mother Tilda and sister Birdie (Lina Basquette) from their Lower East Side home to his immaculate Park Avenue apartment.
Separated from his old friends and none too impressed with Morris’ fancy-schmancy “Italian tomb”, Julius finds solace with Birdie who also disapproves of her brother’s social-climbing. When Morris banishes Birdie for marrying her convicted boyfriend, Julius escapes back to Delancey Street where he learns he has become a grandfather. Already damaged in spirit, Julius finally dies. Disappointed in her beloved son’s behavior Tildie moves in with her daughter and son in-law, leaving Morris alone in his empty mansion to contemplate his empty life.
Next up, Capra and Cohn re-teamed Submarine co-stars Jack Holt and Ralph Graves in Flight, another male bonding picture about a flight instructor and his student who is lacking in confidence. Two years later the stars would face-off again in Capra’s most ambitious and exciting project to date Dirigible, in which Holt plays the navy captain of a blimp and Graves a daredevil pilot both engaged in a friendly race to the South Pole.
After Jack Bradon (Holt) crashes his dirigible to save the lives of his crew it’s up to Frisky Pierce (Graves) to finish the race. Once over their destination, Frisky foolishly tries to land the plane on the hard ice surface and after the inevitable crash Pierce and his crew are left on the frozen tundra, hundreds of miles away from food and shelter. Bradon finally gets permission to pilot his blimp in an equally dangerous flight to save the stranded men.
Making impressive use of miniatures and shooting under less than optimum conditions, Capra showed he had few peers in Hollywood as a director of spectacle and could easily have carved- out a career making entertaining adventure epics.
By the early 1930s Capra was Columbia’s golden boy but recognition still didn’t always translate into aesthetically pleasing projects. For the most part Cohn was perfectly happy with the low-cost, high-end potboilers Capra was making and had no immediate plans to give his star director an A-movie with big stars. Fortunately, Cohn did have a talented young actress from Brooklyn under contract and Capra soon began a long and fruitful collaboration with the woman who would turn out to be his most emblematic leading lady.
In Ladies of Leisure Barbara Stanwyck plays Kay Arnold, a call girl hired by a rich young artist to be his model. But much to Kay’s chagrin Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) doesn’t seem to be interested in her until he finally inspires her to strike the hopeful pose which will turn her portrait into a work of art. Sensing Jerry is falling in love with this girl of ill-repute his father arranges for him to marry a young woman of his class.
Before lapsing into maudlin melodrama, Ladies of Leisure is a refreshingly risqué film highlighted by snappy Jo Swerling dialog delivered with knowing cynicism by Stanwyck and Jerry’s partner in crime Lowell Sherman. For their next film together, Capra and Stanwyck finally got material worthy of their maturing talent.
Based on a play by future screenwriter and Capra’s favorite collaborator Robert Riskin, The Miracle Woman is a no-holds-barred slam at popular evangelism, in particular the notorious Aimee Semple McPherson. Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck), an embittered daughter of a dead minister, is recruited by the flim-flam man Hornsby (Sam Hardy) into opening her own tabernacle the “Temple of Happiness” to revenge herself against her father’s hypocritical congregation and shake down the hoi-polloi.
Florence is redeemed by the love of a handsome blind composer for whom she is ready to give up her lucrative career but Hornsby has other ideas. After overcoming the evil of her ways, Florence finds love and salvation in the ashes of her empire. The maudlin romance notwithstanding this explosive film went a long way in anticipating the scary mob-rule theatrics in Capra and Riskin’s Meet John Doe and Richard Brooks’ fire and brimstone masterwork Elmer Gantry.
The deeply felt “woman’s picture” Forbidden features Stanwyck as Lulu Smith, a small town librarian who risks everything to carry on a romance with an older man she met on a pleasure cruise to Havana. She moves to the big city to be closer to Bob Grover (Adolphe Menjou) but she soon learns her beloved is married to an invalid he cannot divorce.
Lulu gets a job at a newspaper and strikes up a friendship with a muck-raking editor (Ralph Bellamy) who falls in love with her. Not wishing to sidetrack Grover’s political career, Lulu breaks off with him and quits her job to give birth to their child. Grover tracks Lulu down and they resume their affair until the newspaperman catches them with the child and threatens to expose Grover as a fraud.
