Frank Capra: An All-American Boy?

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Throughout November and December, BFI Southbank will revisit the career of Frank Capra, one of mid-century Hollywood’s most influential directors. BFI programmer and Time Out contributing editor Geoff Andrew explains why it’s time to revisit the landmark career of the director of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘It Happened One Night’.

From the mid-’30s, when ‘It Happened One Night’ won all the major Oscars, until the end of World War II (during which he’d produced the ‘Why We Fight’ series of propaganda films), Frank Capra was arguably the most popular and the most highly regarded of all Hollywood directors.

A Sicilian immigrant who’d worked his way up the Tinseltown ladder – he’d started as a gag-writer for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett and then directed silent comedian Harry Langdon’s two finest features before becoming the most successful of Harry Cohn’s helmers at Columbia – he hit upon what later became known as the ‘Capracorn’ formula with ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ (1936).

Mixing folksily eccentric comedy with populist political parable, movies like ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ (1938), ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939) and ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941) found favour by suggesting, a touch over-optimistically, that a single, ordinary honest Joe could triumph over all the bad apples in big business, politics and other establishment areas: music to the ears of audiences emerging from the Great Depression. Moreover, just after the war, Capra made a movie that became one of the most popular of all time. Even though ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) was a box-office disappointment on release in 1947, it remains – despite its sombre study of progressive compromise and disenchantment – a seasonal favourite to this day.

Yet Capra’s standing is nowhere near as high now as it was even in the ’70s. That’s partly because of a backlash against his more well-known movies, with critics complaining of naive sentimentality and a penchant for demagogic sermonising. But it’s also, undoubtedly, a consequence of the sad fact that so many of his films are seldom screened. True, some of them are regularly seen on television – but his earlier work, with the exception, perhaps, of the atypical ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ (1933), is unfamiliar to all but the most assiduous students of Hollywood during the first few years of the ‘talkies’.

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Which is a pity. Yes, Capra’s cornball fables are marred by his apparently unswerving faith in the benevolent tyranny of the conformist masses. But we should not ignore his sense of a strong story, his skill with actors, his eye for telling details or his feeling for dialogue. All those virtues are also to be found in the rash of films he made – often at the rate of two or three a year – at the start of the sound era, before he found his vocation as the righteous (albeit often very funny) champion of the little people.

Happily, many of the early Capra films have been gloriously restored in recent years, so our BFI Southbank season will set the record straight. There’s no need to exaggerate his greatness: if one surveys his career in its entirety (and the ’50s films were disappointing compared to their predecessors), he could never be said to be the artistic equal of masters like Hawks, Ford, Sternberg, Welles or Hitchcock. But he was, likewise undoubtedly, one of the most important and influential directors as movies made their faltering shift from silence to sound.

Mention early talkies, and people think of static, stagey compositions, stilted dialogue, slow acting and so on. See an early Capra, however, and likely as not there’s speedy action, a mobile camera and mobile actors, and plenty of pacy, racy talk. ‘Flight’ (1929) and ‘Dirigible’ (1931) are exciting adventure pics notable for their aerial sequences; ‘American Madness’ (1932, and which I myself have yet to see) is by all accounts a superbly designed and shot movie about failing banks (!); while many of Capra’s other early movies benefit no end from having as their star a young Barbara Stanwyck (with whom he had an affair and to whom, in vain, he proposed marriage). Stanwyck contributed some of her most seductive and subtle work to ‘Ladies of Leisure’ (1930), ‘The Miracle Woman’ (1931, a terrific exposé of evangelism), ‘Forbidden’ (1932, a searing melodrama we’re reviving in a run) and the sexily Sternbergian ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’, so that the films – now almost 80 years old – still feel strangely modern.

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Capra understood not only  the value of talk but intonation – a key to the success of Clark Gable’s gruff working-class bonhomie laying siege to Claudette Colbert’s heiress in ‘It Happened One Night’ and to the drawling ‘ordinariness’ of Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper battling confidently upper-crust Claude Rains or Edward Arnold in the later pictures. Long before  Tarantino, Capra also saw the value of the right dialogue delivered at the right speed by the right voices. And he also grasped that good talk was best complemented by colourful but credible characters caught up in fresh, fast-moving narratives set in a familiar world.
The inventiveness and energy of Capra’s finest work remain undimmed; no wonder so many of today’s genre films – be they romantic comedies or action movies, melodramas  or exposés of injustice – remind us that he got there first.

Author: Geoff Andrew



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