"Capraesque" means a blend of optimism, humor, patriotism, and, to those who really understand his work, darkness, despair, and the need to fight for things you care about ... Capra's heroes often undergo real suffering. But humor surrounds them ... The audience, like the hero, earns its laughs, and they don't come cheap. For those with the courage to see things with humor, the victory life offers in a Capra film is laughter. (Jeanine Basinger) 1
At the American Film Institute "Salute to Frank Capra" in 1982, the achievement of the immigrant adventurer, patriot and creator of some of the most popular films ever made, was celebrated and reaffirmed. 2 Hollywood figures testified to the significance of Capra films as part of the fabric of their youth, part of growing up in America, a kind of sentimental education in humour and democracy. Capra had made, and the world still enjoys, films in which "good men found their voices". There was much talk of fantasy and story-telling, the evocation, not of the real world, but of the world the way it should be. And the then United States President, a former Hollywood figure himself, sent a telegram congratulating Capra who had 'recognised and helped us to recognise, all that is so wonderful about the American character'.
'Maybe there never was an America in the thirties', Basinger quotes John Cassavetes, 'Maybe it was all Frank Capra' (81). 3 Andrew Bergman has suggested that to see the Capra films from 1934 to 1941 'is to learn more about a nation's image of itself than one has any right to expect' (147). Capra's films and heroes were regarded as so American that during World War 11, the Nazis made Mr Deeds Goes To Town required viewing for officers in their prospective army of occupation for the United States (Handzo 10). And in France, Capra tells us in his autobiography, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, was chosen as the final English-language film to be shown before implementation of the Nazi ban on American and British films (292-293).
Capra's politics, as interpreted from his films, interviews and autobiography, were seen to span the political spectrum. He was found to be 'essentially a conservative' (Salemson 29), 'sentimental and aggressively right-wing' (Baxter 1983). Some spoke of his 'Saturday Evening Post Socialism' (Thomas 121). Leland Poague refers to the 'Santa Claus socialism' of Gary Cooper's/Long John Willoughby's speeches in Meet John Doe (196-197), while Andrew Sarris refers to the same John Doe character as a 'barefoot fascist' (87). Other commentators were alarmed by the 'communist propaganda' found in such Capra films. 4
James Agee felt It's a Wonderful Life was 'a very taking sermon about the feasibility of a kind of Christian semi-socialism' (193), 5 and Glenn Phelps analyses Capra's 'vision of Christian political communalism' in Meet John Doe (50). Charles J. Maland, uncontroversially, finds the core of Capra's vision a 'Christian/American humanism' (179). The idea of Capra's films rewriting the New Testament and his presentation of Christ-figures in his heroes, constantly reappears in discussions of his work. Responses range from approval to castigation of his 'nauseating modern vulgarisation of the New Testament' (Anstey 355), something which might delight those 'who want the Scriptures rewritten in the language of our streets' (Mosher 64). 6
Capra is most widely known as a populist, an 'arch crowd pleaser' (see Coursodon 44). Yet as many commentators have seen, a recurring theme in his films is that in crowds, individuals surrender their individuality, their independent thinking. Poague, amongst others, stresses that in Capra, the mob or crowd is always wrong. 7 In fact, a recurring theme in Capra's Allied war propaganda series, Why We Fight, is the surrender by the Germans, Italians and Japanese people of their dignity, liberty and individuality to become part of a 'mass, a human herd'. 8 As William Murphy notes, the idea of and belief in the redemptive powers of the individual reappear as central themes in these films (186-188). And here again, as in Capra's features, it is proclaimed that our free world was inspired by individual men of vision (here going right back to Moses), invoked as 'lighthouses, lighting up a dark and foggy world'. 9
Capra, creator of some of the most widely enjoyed works of "mass culture", was outspoken in his criticism of "massism". In his films he fought a war, he told interviewer, James Childs, against 'mass entertainment, mass production, mass education, mass everything. Especially mass man. I was fighting for, in a sense, the preservation of the liberty of the individual person against the mass' (22). So his championing of the common man was on the understanding that he was special, unique, absolutely uncommon. As a free individual, he could choose to co-operate with other free individuals. In fact, in a film like You Can't Take it With You (1938), Capra presents a suburban utopia, where a seductive anarchic libertarianism reigns. A family of eccentrics do their own thing, however well or badly they might do it, eventually convincing a dyspeptic munitions manufacturer that the pursuit of happiness among friends is more worthwhile, more important, than the calculated world of alienating business deals.