Capra’s weepies lacked the conviction of the women’s films John Stahl was making at Universal Studios, but it was becoming apparent the filmmaker from Poverty Row could direct adult-themed fare with humor, pathos and sophistication. Impressed by the box office returns, Harry Cohn began to heed his boy wonder’s pleas for better stories, more expensive budgets, and the occasional star or two from outside studios to help turn Capra’s unique brand of pixie dust into cinema magic.
1931 proved to be a watershed year for Capra for it was the time when his unique, populist filmmaking style finally came all together. While his early work was always drenched in humanism Capra was too often subservient to their hackneyed plots and turgid scenarios. Even impartial viewers could not help but get the feeling this director was uncomfortable with mere genre flicks and there was a voice and vision itching to burst out from behind the bland facades.
Capra found his metier as a chronicler of the Everyman—and woman—who pledges to carry on during the hard times of the Great Depression. Capra’s heroes were ne’er do wells and dreamers who bucked convention and weren’t obsessed with the almighty dollar. His villains were easy targets for 1930s movie audiences to loathe; old money aristocrats, penny-pinching bureaucrats and ruthless businessmen.
The first Capra film to fit neatly into this template was Platinum Blonde. Based on a screenplay by the gifted Jo Swerling with dialogue by Riskin, it is tale of the rich and working classes in which hard-boiled newspaperman, and would-be playwright, Stew Smith (Robert Williams) infiltrates the home of the rich Schuyler family to get a juicy society story.
After tricking their lawyer into spilling the goods, Stew charms their spoiled but sexy daughter, Anne (Jean Harlow). Their whirlwind romance leads to a surprise elopement but pampered living doesn’t agree with “The Cinderella Man” and soon Stew is back hobnobbing with his fellow reporters and artistic friends. Anne takes a dim view of Stew’s pals, especially his chum Gallagher (Loretta Young) who happens to be quite the dish.
A bacchanal at the Schuyler mansion splits up the mismatched couple and forces the bird in the guilded cage to finally take a good, long look at the regular girl who has always stood by his side.
Capra’s next project American Madness addressed the desperation of the times in a big and frightening way. The story’s ambivalent hero, bank president Tom Dickson (Walter Huston) placates a nervous public during the panic of 1932. Dickson seems a tower of strength at the crumbling bank but when an inside scandal involves head teller Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien), an ex-con he personally appointed, Dickson loses heart and is ready to let the bank close.
Just as the nation’s economy melts down and Dickson’s customers rush the bank several local businessmen come to his rescue—an act of community benevolence Capra would revive fourteen years later in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Along with two other products of Hollywood studio products of paranoia and pessimism, Gabriel Over The White House (Gregory La Cava) and A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage), Capra’s nervous take on a country mired in crisis gives rise to the idea his adopted home may indeed been on the brink of anarchy.
Capra was beginning to hit his stride as a voice of the Little People when he accepted Cohn’s assignment to The Bitter Tea of General Yen, an exotic Sterbergian romance between a young New England missionary and a cruel but dashing Chinese Warlord.
Idealistic Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in chaotic Shanghai to marry her boyfriend doctor. When her rickshaw driver is run over by a car, she is repulsed by the curious lack of remorse from General Yen (Nils Asther), whose vehicle had caused the accident. Later that evening, after helping rescue several orphans from advancing renegades and certain death, Megan is separated from her fiance then nearly killed by an out of control crowd.
She wakes up on a train to find Yen is taking her out of harm’s way to his palace. But, in reality, Megan’s timely rescue is only the first act of seduction on the part of the handsome general. Yen installs Megan in a luxurious room in his palace but her idyll is torn asunder by the sound of firing squads outside. When Megan learns Yen’s mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) is destined to be shot for spilling secrets to the general’s enemy, she pleads successfully for the lowly servant’s life.
Intrigued by her sophisticated captor, Megan continues to make misguided attempts to reform Yen but, ultimately, she comes to understand depths of the man’s love for her. Yen’s soon empire collapses and he commits suicide leaving his mercenary money man (Walter Connelly) to suggest the mysterious General will always be the love of Megan’s life.
Easily Capra’s most poetic and erotic film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen ages better than director’s New Age take on the old Orient, The Lost Horizon. Where Robert Conway’s quest for soul healing and self-knowledge drives him back to a Shangri-La sequestered from the rest of the big bad world, Megan overcomes her puritan prejudices to blossom into womanhood and ready to take on all the slings and arrows hurled her way.
