Archive for Frank Capra

Why Most of the Time Frank Capra was Not “Frank Capra”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

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.

“Mr. Smith” — the Capra template

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?”

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 [1961]). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom [1951]) 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.

Four Hollywood Visionaries Thwarted by Pearl Harbor

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2015 by travsd

Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

Today marks the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The ripples of that event, large and small, touched millions. In the years of World War Two, millions lost their lives, their loved ones, their property, everything they knew.

This post is about something much smaller, in the scheme of things, but not unimportant. It is about the frustration and derailment of a potential American culture due to the war. People circle the wagons in wartime; they think and behave differently. They are asked to make sacrifices. Lines in the sand are drawn. Shades of grey are omitted in favor of black and white. All energies are directed to the “war effort” and the defeat of the enemy. During War Two, the quality of movies, especially comedies, suffered — that will be the subject of a future post. (P.S. And here it is)

Today we look at four major Hollywood players, some producers, some directors, who were on glorious creative trajectories that were disrupted by the war. I choose the word “disrupted” carefully. In each case, the men continued being productive, even prolific, for many years. But the moment, and their work, had irrevocably changed. Something that Might Have Been was lost.

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HAL ROACH

Hal Roach was of course the movie mogul responsible for bringing the public Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang (a.k.a The Little Rascals), Charley Chase and many others. By the late 1930s, he had stopped producing shorts and was only producing features, most of them starring Laurel and Hardy. But, more than this, he was beginning to transition into what might unfairly be called “a real producer”. He was beginning to get his feet wet in films that had nothing to do with slapstick — and they were hits. These included the screwball classic Topper (1937), the screen adaptation of the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men (1939) and the caveman spectacle One Million B.C. (1940).

When World War 2 came, Roach (at the age of 50) was drafted, and his studios were commandeered to make military training films. After the war, he continued producing featurettes he called “streamliners” and later television. But he was no longer either a mogul in charge of a stable of comedy geniuses, nor a visionary producer in the mold of a David Selznick or a Hal Wallis. He tried to pass the torch to his son Hal Roach, Jr. but the effort fizzled and the Hal Roach studios became mostly a rental facility.

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FRANK CAPRA

Prior to World War 2, Frank Capra was THE Hollywood director of the Depression Era, responsible for the classics It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941).

Unlike Roach, Capra didn’t need to be drafted. Four days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and was commissioned as a major in the U.S. army. His major project while in uniform was the Why We Fight series of propaganda films, originally produced to educate the troops but considered so effective they were released in theatres for the public’s morale and edification. Today they are considered among his masterpieces, and (though jingoistic by today’s standards) incredible documents of their historical moment.

After the war, though, Capra found himself at sea. He teamed with William Wyler and George Stevens to create Liberty Films. It produced one movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which is nowadays thought of as Capra’s last classic. His films after this were increasingly imperfect and out of step with the times — too mooney-eyed for the conservative 1950s, and way too straight-laced for the increasingly licentious 1960s. His last completed Hollywood film was A Pocketful of Miracles (1961).

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WALT DISNEY

“The devil!” you say, “How can Walt Disney, one of the most successful Americans of the post-war era be said to have been “thwarted” by World War 2?”

Well, stay with me now. I’m not saying any of these guys were ruined. I’m saying they were detoured. There is the Walt Disney as he was on Earth One…then the Walt Disney that emerged on Earth Two. Disney was going in a certain direction long about 1941. He was charging down a certain road with a good head of steam. After becoming the king of animated shorts with his “Silly Symphonies” and characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, etc, he had begun to conquer features.

Disney, in case you missed the memo, was an ambitious guy. In all sorts of ways. And what people tend not to realize I think, was the degree to which, prior to World War 2, he was artistically ambitious. He cared. He and his organization have earned a reputation for anti-intellectualism and kitsch (one I would temper with many qualifiers). But prior to the coarsening of everything by World War 2, Disney made flabbergastingly beautiful and magical films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). That’s five for five, all in a row. Am I right?

Then, his studios were pressed into service during World War Two. It’s been said that 90% of his facilities were given over to the production of training films and propaganda. As for his theatrical releases which had been cooked up and produced during the war, there were two, both of them none-too-subtle films created in the service of President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy (a friendship program designed to keep the Nazis from getting a foothold in Latin America). The films were Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), enjoyable entertainments, though much more in keeping with Disney’s comedy shorts than his ambitious features.