Stephen Handzo notes that in his films, politically, Capra has something for everybody:
His villains are stock characters from the demonology of the Left - an interlocking directorat of industry/press/government that is militarist and incipiently fascist (Meet John Doe) - while his heroes counter with 110% Americanism: voluntary association, self-reliance, Lincoln, the Boy Scouts...Capra films uphold the non-ideological nature of American politics (the most powerful American ideology of all)...(8)
In Capra's films, we have what I would call the Americanisation of liberty - the claiming of the idea of and support for freedom for America. Its dangers are obvious. Capra's freedoms have their limits. His own account of a State Department sponsored visit to India in 1952 as part of an attempt to prevent the showing of Communist films, makes salutary reading. His ideas and his actions as a representative of the United States are as complacent as they are repugnant - the hero of his narrative is almost an "ugly American" archetype. (See The Name Above the Title chapter 21.)
In You Can't Take it With You's eccentric Vanderhof household, the "spiritual communalism" goes along with important practical status differences. The black servants, being servants, are not as free to pursue their personal interests as other household members. Some people can be more anarchic than others. And Grandpa Vanderhof, family head, seems to have amassed money, as a successful capitalist, before he saw the light and withdrew from business, to support his delightful household. Notes Graham Greene: 'Like the British Empire, he has retired from competition with a full purse' (807).
Capra's "common man", we should make no mistake about it, is a man. While his women may be strong characters, "equals" for their male hero protagonists and frequently the agents of their redemption (having themselves been initially won over from cynicism to a certain "innocent" integrity by loving the hero), the focus of our concern and engagement is, in his most famous films - including the Deeds-Smith-Doe trilogy - the man. As Capra's films became more self-consciously socially engaged and "relevant", they largely lost the erotic/feminine dimension to be found in Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Forbidden (1932) and The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933). 10 All these films starred Barbara Stanwyck, with whom Capra, according to his autobiography, was in love. By the time of Meet John Doe (1941) there is a change. Elliott Stein suggested that Stanwyck, 'stunningly physical in Bitter Tea, is, in John Doe, only slightly less sensual than Walter Brennan' (163). The beauty and the drama belong to Doe/Gary Cooper.
Otis Ferguson once concluded a critical review of that film:
That leaves only the star, who is so much an American John Doe type you could never say whether he was cast in a part or vice-versa - Gary Cooper. It is he who has the human dignity which this two hours of talk is talking about, and talking about; and it seems impossible for him to be quite foolish even in the midst of foolishness. His is the kind of stage presence which needs no special lighting or camera magic; he makes an entrance by opening a door, and immediately you know that someone is in the room. Meet John Doe has its humor, inspiration and interest in uneven degrees; but whether you find it good, fair or merely endurable depends more on Cooper than on what we know as sound movie making. (405-406)
By the time we have a more complex hero, George Bailey/James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), his feminine partner, Mary Bailey/Donna Read, has become considerably less interesting and complicated than earlier Capra heroines.
So we have Capra, immigrant American filmmaker, suspicious of intellectualism, decidedly patriarchal and patriotic and certainly anti-revolutionary, at least in the strict political sense, making films which have meant a great deal to many of us, over time and across the boundaries of political persuasions. What are some of the elements of the Capra world we have so willingly involved ourselves in? Have we, as some critics with little respect for their own responses have suggested, been too willing to be seduced by 'fantasies of goodwill' (see Griffith 450), impossible unities and naive visions of goodness conquering evil? Does the power of these films reside merely in a form of bad enchantment? I am convinced not.
It is not so easy, however, to begin to talk about why the Capra films have such power. We could focus on the scripts he worked with, the composition of the shots, the shading in the cinematography, the editing, the pace, the sheer energy. We could consider at length the star performances in his films, the texture of the voices, the look and sound ('...he shot love scenes and "inspiration" scenes', says Richard T. Jameson, 'of such misty iridescence, his stars seemed lit by rain') (25).
It has become common to rehabilitate films from the past which had seemingly retrograde ideologies (thought to engage fairly directly with the retrograde value system and world views of audiences) by focusing on their so-called formal qualities. So the film noir-within-the-film of It's a Wonderful Life and the freeze frame, stopping the narrative, can be celebrated as ways of undercutting features which are not to be celebrated, calling into question "obvious" messages (see, for example, Robert Ray 1985 and Raymond Carney 1986).
