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The Weekend Hobby Thread (2/10/24) | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread (2/10/24)
February 10, 2024

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 02/10/2024 [TheJamesMadison]

Frank Capra

Frank Capra moved to America from Sicily when he was five years old in 1903. He grew up in Los Angeles and went to CalTech where he studied chemical engineering, but he was interested in the movies. After making a short film adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling short story in San Francisco, he ended up finding work as a director (after a brief stint making Harry Langdon comedies) with Harry Cohn at the skid row studio Columbia Pictures. Working for one of the poorest studios had certain advantages in terms of freedom while on set without someone like Irving Thalberg (who ran MGM along with Louis B. Mayer) who set up an assembly line-like system. Capra, essentially once he was on set, could largely do what he wanted, his fights with Cohn being around budgets and stars mostly (Columbia didn't have any and had to borrow from other studios).

It was Capra's efforts that really brought Columbia out of skid row and allowed Cohn to rub elbows with the major studio executives, directing a series of increasingly successful pictures until Lady for a Day when the studio received its first Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (they would win the following year with It Happened One Night).

Capra's success brought him freedom, and with that freedom he made a series of films from 1934 to 1947 that rooted themselves in the American cultural consciousness to the point where the term Capraesque is still understood in the popular lexicon. A Capraesque film is unabashedly pro-American, on the side of the little guy, and hopeful that things will work out positively in the end when the people band together to make things better.

That freedom came to an end with the final series of arguments with Harry Cohn on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington after which Capra moved to Warner Bros. for a couple of films before he started an independent film company with William Wyler and a couple of other filmmakers called Liberty Films. It was with that money he funded It's a Wonderful Life which was a financial disappointment which, combined with the tax law structures of the time, necessitated the selling of Liberty Films to Paramount in the middle of the production of Capra's next film, State of the Union. From the late-40s to the early 60s, he only made four more films with a decade in between two pairs of two, Capra having lost all of his freedom and becoming first a contract director at Paramount and then a pawn to two movie stars (Frank Sinatra and then Glenn Ford).

What made Capra unique among the Golden Age of Hollywood? What made his films stick out and connect with audiences, giving them a life far longer than the momentary existence he imagined for them (making the comparison more than once between his films and a newspaper that is read once and then discarded)? I think it comes down to a few things. Firstly, he was very good at the large things of narrative. Second was that he was very good at the small business within a film that made them entertaining.

Big Things

This is usually where I put most of my focus when it comes to breaking down a filmmaker, and Capra, especially in combination with his chief writer, Robert Riskin (Fay Wray's husband, by the way), were able to tell stories that had strong structure, well-written characters, and underlying themes without ever preaching (well, maybe there's a bit of preaching in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

One of the main advantages of the studio system was the need for product (one might even call it content), but that product tended to make more money at the box office when it was good rather than bad, which created this direct incentive to tell stories that connected with audiences and made them want to come back a couple of times during the week it was playing in the little theater.

What you see from Capra's output, especially up to 1934, is this rather steady progression of command of the larger things in a story. His earliest silent features were actually made for Harry Langdon, a largely forgotten silent comedian, which were loose tales that stitched together comic set pieces. By the end of the silent era, he was telling stories like The Power of the Press (a light, thriller proto-version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) with stronger throughlines and better payoffs. The introduction of sound caused some stumbles, as it did with most filmmakers of the time (though Capra handled it more gracefully than Ford or Hitchcock), his engineering background and interest in technology meaning that Flight, his first surviving sound film (The Donovan Affair's image still exists, but the soundtrack is long since lost), has a lot going on technologically. It's just that the actual movie's story feels like a massive step back in terms of creating an interesting narrative with interesting characters. It's kind of dull and more interested in flying stunts than anything else, and there are precious few flying stunts.

And yet, despite my issues with things like Flight, Capra's films were making more and more money. He was getting higher budgets. He was able to borrow bigger stars from studios, and with it came better writers, namely Riskin who wrote most of the rest of his films (Forbidden was written by someone else), and Riskin is largely responsible for most of the best scripts that Capra turned into films.

The characters in things like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington have complex layers while managing to be likeable. The titular John Doe in Meet John Doe has to strike a balance between the words he's saying that are not his, the sentiment of them that he agrees with, and the fact that he's a fake leading a nationwide movement. The highest triumph is probably the writing around George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, a portrait of a good man who is stymied from living the life he wants to live at every turning point, keeping him in his small town of Bedford Falls. That films works so well because it makes him so compelling as this minorly tragic figure who made the best of a series of bad hands (at least in accordance to what he imagined he wanted) reaching the end of his rope.

The Small Things

If I were to just describe the overall plot of something like It's a Wonderful Life to you, it'd sound like a harrowing drama, especially once you get into the final act and his attempt at suicide. And yet, It's a Wonderful Life is a film filled with joy and gladness and happiness for most of its runtime, and it's no small part for why the film works as well as it does. That's not just around Bailey but a host of small events here and there that make Bedford Falls feels likeable and fun. The chief moment that comes to mind (not just in this film but in the entire Capra filmography) is when Gloria Grahame, decked out in a skimpy little dress that shows off her figure, walks down the road and gets a passerby, a bit player without a line of dialogue, to stop in the middle of the street and hold up traffic. It's a quick moment of such amusement that leads to another couple of fun beats (Ward Bond wondering what his wife is doing at that moment and deciding to go home to find out, implying some hankey-pankey about to go down), and Capra's movies are dotted with moments like that.