Disney had done his patriotic duty during the war but it cost him financially. Labor was expensive; the techniques he had used in the 1930s were costly. He had backers to satisfy. After the war, he no longer dared risk a large investment in anything as luxurious as beauty for its own sake. While audiences may have embraced many of his post-war films as favorites or even “classics”, none may be said to be in a class with those pre-war films. Sorry! Cinderella (1950) is not in a class with Snow White. And this trend continued. Sleeping Beauty (1959) is not in a class with Cinderella. And Robin Hood (1973) is not in a class with Sleeping Beauty.

Interestingly, Disney continued to be ever more powerful in the postwar era even as his films became cheesier. He founded an empire of amusement parks, and his own weekly tv show beamed into every American living room. And (perhaps psychologically affected by the war) he expanded his mission. He longer seemed content just to amuse or touch audiences, but he was one of the premiere cultural voices of Cold War America — almost an unofficial branch of the government. Not only was every child wearing Mickey Mouse ears, they were also donning coonskin caps (a craze started by the Disney tv shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone).

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But bold artistic masterpieces? Not so much on his agenda. An instructive contrast may be drawn between the paths of Capra and Disney…and the post-war career of John Ford. Ford had made plenty of tremendous films in the 1920s and 30s. Then during World War Two he served as an Admiral and also made propaganda films. And after the war? Like Disney, he shouldered the responsibility of being an important American cultural voice. But somehow during those same years he managed to create some of his greatest works, larger in ambition than ever. Why that may be is beyond the scope of this little squib but is worth investigating.

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ORSON WELLES

Pearl Harbor found 26 year old wunderkind Orson Welles in a still-powerful yet newly precarious position. The actor-star-director-producer was arguably the most powerful director in Hollywood, at least on paper. He enjoyed an unprecedented deal whereby he had complete creative control over his movies. Yet, the Japanese attack occurred at a time when Welles was still licking his wounds from the Citizen Kane debacle, and had not yet finished The Magnificent Ambersons.

Like Disney, Welles was called into the service of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Accordingly he went to South America to direct his omnibus documentary film It’s All True. And really it was THAT movie which caused his final falling out with RKO. Rumors about misbehavior and cost overruns resulted in that film being shelved. At the same time, while he was on the shoot he was too far away to protect Ambersons from studio interference, and that film went on to show a substantial box office loss. The combined weight of all these failures in a row resulted in Welles being fired from the studio…with extreme prejudice.

The upshot being…what might have happened if not for It’s All True? Might he have been able to make a successful film and recupe the goodwill lost by Kane?

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I freely acknowledge the frivolousness of this post. What are lost masterpieces beside lost lives? There are big losses and small losses, and there are imagined losses, and these only rate inclusion in the latter category.

Also, I think I’d better make a shout-out here (or I know I’ll hear about it) about all the Hollywood personnel who actually served in uniform and risked their lives: actors like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda, and directors like William Wyler and George Stevens. (See above: this is what bound these two guys to Capra after the war. But the post-war careers of Wyler and Stevens proved to be closer in fortune to Ford’s than Capra’s).

And nearly every entertainer of the day (including Welles) served in the U.S.O.  Now, what the hell? you may ask. Welles was in his mid twenties; why didn’t he serve in the military? With much fanfare, he was declared 4-F in 1943, although I don’t know how much I believe that. What was wrong with him? They never announced what his condition was; just another reason the public turned against Welles. Was he “too important” at home? Anyway he played his part by lifting morale…and he got his licks in pretty good against the Nazis in The Stranger (1946). Posterity loves Welles even if some of his contemporaries didn’t.

Joe Cook: Rain or Shine

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Circus, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2015 by travsd

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Okay, today is Louise Fazenda’s birthday; yesterday was Tom Howard’s.  I recently visited Joe Cook’s house and an exhibition about his life and career, and TCM played Rain or Shine a couple of weeks ago (I watched this past weekend). The stars are obviously aligned for a post about this movie.

Rain or Shine (1930) was the culmination of the career of a man many people thought was the top performer in show business. Today scarcely anyone remembers either Joe Cook or this movie or the Broadway show it was based on.  There is a lesson there of some sort. I don’t think Cook deserved his present obscurity; but you just don’t know what people will remember.