Certainly the "uncovering" of pessimism in works tends to render them more worthy of merit. Robert Warshow argued the problems with such a response forty years ago:
on the upper levels of our culture it is assumed that literature is a form of explicit social criticism, and consequently all "negative" social images tend to be given undue weight as representing a "truer" reality, just as on lower cultural levels certain "positive" images - of home, religion, and the like - are still assured an automatic response. (179)
So much of official American culture has been cheaply optimistic that we are likely almost by reflex to take pessimism as a measure of seriousness. (181)
Despite Warshow's wisdom here, I'm not so sure he's right about the 'lower cultural levels' and 'positive images'. We need to think more subtly about the ways in which darkness, despair and acknowledgement of the bleakness of life (those aspects that are open to change as well as those which are not) are often entwined with the "positive" in popular art. A whole generation of film theorists has made mileage out of the idea that many "women's" melodramas, "women's weepies" are more critical, subversive, etc. than was realised by audiences at the time of their release. Instead of the applause coming from ignorant female audiences, handkerchiefs soaked, it now comes from film theorists, handkerchiefs also in hand, except that they know the score. Theirs is a superior pleasure because it is married to their special knowledge, their ability to analyse. Little connection has been made between the analysis of "subversive" processes carried out by contemporary theorists and the experience of the films' audiences, audiences too often held in easy contempt. 11
Terry Lovell is worth quoting in this context. She stresses the contradictions, ambiguities and utopias in popular arts. She contests the simplistic emphasis placed upon the notion that in certain great popular films, undermining, oppositional ideologies seep through the dominant ideology. Says Lovell:
the oppositional valences of popular culture are not treasure buried in the depth of the text, and recoverable only with the aid of the right kinds of readings which are the exclusive preserve of a highly educated elite. They are very much more on the surface of the text, part of the staple pleasures which popular culture affords its audience. It is because these utopian and oppositional elements of popular culture - those elements which express the hopes, fears, wishes and simple refusals of the dominated - are not marginal but defining elements which are essential to the whole meaning and appeal of popular entertainment, that work in and on these forms, by media workers as well as critics, is of interest and importance. ("Ideology and Coronation Street" 52. See also Lovell's Pictures of Reality).
Honouring the "surface" of the film is precisely, I think, hard for us to know how to do. It's hard to know what to say in depth about the "surface". (Warshow, again, is good to read here. Stanley Cavell is attempting to honour in this way too.)
Years ago Capra said that his first rule in filmmaking was that the story had to have charm ("Sacred Cows to the Slaughter" 41). Doing justice to the charm of his best films would be no mean feat. I do think, however, that there is some dishonesty in evading the moral tales at the heart of his work as if they were not an integral part of the charm, part of their lasting power.
In his American Film Institute Salute, Capra himself suggested:
The real secret of the "art" of Frank Capra is very, very simple - it's love of people. And add two simple ideals to this love of people; the freedom of each individual and the equal importance of each individual and you have the principle upon which I based all my films.
In a related fashion, Leland Poague argues:
Capra's simple, golden-rule morality is an attempt to discover a common moral denominator that can unite [the] "little people" into the kind of political solidarity that will give them the power to deal with the corporate bosses and hence control their own lives. (187-188)
I do not think this exaggerates the thrust of Capra's work. As Harold Salemson pointed out, his subject matter and to some extent his choice of collaborators, suggests Capra was at some level aware of the need for drastic social reform and that equality, justice and democracy were goals for him.
Salemson nicely writes of the filmmaker's 'entirely (if perhaps unconsciously) pro-democratic genius' (25. See also 28-29), recognising that Capra 'spent the better part of a lifetime in a quest for Utopia - or, more precisely, in a quest for short cuts to Utopia' (26).