Based on a story by that great scribe of the streets, Damon Runyon, Lady for a Day is a Manhattan fairy tale where the homeless rub elbows with good-natured cops, big-hearted gangsters, and hopelessly corrupt politicians.
Street peddler Apple Annie (May Robson) finds herself in a desperate situation when her daughter, who has no idea her mother is destitute, writes she is coming to New York with her Spanish fiancé and his aristocratic father. Luckily, Annie has a guardian angel in the superstitious mobster Dave the Dude (Warren William) who won’t place a bet or make a “business” decision until he buys an apple from her.
The Dude sets Annie up in a friend’s luxury apartment as a Grand Dame of Society then kidnaps nosy newspapermen to keep the arrival of the noble Spaniards out of the headlines. After learning Annie’s future in-laws expect to be introduced to The City’s social set Dude arranges for his motley band of gangsters and molls to pose as the elite of the Big Apple at a reception for the happy couple. Suspicious of the Dude’s intentions the police arrest him but he successfully pleads Annie’s case to the mayor and governor leading to a rapturous, hard-won finale.
Standing out in a sea of colorful performances Robson gives the film it’s emotional wallop early on when, alone in her dingy apartment and swigging on a fifth of gin, Annie finds the wherewithal to compose a tender bit of fiction in a letter to a daughter she has never met and unlikely to ever lay eyes upon. The well-polished and extremely likeable Lady For a Day set the table for Capra’s golden era of filmmaking.
Capra’s breakthrough film It Happened One Night is one of the most original and appealing screwball comedies. The Riskin-penned screenplay (based on Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams) was just the sort of battle of the classes material that most appealed to Capra. The fluky casting of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert was the stuff of Hollywood legend and their onscreen chemistry helped catapult the heiress on the run hijinks into one of the more erotically-charged comedies ever produced in Hollywood.
Ellie Andrews (Colbert), a spoiled society girl, escapes from her family’s yacht in Miami and boards a bus to New York where she plans to marry her blue blood fiance, King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Unfortunately, savvy newspaperman Peter Warne (Gable) is sharing the seat next to her. In return for his silence, she offers to give him the scoop on her marriage. Pete and Ellie pose as a married couple in order to avoid detection. Sparks fly during a tense night spent together in a hotel room and Ellie soon finds she is falling in love with this irritating man.
Nearing their final destination, Ellie declares herself to the surprised reporter who coldly turns her down. When she finds Pete has abandoned her the next day, a resigned Ellie goes on with her own wedding plans with King Westley. In actuality, Pete has returned to New York to write the story of his romance with Ellie and collect a fee from his editor so he can marry the rebellious heiress.
Pete learns of Ellie’s intentions and he arranges to meets with her father (Walter Connelly), not to collect the reward for her return but to present a small bill for services rendered. Suspecting his daughter was still in love with the upright reporter Andrews convinces Ellie to leave King at the altar and run to Pete’s waiting arms.
A master of scripted spontaneity, Capra made the film’s most famous scenes (the bus sing-along, the hitchhiking pick-up, and the erecting of the “Walls of Jericho”) appear as if they were all unrehearsed and shot in one take. The film’s Academy Award winning success turned the boy wonder from Poverty Row into a true prince of Hollywood.
Sticking with this winning formula Capra brought Walter Connelly back to play another capitalist mogul whose spoiled daughters make the mistake in falling for a man with an independent streak in Broadway Bill.
Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter) attempts to make a go of it as an executive manufacturer of shoe boxes to please his wife Margaret (Helen Wilson) and father in-law J.L. Higgins (Connelly). But Dan has no nose for business and his true passion is horse racing and the thoroughbred he wants to enter in The Imperial Derby. When Dan tells J.L, he is quitting the firm to enter Broadway Bill in the race he is surprised to learn Margaret has no interest in joining him on this mad folly. Dan can’t come up with the $500 to enter the race but with the help of J.L.’s more spirited daughter Alice (Myrna Loy) they raise the needed cash.
Having already battled lack of resources and the elements, Dan and Alice are unaware they have an even more daunting enemies in the local bookies who have banded together to throw the big race to another horse. Bill’s big heart wins then gives out leaving Dan to pick up the pieces of his shattered dream. Much to the delight of J.L. Dan rescues his Princess from the gloomy Higgins castle and they begin anew with two thoroughbreds bought with Bill’s winnings.
