It’s film director Frank Capra’s birthday. This post has come about because in recent years I’ve filled out my Capraducation some — I’ve seen a bunch of his more obscure movies from early and late in his career. Once you do that, Capra’s “voice” becomes more diffuse. It becomes harder to say what it is.
It’s become idiomatic: “A Frank Capra movie”. Most people think they know what they mean by the phrase, and the idea that they have, I’ll bet, is coherent. It’s based on a handful of his best known and best loved movies, which will generally consist of the Capra movies most people have seen, chiefly: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Nowadays, many would call It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite and I’ve even heard some ostensibly knowledgeable commentators call it the most representative Capra movie. I would have to disagree. In my book, the two most perfectly constructed distillations of the Capra Idea are Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith…the little guy going up against huge, apparently unbeatable and malevolent forces and winning. In the case of Mr. Deeds it’s an ethic of generosity vs. cynical greed. In Mr. Smith it’s the application of power towards the common good vs. power for its own sake. It would be hard for me to pick which is my favorite. Some days, the first, other days, the second.
At any rate, while the other films I just mentioned may come close to the ideal in philosophy and tone, they deviate in structure. The stage version of You Cant Take It With You was much different; Capra kind of wrestled it into a message picture he was more comfortable with for the screen version, and it’s a little inorganic. Meet John Doe is very dark; it lacks the affirmation we get from Deeds and Smith. There is an 11th hour reprieve in the film but it is a small one and we emerge full of doubt about the goodness of The People. It’s a Wonderful Life is also pretty dark; it’s about a man’s inner battle between his own self-interest and the sacrifices he makes for the good of those around him. It’s an excellent movie (Capra justifiably thought that it was his best) but I wouldn’t call it representative of the Capra Idea — that’s my point.
Still these are the five I would call the most Capraesque in that sense. Yet Capra made close to 40 Hollywood features, and another dozen or so documentary films and industrials besides. Most of these films are not “Frank Capra films” in the commonly used sense. Some come close: I’d have to include The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932), Platinum Blonde (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) and State of the Union (1948) in a slightly expanded circle, dealing as they do with fraudulence and values in America (most of them in the context of the Depression). He’s constantly asking, “What matters most in this world? Fame and riches? Or being a right guy?”
Some would argue that these themes grew out of his close professional relationship with screenwriter Robert Riskin, that they’re not “Capra” themes at all. That, too, is an open question.
I haven’t seen all of his films, but of the ones I’ve seen the remainder are quite a grab bag. There are his two silent comedy vehicles for Harry Langdon, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), generally conceded to be among the greatest of silent comedy features. (Capra got his start in silent comedy as a gag writer for Our Gang!) There’s the Joe Cook starring vehicle Rain or Shine (1930), also essentially a straight up “comedian comedy”. Dirigible (1931) is a fictional adventure story about a race to the South Pole in a hot air balloon. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Lost Horizon (1937) have (probably unintentional) racist overtones that seem to oddly point the way to his anti-Japanese propaganda films of WWII. Broadway Bill (1934) is a horse racing story; he later remade it as Riding High (1950). Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is just a straight-up farcical comedy with no social dimension at all.
Interestingly, although so many now love It’s a Wonderful Life, it bombed when first released. It was both a financial disaster and a crisis of confidence for Capra that he never completely recovered from. I theorize that 1946 audiences found it intolerably old-fashioned and sentimental. To us, it seems timeless. But in 1946, the cutting edge was movies like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra was now at sea. I happen to like State of the Union (1948), a story of political corruption not unlike Meet John Doe. But everything after that is both feeble and pretty hard to take. Of his four remaining features, two are remakes of previous Capra hits (Broadway Bill as Riding High; Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles ). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom ) star Bing Crosby. A Hole in the Head (1959) is the most interesting and easiest to take of the bunch, although it’s slow moving and lacks the sort of sparkle that once came easily to him.
Capra remained healthy and alert well into the 1980s. I loved his autobiography and I often used to think “What a shame he could’t get funding for pictures, he had at least another couple of productive decades in him.” But then I went and watched (or tried to watch) his last movie Pocketful of Miracles the other day, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and I was like “Oooooh! This is why.” And I’m more than okay with the fact Capra made no further movies. It seems as though, in his best pictures, i.e., the Depression era message movies and his Why We Fight series of WWII documentaries, he had something to push back against. An epic sized villain. Lady for a Day had made sense in the context of the Depression, but as a period piece I found Pocketful of Miracles screechingly, unwatchably bad, just woefully out of step with the times, full of patronizing, rose-colored, romanticized portrayals of homeless people and gangsters. I sort of wanted to throw up from the first frame. And, listen, I’m plenty sentimental. I watch Capra’s movies from the 30s and weep.
The last Hollywood film Capra worked on was the sci-fi astronaut story Marooned, which he was originally to direct. He quit the project due to budgetary frustrations. The film was finally made by John Sturges and released in 1969. A lot of his final movies were science related documentaries and industrials. By training he was an engineer.
So we return to my original thesis. Most of Frank Capra’s movies are not “Frank Capra” movies. Those constitute a minority within his body of work.