Capra's detractors are the first to note his ability and success, even "genius" for tapping our deep desires and fantasies. 'His fantasy of social unity', says Bergman, 'entered into the quasi-reality of all mass media' (148). Leonard Quart accords Capra the status of
master at manipulating an audience's feelings and fantasies, at constructing archetypal figures and images which were guaranteed to make one's eyes tear or throat catch. His films insinuated themselves into one's emotions, sometimes sacrificing the mind's integrity in the process. (4)
Quart's complaint is that during the mid and late thirties, Capra's vision coincided with much of left thought, including the American Communist Party's Popular Front phase with its commitment to 'reform, vaporous humanitarian ideals...and anti-Fascist solidarity' (5). The Front was very American and aggressively egalitarian. Capra heroes, in the Lincolnesque mould, like the heroes of the Popular Front, reinforced what was considered best in the American tradition. In Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), for example,
Jefferson Smith had the kind of sublime decency, and gift for conjuring up idyllic American dream imagery, which could transform cynical reporters like Jean Arthur and ultimately countless others into dewy-eyed believers. Capra's heroes may have had few ideas, but they radiated ideals, and in American life and myth, the politics of conversion and moral regeneration have always been more significant than the politics of social restructuring and revolution. (6)
Quart laments that the Daily Worker loved Capra's films, seeing Mr Smith as a 'ringing indictment of the political machine' and the film's presentation of Smith himself as an 'honest, incorruptible and sincere' character (6). He refers to Robert Stebbins' suggestion in New Theatre and Film (about Mr Deeds Goes To Town):
The whimsies are still here, the wit of line and action still crackles as in few other films, but underlying all is the salutary implication, if not recognition, that the world is a place of sorrows where the great multitudes of men suffer for the excesses of the few. (see Stebbins 17)
Capra's commitment to 'petty bourgeois capitalism', says Quart, did not matter to the Popular Front; on the contrary, his ideals were sufficient to grant him good standing in journals like the Daily Worker (7).
It is likely that it is precisely this strong affirmative dimension combined with the "recognition" (to varying degrees in different films) that the world is overall a bleak place, that is one of the reasons for Capra's films' popularity. It is one of the reasons too, despite admissions that the films "make you feel good", "have a warm feel to them" etc., that they have charmed but been mistrusted by many intellectuals, intellectuals who remain convinced that finding positive qualities in society in the present constitutes some kind of capitulation to the status quo.
While Jeanine Basinger notes that Capra's critics tend to belong to a particular, older, educated generation, 12 Quart probably speaks for many post 1968 theorists on the left who oppose "moral regeneration" to "social restructuring", who dismiss with suspicion notions of "humanitarian ideals" and "sublime decency".
In "Rationality and Democracy", philosopher Agnes Heller refers to a great flaw in many left wing discourses, a refusal to deal with notions of morality, unselfishness, goodness, heroism, etc., notions which preoccupy people in their everyday lives. She notes that in liberal and democratic countries, leftists 'normally regard references to such goodness as pious and moralizing drivel that only endangers the common cause of political radicalism' (259). While individual acts of goodness will not necessarily change society, this does not diminish their relevance, even if from our histories it appears that those actors have so often proved impotent (261).
Heller stresses that there is a problem in rigidly demarcating the "political" and all other human spheres. She expresses reservations about the way in which the public-political domain is so often seen as the supreme field of human activity and discourse. Without diminishing the necessity of social, economic and political transformation, she posits as the highest goal activity which engages 'the good person and gives voice to that person's totality' (264). The bonds whereby we perceive each other - not as embodiments of socially determined roles but as persons - represent the supreme good that humans can achieve. Heller does not hesitate to entertain a utopia based on certain value-ideals.
Capra's films point insistently to utopian elements in the here and now - ones which could be enlarged upon, radicalised and generalised. As several commentators have noted, in Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), his one film where a specific utopia is envisaged, it is 'cold, unconvincing and strangely uninviting' (Poague is quoting from Richard Griffith's 1975 monograph on Capra) (108). Says Handzo, 'the great ironic truth of Lost Horizon is that Shangri-La is a bore...without conflict, life stagnates' (10). The enchanted world, Capra's films suggest, has its seeds in the often dirty, confused, everyday struggle, not in some forcedly exotic, coldly calm mould. And so in his films the values and ideals which might lead to something better are enacted alongside the brutality and cynically expedient behaviour we have learned to expect.
If critics disagree over the political thrust of Capra's work, there is one thing they can agree upon, something which goes along with this affirmative dimension: his cinema is one of sentiment, one that deals shamelessly in the emotions. Stephen Handzo begins "Under Capracorn" with the comment:
Optimism is critically suspect. Too often it implies insulation from the evidence of experience, or yea-saying to the status quo...For Frank Capra...optimism was a dynamic force making possible what was thought impossible. His espousal of this philosophy has made him an easy, even willing target for those socially-conscious critics who despise happy endings as the opiate of the masses. (8)
Graham Greene wrote that Capra 'believes in the possibility of happiness; he believes, in spite of the controlling racketeers, in human nature. Goodness, simplicity, dis-interestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities' (Review of Mr Deeds Goes to Town 343). At the same time Greene stressed that the filmmaker's optimism was 'far from sweetness and complacency' (343).