Based on a story by another New York scribe Mark Hellinger, Broadway Bill is the sort of sweet-tempered romp Capra could churn out in his sleep. But coming on the heels of the fresh and sexy It Happened One Night, Bill comes off as a disappointment. Perhaps owing to the newly installed Production Code, Capra’s future films steered away from the adult themes he explored and exploited in Night. But it’s more likely Capra chose a different path, delving into more topical and universal themes in which his boy-men could truly “glimpse the eternal”.
The populist classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town borrows freely from earlier Capra-Riskin collaborations, especially Platinum Blonde, but its Cinderella Man turns out to be less worldly yet wiser than Stew Smith.
Greeting card poet Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) leads an uncomplicated life in Mandrake Falls, Vermont until the day he is contacted by a firm of New York lawyers who inform him he is heir to his late uncle’s estate and $20 million. Deeds follows the lawyers back to the Big Apple and sets up house in his uncle’s austere mansion.
Meanwhile, a muckraking newspaper editor (George Bancroft) assigns his ace reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) to get the goods on Deeds. Posing as a small town girl, Babe gains confidence of the sweet-tempered rube and follows him around Manhattan, reporting on his buffoonish escapades. Tired of being taken for a fool Deeds decides to set up an ambitious co-operative in which he will give all his money to the nation’s needy farmers.
When Deeds’ greedy lawyers learn of his plans, they have him arrested and brought to court where he will be railroaded into being declared insane. Guilt-stricken, Babe rallies to Deeds’ cause and with cheering encouragement from the legion of farmers, the tuba-playing millionaire finally defends himself in a most uncanny fashion.
Capra’s most socially-conscious film Deeds pandered to his audience, presenting the rich as grasping and decadent while those little people who just want to be able to put food on the table are canonized by an adoring camera. But, as these faces are so memorable, the characterizations so vivid, and the film so well-acted, it’s hard to quibble about the choices of its creator.
Capra and Riskin had seemingly found their niche, which would make their follow-up project to Deeds a most curious choice. The unabashedly romantic Lost Horizon opens on a chaotic airstrip where British diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is seen escaping from war-torn China with a band of countrymen. Upon waking the next morning, the passengers find their airplane has been hijacked to a remote outpost in the Himalayas. Along with four other social misfits (including the delightful Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell), Conway is led to a fantastic settlement called Shangri-La where everyone lives in harmony to a ripe old age.
The dashing Brit strikes up a romance with Sondra (Jane Wyatt), a teacher instrumental in convincing the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) to bring Conway to this peculiar paradise. The ancient Lama informs Conway he is ready to die and hopes the idealistic Brit will take over for him. Conway is sold on the idea but gives pause when he realizes he may have difficulty in convincing his anxious brother George (John Howard) and companions to remain in Shangri-La.
The lies of a discontented native (Margo) convinces Conway to escape with George and her to the nearest outpost, some five hundred miles away. George and the woman die on the treacherous journey but Conway is rescued only to disappear again into the Tibetan mountains in search of his lost paradise.
As long as one resists applying modern mores to Lost Horizon it can be a joy to watch. The high-flown concept of an idyllic, Euro-centric community tucked away from war and pestilence in the mountains of Asia reeks of the middle-brow exoticism of the 1930s. The searching and unsullied Conway fits the mold of the Capra populist hero, but Ronald Colman’s mature presence is a refreshing change of pace from the director’s favored boy-men.
James Stewart began his fruitful collaboration as the quintessential Capra everyman in the defanged version of the Kauffman-Hart Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You. Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the conscientious son of stuffy venture capitalist Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) who is ruthlessly buying up lots on a city block where he can build a munitions factory.
The elder Kirby is blocked by the non-conformist Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) who lives in a house on the lot with his eccentric family. His granddaughter Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) also happens to be Tony’s fiancee, but when the enamored pair arranges a meeting of the future in-laws at the Vandefhof home chaos erupts and both clans end up in the hoosegow.
More than any other film in the director’s canon You Can’t Take It With You is awash in Capra-corn. Yet, the refreshing, anarchic spirit (led by Mischa Auer) in the Vanderhof home keeps things from getting too syrupy sweet and in his first role as Capra villain extraordinaire Arnold adds some much-needed gravitas.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington marked two significant departures for Capra; it would be his last film at Columbia and it was the first time the director had not worked with Robert Riskin since General Yen. As a fish out of water tale Mr. Smith (written by Sidney Buchanan) bears much similarity to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and would turn out to be one of Capra’s most mature visions of his adopted country.