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You can read my full article about Cook here. He was regarded as one of the most skilled performers in vaudeville and certainly one of its top stars. Interestingly, unlike most of the top performers, Cook’s core (non-comic) skills were not as a singer or a dancer (although he could do those things) but as an acrobat. He was an amazing juggler, he could walk a slackwire, he could walk up a ramp atop a large ball. He had about ten other similar skills and then on TOP of this he was a brilliant, very zany comedian, very surreal, not unlike Ed Wynn or Groucho Marx or Bobby Clark. He did monologues, but he also used funny props. From vaudeville he stepped into Broadway revues (Earl Carroll’s Vanities) in the 1920s, and from there into his own solo vehicle, designed to showcase all his talents. Rain or Shine ran on Broadway for almost the entirety of 1928.

Based on the strength of its stage success, Columbia acquired the show and cast members Cook, his stooge Dave Chasen, and Tom Howard  to appear in it, and assigned the studio’s best director Frank Capra to direct it (four years before the breakthrough It Happened One Night). A circus story with the usual circus plot (so as to showcase Cook’s unique skills) Rain or Shine reminds me a lot of Marilyn Miller’s Sunny or W.C. Fields’ Poppy.

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

The Obligatory Romantic Plot

Former silent comedy star Louise Fazenda plays a young lady who has inherited a circus from her father but business has taken a downturn. Cook plays the circus manager who vows to save the show for her. William Collier Jr is his rival for the girl (and the more successful one – Cook, being a “clown”, can’t get the girl by definition, he just gets pathos). Collier is the male ingenue. His character has money he can invest in  the show and he also wants to marry Miller.

For comic relief, Tom Howard plays a local businessman who comes demanding payment on bills and gets swindled by Cook into being a partner in the circus. (Cook does a lot of his patented “doubletalk” in the film). Dave Chasen was of course Cook’s stooge on stage and screen. In the film I find him to come across as a rather annoying unfunny semi-mute….but interesting as a historical curiosity. (not unlike Fred Sanborn, Ted Healy’s fourth stooge). With his mop of big curly hair he seems like a third rate Harpo Marx.

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At all events, while the main circus plot is going on, a couple of ruthless guys at the circus plot a takeover and organize a strike.(none of the performers have been paid in weeks).  Other highlights of the film include a brawl, the titular rain storm, and a circus fire. They survive it all! (BTW, the show was originally a musical so there would have been songs as well, but these were cut from the film to accommodate changing tastes.) At the climax of the film, (a showcase for Cook’s famously diverse vaudeville skills) Cook fills in for all the other circus performers, doing their tricks, ball walking, slackwire, etc. Undeniably impressive.

Rain or Shine is an uneasy mix. Capra likes to craft real stories with “heart”…whereas Cook, Howard and Chasen are zanies. There is one scene where the tension is greatest, when there is an ebgagement dinner at Collier’s family’s mansion  and the plan is to impress his rich parents so our heroes can get money for the circus. But Cook and company embarrass her and tip their hand.  But the comedians are too crazy in the scene – it’s a bit of a vaudeville routine, and doesn’t accomplish what the scene is designed to because nothing real transpires. It’s funny but doesn’t serve the plot. It’s interesting because it’s the same sort of conundrum the Marx Brothers would face when they began to make pictures with MGM. An internal conflict between the surreal and the real.

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I’m on the fence though about Cook’s thespians skills, and somehow he clearly didn’t click with movie audiences. He returned to Broadway and did a couple more  shows which did moderately well and didn’t return to films for five years, in a series of low budget shorts with Al Christie. And he also made a low-budget western called Arizona Mahoney and a bunch of additional Broadway shows, culminating n It Happened on Ice (1941), his last hoorah.

Rain or Shine is an interesting curio, and I’d been dying to see it for over a decade so was thrilled to get to finally watch it.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Harry Langdon in “The Strong Man”

Posted in Circus, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 19, 2014 by travsd

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Harry Langdon‘s comedy The Strong Man (1926), the very first feature film directed by Frank Capra, was released on this date.

In The Strong Man, baby man Langdon plays a returning World War I vet who is now touring with a medicine show as an assistant to the titular body builder (whose name Zandow, is an obvious play on Sandow). All the while, he is searching for the girl he had fallen in love with long distance via their wartime correspondence. The task is complicated by the fact that he has never met the girl in person. For awhile, he is led on by a vamp who pretends to be the girl; he eventually wises up. When he finally does meet the true object of his affections, she proves to be the blind daughter of the town minister. If that sounds Chaplinesque, remember that City Lights wasn’t until five years later.