In an interview with James Childs, Capra said he felt that he had never had a very good standing among American intellectuals. His films were not realistic, he says (23). Asked if they presented truth or were rather, a balm for the human spirit, he saw as one strength, their giving hope, linked to our desire for 'something over and above' our daily lives (22). He remarked:
Certainly sentiment is an almost verboten emotion with the intellectuals. Why that should be I have not an idea, except it's perhaps too common, too ordinary - it's not arcane enough for an intellectual. Perhaps it's too simple. (23)
In keeping with a strand of tradition in American popular films, there is, in fact, a certain anti-intellectualism running through Capra's films, an opposition of the emotions and the intellect. Jeffrey Richards, in his focus on Capra's populism, emphasizes this anti-intellectualism, particularly in Mr Deeds (70-71). But as Handzo points out, the charge of anti-intellectualism may be overdrawn. Capra's big capitalists are not intellectual. Mr Deeds, on the other hand, can quote Thoreau. Mr Smith knows a great deal about the American founding fathers and even Clarence, the second-class angel of It's a Wonderful Life, reads Mark Twain. Clearly there is some notion here of an organic American intellectual tradition - linked to a disdain for intellectuality as a pretence for snobbism and privilege - the setting up of divisions between people on the excuse of intellect. I think Poague's view is particularly fruitful:
If Capra is anti-intellectual, it is because he is aware of the way people routinely misuse their intellects. If you can rationalize leaving your ideals at the doorstep like rubbers, then you had better look closely again at the relationship between reason and morality. (187 my emphasis)
(Poague is referring here to what the corrupt Senator Paine in Mr Smith Goes to Washington tells idealistic Jefferson Smith about facing facts: 'This is a man's world, Jeff. And you've got to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers'.)
Capra's work has frequently been compared to that of another sentimental artist who championed the "common man", who was an advocate of "petit bourgeois capitalism" and creator of great and enduring popular works, Charles Dickens (see, for example, Greene's reviews of You Can't Take it With You and Mr Smith Goes To Washington); Handzo; Dickstein; Agee and Cavell's The World Viewed). Graham Greene's appreciation of Capra is reminiscent of George Orwell's love of Dickens. Greene praised Capra's sense of responsibility, his kinship with his audience, his sense of common life - all going along with his complete mastery of his medium. The theme Greene sees as moving Capra is that of 'goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world' (review of Mr Deeds Goes to Town 343).
In a review which was critical of the film, Greene compares You Can't Take it With You to Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Here Capra emerges for him as 'a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels - vaguely - that something is wrong with the social system' (807). What can be said about this film where Grandpa Vanderhof persuades Anthony P. Kirby, 'the rich and powerful Wall St. magnate, who has made the coup of his career and cornered the armaments industry to throw everything up and play the harmonica' (807)? Greene concludes:
It sounds awful, but it isn't as awful as all that, for Capra has a touch of genius with a camera: his screen always seems twice as big as other people's, and he cuts as brilliantly as Eisenstein (the climax when the big bad magnate takes up his harmonica is so exhilarating in its movement that you forget its absurdity). Humour and not wit is his line, a humour which shades off into whimsicality, and a kind of popular poetry which is apt to turn wistful. We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal - to that great soft organ with its unreliable goodness and easy melancholy and baseless optimism. The cinema, a popular craft, can hardly be expected to do more. (807)
In Dickens, too, it can be precisely where he is at his worst on political issues that he can also be at his best. Hard Times, for example, goes far beyond its political limitations in its demand for not splitting off our emotional, sensuous and human selves from Reason in a society which would reduce us to factors in a rationalised but irrational production process.
Warshow suggested that the impact of Chaplin's art was 'helped rather than hindered by a certain simplicity in his conception of political and social problems' (209). Capra's populist simplicity, Dickstein notes,
tended to personalize social problems into boy scouts and bosses, heroes and villains. But the same approach enabled him to transform America into a vivid personal myth of archetypal simplicity, affecting humor, and elemental emotional power. Like Chaplin, like Dickens, Capra remained in touch with something raw and vulnerable in himself and his audience, a memory of humiliation, struggle and inner resolution. (47)
Dickens, like Capra, was very much a "romantic realist", deploring the compartmentalisation of the whole person, fearful of large groups of people as masses, and in his writing, as in Capra's films, we very much see the moralisation of political and economic issues. In Dickens and Capra this moralisation could be at the cost of faithfulness to political and economic dimensions. Recognising this, however, giving these dimensions their due, would not mean denying that the "economic" and the "political" are also moral (or immoral).