The son of a crusading newspaper editor and leader of the Boy Rangers Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is selected to take the place of a recently deceased U.S. Senator. But, in reality, Jeff is only a pawn for the senior senator and future presidential candidate Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and the true power behind the throne, corrupt business tycoon James Taylor (Edward Arnold).
After being shown up as a fool in his rocky introduction to Washington D.C. Jeff is encouraged by mentor Paine to introduce a bill for a Boys Camp. With the help of his cynical assistant Saunders (Jean Arthur) he innocently chooses a site along a creek which has been already bought up by Taylor for graft. When Taylor learns of Jeff’s ambitious plan he puts the squeeze on Paine to defame the junior senator.
Once Jeff is set to be expelled from the Senate Saunders encourages him to filibuster to get publicity for his cause. Taylor unleashes his political machine in an effort to block Jeff’s message, but after watching the junior senator hold the floor for twenty-four hours Paine finally cracks and the exhausted Jeff is carried out in triumph.
Capra makes brilliant use of the reconstructed Senate chamber, and through expert cutting creates incredible tension between the warring Senators. Both the dogged Stewart and the weary Rains are electrifying, and Arthur gives one of her most nuanced and tender performances as the hard-boiled Beltway lifer who melts under the glow of her boss’ sincerity.
All the hard-fought victories in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would seem like distant memories by the time Capra filmed his next collaboration with Riskin, the apocalyptic Meet John Doe.
As part of a shake-up at a local city newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid-off by an incoming editor (James Gleason) hired by a corporate magnate (Edward Arnold) with political ambitions. Bitter, Ann fabricates her last column inventing John Doe, an angry voice of the people, who vows to throw himself off the roof of the newspaper’s building on Christmas Eve. The column is a hit and Ann is given her job back with the provision she hires a man who fits the John Doe bill and milks the story for all it is worth.
Washed-up bush league pitcher John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is chosen from a lot of miscreants and quickly warms to the task and Ann herself. But when the magnate D.B. Norton turns Doe’s success into a platform for his totalitarian political party, Willoughby decides to show Norton up for what he really is. An angry Norton uses his media machine to tear down John Doe and, in despair, Willoughby seeks to make good on Doe’s Christmas Eve promise to the public.
Fascinating on many fronts Meet John Doe falters, oddly enough, when it switches gears from nihilistic to humanistic. Decidedly not a reformer, Willoughby is more comfortable in a boxcar, playing harmonica with his chum the Colonel (Walter Brennan) than leading a “Love Thy Neighbor” movement and Ann Mitchell’s transformation from cynical bread-winner to Doe’s idealistic scriptwriter is a huge leap of faith.
While the John Doe movement and the staging of the political rallies are impressive showpieces of big cinema, they finally ring hollow. Not surprisingly, it is Edward Arnold’s calculating tycoon with the iron fist who steals the movie with yet another subtle, menacing performance.
Soon after Japanese bombers massacred Pearl Harbor Capra accepted a post with the Signal Corp for the Allied effort. Before reporting for to General George Marshall for duty Capra rushed to finish shooting a film version of Joseph Kesselring’s hit play Arsenic and Old Lace for Warner Brothers.
Armed with the brilliant Julius and Philip Epstein to write the screenplay, Cary Grant to play marriage-phobic Mortimer Brewster and a supporting cast of noted scene-stealers, Capra took a wild and wooly slant on the macabre play. Boris Karloff played the serial-killer brother Jonathan during its smash Broadway run but the inside jokes alluding to his Frankenstein-like mask are lost here since the screen role had been taken on by stiff Raymond Massey.
While the frantic pace and Grant’s incessant mugging suffocates the dark subtext of the play, Arsenic and Old Lace is still a lot of fun to watch, even if it isn’t first rate Capra.
For the next four years Capra dutifully served during the War as a head of production for the excellent Why We Fight series, propaganda films which went far to boost the morale of troops and the American public during the darkest years of WWII.
Situated stateside with a crack team of professionals including director Anatole Litvak, editor William Hornbeck and musical conductor Alfred Newman heading his crew, Capra obtained a large archive of German and Japanese propaganda films and brilliantly inter-spliced footage into a seven separate narratives meant to inspire a military comprised of young men uprooted from their homes to fight on foreign soil.
