Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Is What America Is To Me. Frank Capra: The Great Directors Retrospective



America is a nation of immigrants; we all take pride in our ancestral heritage but also have a great love for the land of our birth or naturalization. Americans simply love America: not just the physical territory but the idea of America, the land of opportunity where one can come from nothing, flee repression and find a land that guarantees you nothing except the chance to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It would take an immigrant to capture on celluloid what we Americans can't quite verbalize, a Son of Italy to shape what we think of as authentically American. Few directors have such an abounding and unapologetic love for America as Frank Capra, and few have captured the joys and contradictions of the nation as Capra has.  In short, what we think of as 'American': the small-town boy makes good, the goodness of our neighbors, the hope to move up, was from the work of an immigrant.

One simply cannot ignore Capra's immigrant background when it comes to his film-making.  Capra came to the United States from Sicily at age six, so his childhood was shaped by his memories of both his native land and those of an American upbringing.  Unlike other foreign-born directors who came to America as adults (say Hitchcock), Capra was of an age where the hopes that every immigrant come to America with were solidly grafted onto his soul.  He took it for granted that anyone can come and make of him/herself a success, namely because he did so.  This lent his films a spirit of optimism, of what good ol' American know-how can do to make the country and the world a better place.

Take his first Best Picture winner (It Happened One Night).  Capra had established the ground rules for screwball comedy: fast-paced witty conversation and two people from different worlds that end up falling in love.  Here, the average man (the Clark Gable character) is the hero, and this was tonic in the times of the Depression. 

It's Capra's celebration of the man and woman in the street (from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe to It's A Wonderful Life) that makes him more than beloved: it makes his films ones that stand the test of time.  Capra is the first major talent to tackle the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans and find the nobility within them.  Capra heroes from Longfellow Deeds and "John Doe" to Jefferson Smith and George Bailey are ordinary men who struggle against such things as deception and fraud, not armed with guns but with something more dangerous to the power elite: the truth and individual courage. 

Take Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Here, our young Senator isn't calling for armed insurrection against the corruption he comes across.  Instead, he uses the weapons within his power, namely the filibuster, to stop the rot he sees taking place in the hallways of power.  Jefferson Smith is not stupid or even naive, but instead someone who has not been corrupted by cynicism.  We the audience identify with him and his struggle because like Capra, we believe in the goodness of our country and its institutions.  This is why we identify so powerfully to Jefferson Smith's plight that when it looks like he is 'licked', we are agonized ourselves. 

I think this is part of Capra's genius: the ability to have us identify with the characters.  Like George Bailey, who among us hasn't had secret or in his case, not-so secret, dreams that remain unfulfilled but who realize that our lives in the end have been pretty good?  Those things like honesty, personal courage, family: the things that we value are the things Capra holds up to us in his films and holds up as models for us. 

This ability to identify with the average man (you and me) is best captured in the documentary series Why We Fight.  There were many men drafted in World War II who didn't have a great understanding of how the world grew into conflict; until the bombing at Pearl Harbor, there were many Americans who considered the wars on both their shores to be 'over there' and thus, unimportant to their lives.  The seven parts that comprise Why We Fight put the struggle against Fascism/Nazism/Japanese aggression in a context that could be understood. 

For example, in Prelude to War, the comparison is made between Nazi Germany and the United States.  In a famous scene, we see how 'the church' or religion if you prefer was the last obstacle to total Nazi domination of Germany.  "The Word of God and the Word of Fuhrers cannot be reconciled.  Then God MUST GO", thunders narrator Walter Huston, and in a brilliant sequence we see a stained-glass window smashed with rocks, to reveal an image of Adolph Hitler behind it.  In a time where religion was more dominant and respected, and with the shorthand of the stained-glass window serving as the symbol of faith, the idea of 'our' faith (whatever it was) at risk by barbarians was a call to arms.

Again, it is Capra's brilliant ability to make his movies projects to where we identify with those on the screen that makes us care about what we see on the screen.  At the heart of Capra films is a sense that good will triumph, that the 'common' man was truly extraordinary, and that you and I have worth outside whatever wealth we have outside our bank accounts. 

Those themes: the importance of family, faith (religious and personal) and the decency of the 'common' man and how he (I can't think of a Capra film where women were the protagonists) will triumph come again and again in his films.  Again and again, the celebration of what it is to be American is at the core of Capra's genius, as well as to why his films are still seen by the public at large.

This isn't to say Frank Capra wasn't a craftsman when it came to his films.  He could, like Hitchcock, manipulate audiences with his imagery: the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life as George runs through the streets of Bedford Falls is not just iconic, but a confirmation of that character's epiphany and transformation from a bitter man driven to despair to one who has reaffirmed his desire to live. 

As a side note, I don't understand why the phrase "Capra-esque", which I take to denote an optimistic view of American life, is so dismissed.  Capra at heart was telling us that things will get better if we work at them, and rally around the truly important things: family, honesty, personal courage despite great pressure to conform.  These are positive qualities, and I agree up to a point with director William Friedkin, who stated that he prefers Capra's America, even though it's gone. 

I don't know if it is completely gone: certainly the sense of community has lessened, and people today are more cynical.  However, we time and again gravitate to Capra's world, because in his films the genuine love he had for country comes through.

Sadly, he made no films after 1961's Pocketful of Miracles.  He lived another thirty years, and yet his career ended, I think because the way he looked at the world and the world he celebrated was disappearing.  Capra would not fit in to the world of hippies, free love and rampant drug use.  One senses that Capra understood that his worldview would no longer play in Peoria.  He could have made more films: at 64 he could have gone on to a few more, but Capra's America was slowly fading from existence.  Maybe Friedkin was right. 

We still have the films, glorious paens to America and as how we see it.  In his films, America and Americans are celebrated: their honesty, their ingenuity, their pride in the working-class.  We see that in perhaps Capra's best-known and loved film: It's A Wonderful Life; we have an Italian-American family moving from Potter's Field to their new home courtesy of the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan.   That must have been an extremely personal moment for Capra, and belies the idea that he was not an auteur. 

In short, Capra-esque or its more dismissive cousin, Capra-Corn, is a positive thing.

Please visit The Great Directors for other Icons of Cinema. 

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