Poague acknowledges the "sociological" and "political" problems his work raises, but stresses that Capra is primarily a poet of the personal and the moral, not the social and political (23). Not social, but 'emotional realism' is his 'comic bread and butter' (100). In a film like Mr Smith Goes To Washington, which is obviously concerned with the democratic process and its corruption, the focus, Poague points out, is still on the emotional and moral issues facing his central characters. At the heart of the conflict here is the opposition between faith and idealism and cynicism.
Though Poague's model may derive from the literary, his attempt to place Capra in an historical comic tradition, relating his work to a classic comic struggle between fertility and sterility, makes a great deal of sense. Comedy, Poague argues, does deal with economic issues, 'but it deals with such issues in moral terms' (43). Comedy is a highly conventional form. It retains, he says, a kind of primitive psychological force by maintaining a structure and logic characteristic of the archaic rites and myths from which it derives. And it is precisely, he suggests, this type of mythical conventionality which largely accounts for comedy's popularity, 'the fulfillment of conventional expectations is one way of fostering the sense of adequacy that is comedy's thematic heart' (44).
Poague gets to the heart of much of the objection to the comic affirmation found in popular film comedy in his criticism of Griffith's preference for 'clear-cut and obvious social realism'. Griffith, he says, lacks understanding of the meaning and importance of comic conventions and why they may have persisted. Poague rejects what he sees as Griffith's implication that artists should not be creating comedy in 'our anti-comic epoch'. He himself urges that there has never been a greater need 'for the comic expression of belief in human fertility and adequacy than in an age of such overwhelming sterility, death and despair.' Capra's films, he believes, tap into a deep-running stream that Northrop Frye describes as the 'comic mythos'. The filmmaker is celebrating 'the human virtues of fertility, maturity, integrity and community' (44-45). 13
Poague suggests that in You Can't Take it With You, for example, the surface issues of economics and politics serve, as they do repeatedly in Capra, 'as metaphors for comic bondage, for dedication to sterile principles' (52). As in some of his other films, here we see the equation of capitalism with sterility. But it is more properly monopoly or large scale capitalism that is condemned as the Vanderhof household is a hive of acceptable, personalised 'small-change' capitalism, a kind of capitalism which is acceptable 'because it does not demand the psychotic split between action and desire that characterizes the financial practices of Kirby...'. Moreover, 'this personalist capitalism endangers no one' (52).
Capra's metaphors for non-alienation, for comic happiness and wholeness, the non-division of the self, are often crude and corny. Munitions magnate Kirby, we know has redemptive possibilities since he has known 'the delights of the simple life' (Richards 68), he could once wrestle and play the mouth organ. In the course of You Can't Take it With You (1938), this bedrock of unpretentious, old-fashioned savouring of life is finally tapped. Peter Warne/Clark Gable, in It Happened One Night (1934) holds forth on such anti-pretentious activities as donut dunking and piggy backing. Lincoln, we are told, was a great piggy-backer. Said Warne/Gable to Ellie Andrews/Claudette Colbert: 'Show me a good piggy-backer and I'll show you a real human. I never met a rich man yet who could give piggy-backs'. (I am still struck by the idea that in the Why We Fight series film, The Nazis Strike (1943), Hitler is indicted as 'humorless'. In Prelude To War (1942), the enemy was also 'humorless'.)