Upon seeing the first of these films, Prelude to War, president Franklin D. Roosevelt arranged with film distributors to show these informative and inspiring “documentaries” in local theaters across the United States. While certain sequences in the Why We Fight films look mawkish and hawkish today the filmmakers deserved kudos for going way beyond the call in educating their audience about far away cultures and people, The Battle of Russia and The Battle of China being particular examples.
After Capra felt the string of criticism for relying on too much pre-shot footage, he flew to war-ravaged England to co-direct the compelling Tunisian Victory in a neo-realist style pinpointing the events of the Allied offensive in North Africa. Despite the warm reception the film got from military brass, Capra felt much resentment from his British collaborators who felt he had bowdlerized their original film beyond recognition.
As the war winded down Capra made the documentaries Know Your Enemy-Japan and Here Is Germany, didactic yet informative spins on the two Axis powers. Along with other A-list filmmakers (George Stevens, William Wyler, John Huston, John Ford, etc.) who shot stirring documentaries during the war Capra came back to Hollywood a different man. The horrible events and crimes he documented would color his next film.
Safely back in the States, Capra, Wyler and Stevens decided to roll the dice and form Liberty Films, a company which would make independent productions free from the meddling of Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn and the nickel and dime policies of the studio system.
Capra’s first film for Liberty It’s A Wonderful Life is his masterpiece and along with The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Sun Shines Bright, it is one of the great films about small town America. James Stewart as the responsible George Bailey, who never gets a chance to live out his dream of seeing the world, brilliantly fuses idealism and frustration in a transcendent screen performance.
For such a “feel good” classic the story is curiously bleak. As a child George goes deaf in one ear when he dives into an icy pond to save his brother’s life. When his father dies he has the family’s Building and Loan foisted upon him, at least until his younger brother returns from college to take up the business. His brother does return but with a rich bride in tow and great prospects which lie outside of Bedford Falls.
George settles for happy mediocrity but when he is finally ready to go on his honeymoon, the local bank fails and his nervous clients turn to him for survival. He and his new bride Mary (Donna Reed) dole out all of their own money to keep the Building and Loan afloat for another day. But it is only a matter of time before George’s family-run business collapses due to human foible and he is forced to turn to the conniving Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to cover his losses.
When a gleeful Potter turns George down and threatens to have him jailed, the film takes a sinister turn with George’s attempted suicide and the subsequent nightmarish vision of bucolic Bedford Falls transformed into a grim Pottersville. After George, and the audience, is cast into the deepest of hells, the grand finale takes on the delirium of a southern baptism in which the splendid cast basks in Stewart’s glow.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a rich, character-driven masterpiece and Capra finds the time to let each cast member be a star in their own right. It is the director’s ultimate statement about the importance of community. Bedford Falls isn’t far removed from Longfellow Deeds’ twee Mandrake Falls or even Robert Conway’s Shangri-La, but once George Bailey is granted his wish we find how easily paradise can be shattered. As fresh as the film feels today, It’s a Wonderful Life was already passé for 1946. Americans were moving away from small towns with white picket fences to the suburbs, where they could live in solitude without ever getting to know their neighbor.
After the lukewarm critical and public reception to It’s a Wonderful Life and the subsequent dissolution of his production company, Capra’s career never recovered. Like many of his early contemporaries in Hollywood the great populist seemed unable to adjust to the cynicism of the post-war era.
Ironically, the right-leaning Capra was under suspicion during the Hollywood witch hunt due to his collaborations with Riskin, the Epstein brothers and several other suspected “communist” writers who worked at Columbia. Capra would stain his reputation by disassociating himself from Riskin to save his career, but just as he was beginning to re-boot his filmmaking juices it became apparent the world had passed him by.
State of the Union is the last Capra film of real substance but it also marks the beginning of his decline. Based on a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse this talky political saga about a salt of the earth businessman Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) who compromises his beliefs in order to become Republican candidate in the 1948 presidential election, seems right up Capra’s alley.
Sponsored by his media magnate mistress Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), Matthews enlists wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) into the cause much to the consternation of his hard-boiled campaign chief Jim Conover (Adolph Menjou) who doesn’t approve of Mary’s idealism and her influence over Grant. As Matthews’ campaign picks up endorsements from business, labor and politicians it loses its soul and the public begins to question whether Grant is different from any other politico.
The film ends in a cathartic denouement typical of Capra, but this time the energy level is running on fumes and the feel-good populism doesn’t wash in a political arena full of empty promises. This filmmaker of the little man didn’t feel comfortable with the cynicism of Beltway compromise but, despite its faults, Capra infuses State of the Union with enough integrity and intelligence to make it one of more honest films about American politics and a fascinating portrait of events leading to Cold War.