In several films, the stories just stop so that people can sing. It happens in It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town most particularly. There's this sense of light fun running through so much of his work, including the dramas, that makes them feel lighter than they actually are. Thomas Mitchell, the character actor who was in four of Capra's films, is often a source of these moments, like his dismissive treatment of Edward Everett Norton in Lost Horizon or his amusing loquaciousness in Pocketful of Miracles. But he's not limited to the only source. Capra loved his actors, and he was always looking for ways for them to do amusing business to make the films more fun.

His efforts created these full experiences where every actor, from bit players with no lines to top-billed stars, are getting opportunities to be amusing in their own way, but Capra never lets it overload the films either. It's easy to get lost in this sort of business, but Capra had enough self-control to almost never do that (I think Lost Horizon is his one self-indulgent film, but it's largely for other reasons), finding this balance between larger narrative concerns and just enough room within scenes for actors to play around a little bit. It creates this sense of amusement and fun that's kind of addictive.

His Body of Work

I will say, though, that I felt a small sense of disappointment as I went through his work. There was a lot of good stuff (A LOT of it, something like 20 of my 32 reviews are three out of four stars), but the films I would call great were surprisingly few, attributing that descriptor to only four films (It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, American Madness, and You Can't Take It With You). So much else ended up having little problems with them that held me back slightly (the pseudo-courtroom ending to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a good example). I wanted to hold him up as one of the greatest of filmmakers of the era, but I can't quite hold him up to the levels of a Howard Hawks or a John Ford. He was good. He was very good. He hit some very high levels of greatness, but it felt too rare.

I think part of that is how his career was short-circuited in the late 40s with the business around Liberty Films. Even if It's a Wonderful Life had been some kind of massive success, tax laws at the time would have made keeping the film studio together extremely difficult (David O. Selznick had to shut down his own production studio after Gone with the Wind for tax reasons). He was essentially an independent filmmaker who had become king of a studio (Columbia), left the studio, and then never found another permanent home (like Ford in his early days at Fox) or way to work as a free agent (like Hawks). It's a Wonderful Life is arguably his best film, and it was the last film he made free of any constraints (Liberty was sold in the middle of filming of State of the Union, so he arguably had full control of that, but selling your company in the middle of filming has to have an effect, right?). He still had it in him to make great films, but he got put into boxes while the film industry changed around him. Working at Paramount with Bing Crosby on Riding High and Here Comes the Groom, both lightly entertaining jaunts, must have felt like starting all over again. So, he quit for a while, came back to work for Frank Sinatra on A Hole in the Head and then Glenn Ford on Pocketful of Miracles, and then he tapped out, to live another thirty years, write an autobiography, and then get interviewed by late night hosts and other interviewers for years (I watched his interview with Letterman, and Capra seemed like a great, down to earth kind of guy).

I just really wish he had worked longer. Perhaps if he hadn't tried to go independent in an age when studios owned movie theaters (I assume that It's a Wonderful Life would have been a roaring success if MGM had released it across its own theaters with top billing, but as a guy trying to walk away, of course the movie theaters didn't operate as smoothly with Liberty as otherwise), or perhaps if he had stayed working through the lower rungs of Paramount before he gave up in the early 50s Capra would have been able to regain his relative independence within a studio system and make films that spoke to him again. But, the combination of his own professional failures, his working for the Department of Defense making documentaries out of thousands of hours of unfiltered war footage, and being investigated by HUAC just took something out of him. He lost his passion, and he just gave up. I can't say that I blame him. I'm just talking about a guy who's been dead for 30 years who stopped working 60 years ago and telling to suck it up and work some more, but I can get it at the same time.

I think Capra had it in him to make another dozen films, and it seemed like he was just hitting his groove with the right amount of freedom. Oh well, it's not like what he left the world is bad. It's much more durable than yesterday's newspaper, that's for sure.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Lisa Frankenstein

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Rating 4/4) Full Review "His way of telling a story connects so easily and so well. I would be surprised if another film comes along and displaces this as my favorite Capra, but I haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life in a very long time." [Personal Collection]

Arsenic and Old Lace (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's fun. I chuckled. I've seen it twice now, and I had largely the same reaction as the first time: it's an amusing time capsule that probably played better in the early 40s than it does today, though I was definitely entertained." [Personal Collection]

It's a Wonderful Life (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It really is heart-warming and joyful and life-affirming in all the best ways." [Personal Collection]

State of the Union (Rating 3/4) Full Review "So, the romantic side works pretty well. The portrait of a moribund party getting railroaded by a straight-talking outsider feels right. The specifics of Grant's philosophy are...weird." [Library]

Here Comes the Groom (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "So, it's very slight. It has some real charm to it. It's loosely told and kind of nonsensical. It has a nice song that it overplays (I didn't need to hear "Evening" three times, but whatever, it's not like there's a whole lot else). It's primarily a vehicle to showcase Bing Crosby's charm, and it does that reasonably well." [Library]

Pocketful of Miracles (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Still, it's nice that the awful experience did lead to a well-made and entertaining little film. It's disappointing that it's a remake instead of something original, but he went out on a relative high note, more of a Family Plot rather than a Buddy Buddy." [Library]

Crash (Rating 2/4) Full Review "This isn't The English Patient bad, but it's not really good either. It feels like the serious version of Love Actually that Inarritu would manage much better the following year with Babel." [Personal Collection]

No Country for Old Men (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This is just great entertainment at the movies, and it's the kind of film the Academy wanted to award with Oscars through the 00s. This wasn't a terrible decade for that award, overall, it seems." [Personal Collection]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 3/2, and it will talk about the final twenty years of Best Picture Winners.

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posted by Open Blogger at 07:45 PM

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