A keynote feature of Capra's films, one which usually allows these metaphors to succeed, is what Stephen Handzo calls the 'reactive character'. He observes:
for a director who walks a tightrope between the ridiculous and the sublime, the reactive character anticipates audience skepticism and enables Capra to undercut his own sentimentality (and perhaps express his own qualms). Whenever things get too marshmallowy, there is always an insert of an abrasive Lionel Stander or Peter Falk to object. As Capra puts it: 'The world objects'. (9)
William S. Pechter, says Handzo, described the quality of 'irreducible foolishness' in Capra heroes, a quality which necessitates someone else with whom the audience can identify. And if the conversion of the commonsensical, experienced, even cynical (person or group) is possible, perhaps anything is possible. 14
Jean-Pierre Coursodon notes that in films like Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, it is the heroes, not Capra who are naive and optimistic. Both Mr Deeds/Gary Cooper and Mr Smith/James Stewart are characterised 'as somewhat "abnormal" precisely because of the unadulterated idealism they bring to a world in which cynicism and opportunism prevail'. The Capra hero, he says,
functions as a disrupting element thrown into the system to expose its flaws. He is an unsuspecting outsider dropped by chance in the midst of a ruthless world he had no idea existed. Confronted with the infinite wickedness of men, he displays his own goodwill with clumsy incompetence and is temporarily submerged in the 'ridiculousness of virtue' that Rousseau blamed Moliere for playing up in Le Misanthrope. The hero is subsequently retrieved from laughable inefficiency and takes on epic stature as he goes through a trial that turns him into a messianic figure, complete with impassioned preaching and Calvary agonies. (42)
While many commentators discuss Capra's populism in relation to country/city oppositions and the seeming immunity of the city to human values (see, for example, Wes Gehring's discussion in "McCarey vs. Capra"), Morris Dickstein takes pains to separate the literal from the mythic in Capra's work (cf. Poague above), distinguishing Capra's "populism" from the agrarian American Populist movement. 15 Capra's small-town America, he notes, is not an agricultural one. In fact, very little of Capra's work is actually set in small-town America: the films in the social trilogy of Mr Deeds, Mr Smith and Meet John Doe
take place, as their titles indicate, in the big city. The small town is already an anachronism in these films, an idea; it's where the hero comes from; its values are now embodied in his character, not in any fixed sense of place. This is how Capra brings together the two sides of Hollywood, the mythic and the quotidian, the stellar and the banal. He translated the small town - the idea of an unspoiled America - from a static tintype into flesh and blood, into Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. Capra's heroes are not exceptional men, but only heightened versions of ordinary good men; they may stumble into heroism, but their myth is the thirties myth of the common man. (44)
Capra, of course, fully intended his characters to give this rich resonance, to symbolize what he held so dear. For example, he stressed that Longfellow Deeds was more than a 'funny man cavorting in frothy situations'. He was 'the living symbol of the deep rebellion in every human heart - a growing resentment against being compartmentalised' (The Name Above the Title 186). Mr Deeds, says Capra, triumphs over his environment, he routs 'the mass predators' with only 'simple weapons of honesty, wit and courage', striking a blow for the audience too 'for their own individual dignity and divinity' (186). A few years later, in You Can't Take it With You, Capra again saw the Christian spiritual law being played out. As in Mr Deeds, here the defenseless lamb could cope with the lion. This dramatic format, he says, was to be used in his future films (241). What precisely adds to their interest and endurance is the fact that the notion of "coping" in the later films becomes so much more ambiguous and problematic.
Perhaps the increasing power of the villain, the virtuous man's adversary, best illustrates this point. Edward Arnold played Anthony P. Kirby in You Can't Take it With You (1938), (Big) Jim Taylor in Mr Smith (1939), and D.B. Norton in Meet John Doe (1941). As Poague notes, in the Kirby character, Capra makes his first explicit connection between big business and big government (60). It is clear that the administration will not interfere with the munitions manufacturer's plans. Kirby, however, presumably gives up his (big) business plans when he is personally redeemed. In Mr Smith, Jim Taylor runs a media and political machine. He is not seen to be redeemed. By the time we are presented with D.B. Norton, Arnold plays a media-controlling financier who runs a political machine and also a private army. His link to fascist ideas and tactics are overt. The possibility of his redemption at the end of Meet John Doe had disappeared. Historical/political events at the time of the making of each of these films had a lot to do with the shaping of the desires expressed, the possibilities entertained.
Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a nice test case of this ambiguity about the question of the hero "coping", and whether a great ideal can conquer all. And a consideration of its different interpretations can pave the way for the even deeper ambiguity and complexity of Capra's later post-war masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life. Both films revolve about performances by James Stewart. In Mr Smith, our young hero, a small-town boy-scout leader, a kind of simple, "natural" boy-man who has been organically at one with his surroundings, is brought into national politics by a corrupt political machine in the belief that he will act as an unknowing stooge for corporate interests. Smith's father, we are told, was a 'champion of lost causes', fighting battles in his local newspaper until, while defending a small miner's right to keep his claim, he was silenced, murdered by agents of corrupt mining syndicates. Senior Senator, "The Silver Knight", Joseph Paine/Claude Rains, puppet of Big Jim Taylor's political machine, had formerly been a friend and partner of Smith's father and the young idealist looks forward to meeting and working with this man. But it gradually unfolds that Paine is compromised, as is just about everyone Jeff Smith encounters in Washington, including Clarissa Saunders/Jean Arthur, his 'wised-up' secretary with whom he will fall in love. Pragmatism, if not cynicism and corruption are the rule of the day. It is when Smith seeks to draft a bill for a boys' camp in his home county that he learns that property in the area is being bought up, overtly for the construction of a dam, but actually for personal profit by Taylor. Legislation ratifying Taylor's graft will be pushed through the Senate by Paine.