Escalating costs and the lukewarm box office for his last two films prompted Capra to make the disastrous decision to sell his interests in Liberty and sign a three picture deal with Paramount. Capra quickly found his new employers had little use for his sort of big budget blockbuster and pressured him to find a property that would turn a quick profit.
Putting more ambitious projects on the back burner Capra made the curious decision to resurrect his 1934 feel-good fable Broadway Bill for his next film with Bing Crosby playing the faithful racehorse trainer Dan Brooks. Stripped of its predecessor’s Depression-era desperation, Riding High morphed into a Crosby-style entertainment replete with a zesty cast of characters, snappy songs and gentle comedy, as befit Der Bingle’s droll sense of humor.
Looking to get out of his Paramount contract as quickly as possible, Capra agreed to make Here Comes the Groom, another sweet-tempered comedy with Crosby.
Here, Bing plays Pete Garvey, a foreign correspondent for a Boston newspaper stationed in Paris. Rather than come home and marry his long-suffering fiancee Emmadel Jones (Jane Wyman) Pete spends most of his waking hours cultivating the friendship of orphans who lost their parents in the war. He finally accepts Emmadel’s ultimatum to return home and marry her, but not before he decides to adopt a pair of waifs and bring them to America.
While Pete spends months combing the countryside to find the children’s birth certificates, Emmadel gives up the ghost and gets engaged to a charming multi-millionaire Wilbur Stanley (Franchot Tone). Upon their arrival in Boston, Pete learns the dire news but as befits his never say die attitude he enlists Wilbur’s lovely distant cousin Winifred (Alexis Smith) to seduce Wilbur and help derail the wedding.
Here Comes the Groom can make for a perfectly pleasant way to while away an afternoon but the material hardly seemed worth the man who unleashed such uncompromising spirits as Longfellow Deeds, Robert Conway, Jefferson Smith and George Bailey upon the film-going public. After two films and three years on the Paramount lot, Capra parted ways with the studio leaving one of the icons of American film at a career crossroads.
By 1952 Capra and family had retreated to his desert spread one hundred miles south of Hollywood, finally free from the industry he had soured upon. After a goodwill trip to India, Capra accepted an offer from Bell Telephone to produce a series of educational scientific documentaries to be shown on CBS Television.
Four years in the making the resulting pieces on the Sun, blood, cosmic rays and the climate featured such talents as Eddie Albert, Mel Blanc, Richard Carlson, Lionel Barrymore, and Sterling Holloway and proved to be informative, far-seeing and entertaining takes on man’s plight on earth.
Capra’s implementation of clever animation into the films helped make the series a big hit with elementary school students for the next decade and helped lead to the realization of his final project Rendezvous in Space, filmed in conjunction with the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Even at this late date Capra, the student of science and filmmaker who helped millions keep their chins up during the Depression, was still finding wonder in the vast and glorious unknown.
Capra would return to Hollywood but his first feature film in eight years, the featherweight A Hole in the Head, proved a major disappointment. Armed with an A-list cast including Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Eleanor Parker, Thelma Ritter and Carolyn Jones, Capra still couldn’t infuse much life into this story about a widowed entrepreneur (Sinatra) who schemes to keep his Miami hotel while raising a young boy.
By shooting many sequences on locale Capra’s first color film has an eye-popping, picture postcard quality, but resignation permeates the whole production. Capra’s films had certainly always their share of darkness but his people had never seemed as defeated as they do here.
Perhaps sensing his gig was nearly up, Capra decided to do another spin on an early classic but rather than kowtow to his difficult star, the old lion reached deep into his bag of tricks and created his most enjoyable film in over a decade.
At first glance Pocketful of Miracles would seem another ill-advised remake of a Depression-era hit (Lady for a Day) but, unlike Riding High, Capra’s new film went whole hog in playing up sentiment and the marvelous supporting players (Peter Falk, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, Arthur O’Connell, Ann-Margret, etc.) create a world of communal comfort not seen since the director’s work since It’s a Wonderful Life.