At any rate, the mixture of touching elements with Langdon’s typical grab-bag of unusual gags prompted the critics of the time to laud the film as Chaplinesque as well. It was voted one of the ten best of the year in the annual Film Critics Poll, and the box office was even greater than that of the first film. I reiterate—this was Capra’s very first directorial effort.

To learn more about comedy film history including Harry Langdon’s The Strong Man, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

 

On “Lost Horizon”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of that mysterious classic Lost Horizon (1937).

This film is (like the best-selling 1933 James Hilton novel it is based on) a sui generis, and its principal payoff upon repeated encounters is simply in trying to figure out what it is: science fiction, disaster movie, Gothic horror, esoteric bildungsroman, soap opera, art deco design orgy, and thanks to director Frank Capra, and ensemble members like Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, frequently a comedy.

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The early scenes are best, as our hero Ronald Colman,a diplomat, and several other folks are evacuated by plane from turmoil in colonial India and crash land in the Himalayas. The little company includes Horton and Mitchell, as well as Colman’s impetuous younger brother, played by John Howard, and a terminally ill woman, played by Isabel Jewell. Some sherpas rescue them and lead them to the land of Shangri-La (that name comes from this story), unknown to outsiders, where all the inhabitants are peaceful and live for many centuries, like in Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh. Their wise man is played by Sam Jaffe, Colman’s love interest is played by Jane Wyatt (an Asian in the book, her character is here glossed into an orphaned European so as not offend any racists who might be in the audience). The sets are gorgeous:

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Then the movie, much like the mythical land where it is set, just sort of plateaus. The dramatic difficulty is a formidable one. They are in Utopia. Everything is perfect. So for quite a while the entire cast is hanging out in a very nice place, being very happy. The theoretical tension comes from the question, “Should we stay here or go back to our real lives?” Somehow, though, in a movie, or at least this movie that seems a very inert question, sort of “win/win”. If we know that some of them had things back in the real world that really meant a lot to them and were pulling them back, it would increase the dilemma and be stronger. Another, more tempting scenario (to me) is to have the place turn out to be sinister on some level. Already there is a kernel of that here. The idea of being kidnapped and forced to reside at the top of an impassable mountain, then have several of your co-travelers resign themselves to it…this can be terrifying to the paranoid part of our brains. Or the place could turn out to be hell, as was done in the similar 1972 tv movie Haunts of the Very Rich. 

Interestingly, the following year (1973), Lost Horizon was made into a notoriously bad musical, which I have been dying to see ever since I encountered the Mad Magazine parody that year. We are now moving it to the top of our to-do list. Meantime, here is an appallingly atrocious clip starring Bobby Van, I just got off youtube (the rest of it seems to be there as well, in chunks)

To restore your sanity, here’s the trailer from the original:

 

Gary Cooper: The Holy Fool

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on May 7, 2014 by travsd
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with Jean Arthur in “Deeds”, of course

Today is the birthday of Gary Cooper (1901-1961).

Over a half century after his death, Cooper remains one of the greatest movie stars of all time. Modern stars struggle mightily to fill those big shoes; thus far, no one has. The challenge is that a big star must be both iconic and multi-faceted, and those are two contradictory qualities.

Born in Montana when it was still the wild west (or very nearly) he was very much associated with the western genre, but unlike John Wayne or Randolph Scott, not entirely. Like Cary Grant, he was as handsome as a God. During his silent and early talkie years I would venture to say he was much better looking even than Grant, and that is an astounding thing to contemplate. A human being so close to an aesthetic ideal that all that Hollywood hyperbole actually seems to apply. He seemed descended from Olympus.

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Quite young, however, by the mid 30s, his face developed “character”. Those eyes, framed by those pretty, womanly lashes, acquire crow’s feet and bags. This gives the formerly perfect specimen a new vulnerability, and this (just as it had with female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) becomes an asset, at least when Cooper is in the hands of a good director.