According to Capra, co-producer and star Glenn Ford did no little damage to the production by meddling with the screenplay and pushing for the casting of his then-girlfriend Hope Lange in the role of Queenie Martin. It’s no surprise Ford and Lange prove to be the film’s weakest links. After some initial awkwardness in the role of Apple Annie Bette Davis gives a very warm performance as the hard-bitten, gin-swilling mother forced to sell apples in the streets of Manhattan to keep her daughter’s fairy-tale existence alive far away in Barcelona.
Even more so than its snappy predecessor, Pocketful of Miracles embraces it’s colorful, Runyon-esque roots making it feel like an enchanted fable. It seems fitting Capra capped a long career with a work of nostalgia set in the early days of the New Deal; a time when the fortunes of both rich and poor man had hit rock bottom but all eyes were still focused on the Prize.
Books on Capra:
The Name above the Title: An Autobiography ****1/2 America’s great populist paints a triumphant portrait of a poor young man from Sicily overcoming all odds in becoming one of the new world’s great filmmakers. Packed with rich dialogue and pithy insights, Capra’s rollicking memoir remains one of the most essential books on what it was like to work within the boundaries of the Hollywood studio system.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War – Mark Harris **** Picked by General George C. Marshall to head a unit to make the Why We Fight series for the fighting forces, Capra—much to his own personal and professional frustration—spent most of WWII in Washington functioning as a bureaucrat. Mark Harris’ spot-on take on Capra’s most difficult years takes the beloved filmmaker to task for his slippery politics and reactionary tendencies.
Frank Capra – Charles J. Maland **** One of the surprisingly few critical books on this major American director and it truly is a goody. Maland mixes biography and analysis in a deft manner giving us a very informed and tasteful take on the Capra oeuvre.
Frank Capra: Interviews – Leland Poague (ed.) **** This immensely readable bookend to Capra’s autobiography time and again reiterates his “One Man-One Film” philosophy and provides the evidence to back up that bold statement.
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success – Joseph McBride ***1/2 McBride, one of our very best film critic-historians, portrays Capra as a reactionary and terribly disturbed man—not a huge surprise, given the dark heart beating just below the sunny surfaces in so many of his films. As with McBride’s otherwise masterful Searching For John Ford: A Life, the spin on his subject’s politics leaves a sour taste and the unexpected loathing for Capra, the man, makes this well-researched tome tough to digest.
Feature Films by Capra:
1922 Fultah Fischer’s Boarding House ***
1926 Tramp, Tramp, Tramp ***1/2 (story by Capra, directed by Harry Edwards)
1926 The Strong Man ***1/2
1927 Long Pants ****
1928 That Certain Thing ***
1928 So This Is Love ***
1928 The Way of the Strong ***
1928 Submarine ***
1928 The Power of the Press ***1/2
1929 The Younger Generation ***1/2
1929 The Donovan Affair ***
1929 Flight ***
1930 Ladies of Leisure ***1/2
1930 Rain or Shine ***
1931 Dirigible ***1/2
1931 The Miracle Woman ***1/2
1931 Platinum Blonde ***1/2
1932 Forbidden ***1/2
1932 American Madness ***1/2
1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen ****
1933 Lady For a Day ****
1934 It Happened One Night ****
1934 Broadway Bill ***1/2
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ****
1937 Lost Horizon ***1/2
1938 You Can’t Take It With You ***1/2
1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ****
1941 Meet John Doe ****
1941 Arsenic and Old Lace ***1/2 (released in 1944)
1946 It’s a Wonderful Life *****
1948 State of the Union ****
1950 Riding High ***1/2
1951 Here Comes the Groom ***1/2
1959 A Hole in the Head ***1/2
1961 A Pocketful of Miracles ***1/2
Documentary and Television Films by Capra:
1942 Prelude to War ***1/2
1942 The Nazis Strike ***1/2 (w/Anatole Litvak)
1943 The Battle of Britain ***1/2 (w/Litvak)
1943 Divide and Conquer ***1/2 (w/Litvak)
1943 The Battle of Russia **** (w/Litvak)
1944 The Battle of China ***1/2 (w/Litvak)
1944 Tunisian Victory ***1/2 (w/Hugh Stewart & John Huston)
1945 War Comes to America ***1/2 (w/Litvak)
1945 Here Is Germany ***1/2
1945 Know Your Enemy: Japan ***1/2
1945 Two Down One to Go ***1/2
1956 Our Mr. Sun ***1/2
1957 Hemo the Magnificent ***1/2
1957 The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays ***1/2
1958 The Unchained Goddess ***1/2
1964 Rendezvous in Space ***1/2