The most ingenious use of this quality was in the service of comedy. The mark of the best actors or stars, I think, is if they can handle comedy as well as any comedian. The very best of them could. When we think of Jimmy Stewart, for example, his comic roles spring immediately to mind, though he had done many dramatic ones. Even Henry Fonda, whom we seldom think of as comic, was extremely funny in The Lady Eve. What’s amazing to me about Gary Cooper is that, despite his VERY limited range, and despite his rather wooden, understated style, comedy became such an important part of his image, of his brand. Unlike so many others, he was really good at it. He (and his handlers) were smart enough to make an asset out of his limitations, to do what was in affect a bit of self-parody, and poke fun at his aw-shucks, Gary Cooperness. And they managed to walk that line without ever tarnishing his image. They went just so far and no further.

The pioneering work seems to have been done by Frank Capra. As he had done earlier with Harry Langdon, the heavily Catholic Capra understood the cinematic power of the Holy Fool, the dope as martyr. Someone who is so honest that people take advantage of him, raising the audience’s hackles. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) seems the true formation of this persona for Cooper. “Deeds”: there’s a major Catholic concept. Do good ones! (Interestingly, Cooper eventually converted to Catholicism, shortly before he died).

Cooper went on to several more roles in the Holy Fool vein, in which he played innocent naifs and bumpkins, all-American idealists and dreamers, full of strength of character, so that he can prove them all wrong in the end. The etymological origin of the word “clown”, by the way, carried with it an intimation of being a country rube. Cooper’s comic characters are these sort of pure creatures, unsullied by trickery or cynicism. Other major uses of Cooper along these lines included The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), Meet John Doe (1941), Ball of Fire (1941) and Along Came Jones (1945). Though it’s less of a comedy, I also associate The Westerner (1940), with this thread of Cooper’s work.

The “martyrdom” theme increasingly began to invade his non-comic roles as he grew older. The man who put his foot down and contends that he’s right and everyone else is wrong, and suffers mightily for it, but will not budge. Some of these include The Fountainhead (1949), High Noon (1952), The Courtmartial of Billy Mitchell (1955) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)

The latter movie was an occasion on which he might have worked with Hitchcock, who was initially supposed to direct it. Hitchcock finally made North by Northwest instead. He had wanted Cooper for the Cary Grant role, but Cooper turned it down because he was uncomfortable with the sexuality. He was protective of his image, but he was also committed to promoting what he saw as virtue.

At any rate, if you have not yet seen Along Came Jones, a perfect melding of Cooper’s western and comic personae, I highly recommend it.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.safe_image

Harry Langdon in “Long Pants”

Posted in Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by travsd

 

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Harry Langdon‘s feature Long Pants (1927), directed by Frank Capra, was released on this date.

Long Pants is a strange film. Blooming adolescent Harry is scheduled to marry the girl his parents have picked out for him, and is content to go along with it until a beautiful femme fatale (Alma Bennett) has a flat tire directly outside his house. He falls for the mystery woman hard. So hard, in fact, that he attempts to kill his innocent bride-to-be in order to pursue the vamp. He arrives to visit the dame just as she has broken out of jail, and gets embroiled in her life of crime until she finally gets shot full of holes in a speakeasy fracas. Harry returns home to his parents and his girl, hopefully (but doubtfully) a little older and wiser.

This one is undoubtedly darker, but it still did well at the box office. The incongruity of seeing Harry interacting with these hardened criminals provokes something akin to nervous laughter.

Many commentators (notably Walter Kerr) have found a major flaw in the film’s title and the premise of the opening act: Harry in Long Pants. From the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth, it was traditional for young boys to wear shorts or knickers until puberty, at which time they got their first pair of long trousers, marking their coming of age. This moment happens to Harry early in the film. Kerr and others feel that the scene is misguided for a couple of reasons. One is that Langdon’s character is usually presented as an adult who happens to possess many of the qualities of a child. However, this film seems to pin him down in age as a pubescent, at least in the film’s opening scenes. Secondly, they feel the premise is confusing. They are of the opinion that opening with Harry receiving his long pants defines him as being thirteen years old. Which makes it a mite confusing when, in the very next scene, he is about to be married. The answer to me is so obvious you’d have to be willfully blind not to see it. If you want to be LITERAL-MINDED about it, we can’t help noting that in the opening scene Harry’s mother is highly reluctant to let his father present him with long pants in the first place. She clearly wants to prolong his childhood. Isn’t it logical then to conclude that she has been doing that right along, and that Harry IS indeed seventeen, or even older? It is, and there’s your definitive answer.

 

For more on comedy film history, including Long Pants, see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

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