Smith, assisted by Saunders - with ideals renewed and political know-how at the ready - fights for his boys' camp. The Taylor machine pulls out all the stops. Paine, whose White House aspirations are now in jeopardy, spearheads the attempt to smear Jefferson Smith as 'unworthy', to expel him from his seat in the Senate. He is accused of being the one who sought profit from his boys' camp project, and witnesses are paid to testify to that effect. Taylor, true to his own boast, can 'make public opinion' and 'bury' opposition newspapers and the Taylor-controlled print media and radio proceed to mount an attack on the blameless young Senator. The smear campaign conducted in his home state works, when the efforts of young boys, inspired by Saunders to put out an alternative press are crushed, the boys brutalised by Taylor's men. The depiction and indictment of a media-political machine here are strong. It is clear that Taylor has habitually made public opinion and silenced oppositional views. "News" here is advertising. There is no media argument, only slogans.
In the Senate itself, where Smith's and Paine's battle acquires mythical dimensions, Smith is scorned and derided by fellow Senators. Isolated and disheartened, but impelled by the surety that he is right, he conducts his famous filibuster - a kind of desperate pitch to keep democracy alive. 16
Smith is finally barely able to speak; he is emotionally and physically exhausted. Then Paine brings in "evidence" that public opinion in his home territory is firmly against him. He presents piles of testimonials, 'the people's answer to Mr Jefferson Smith'. But, after a moment of doubt, Smith staggers on:
I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody'll listen to me...some...
In the film's final moments, Smith collapses. But Paine has finally been reached. We hear gun shots, his attempt at suicide, then we see men restraining him. He declares his own unworthiness and Smith's "rightness". The Senate President/Harry Carey, who has silently communicated sympathetic, "fatherly" encouragement to Smith throughout the ordeal, is amused at the pandemonium that breaks out. He rocks in his chair and chews gum. The film's credits are shown to the strains of My Darling Clementine and My Country 'Tis of Thee (America).
Where does the film's weight lie? As Poague suggests, much depends on our interpretation of the film's closing minutes. Capra has said that he does not know who wins at the end (Interview with Childs 22). For Handzo, the ending is ambiguous, the Senate is 'in turmoil and the fate of the political machine unresolved' (12). Compared to Deeds' 'clear victory', in Mr Smith, 'the end is more absurdist than triumphal' (14). 'Only in the last thirty seconds, after [Smith's] collapse on the Senate floor', Brian Rose suggests, 'does the film reverse its negative direction' (158).
Griffith, Poague notes, described Mr Smith as 'the classic example' of his 'fantasy of goodwill' formulation (189), concluding that the 'little people' and their ideals attained victory over the corrupt machine (186). 17 Yet a careful viewing of the film confirms the "little people" do not win the battle. Poague suggests they are in fact 'either brutally crushed or bought off' (186). Jeff Smith, denounced and deserted by his own people, is metaphorically crucified. Coursodon stresses that throughout Mr Smith, 'political corruption is shown not as the exception but as the rule, not as a curable disease but as a condition inherent in the system...' (43). In fact he sees Capra's sociopolitical comedy dramas (Deeds, Smith, Doe and later, State Of The Union), as constituting almost a genre of their own. He finds them
powerful, uncompromising indictments, not only of political corruption and of the fascistic forces afoot under the cloak of democracy, but also of the public's gullibility and fickleness and the dangerous power of the media in the hands of demagogues. (42)
Mr Smith, Capra recalls, brought forth an unprecedented number of editorials and columns 'which blasted or praised the film as a service or disservice to...American ideals of democracy' (The Name Above the Title 287), precipitating arguments about patriotism that would stay alive for some time. Mr Smith was seen by some as playing into the hands of those who would destroy democracy, as the kind of picture 'dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in a democracy' (287). Legislation was called for to allow theatre owners to refuse to run films 'not in the best interests of [the] country' (288).
Joseph Kennedy, millionaire speculator, former film entrepreneur and father of a future United States President, was at that time United States Ambassador to London. According to Capra, he cabled Capra's studio, Columbia, to the effect that the film should be withdrawn from European exhibition. He argued that the film ridiculed democracy, it would lower allied morale and possibly be construed as favouring Axis powers. Testimonials were sent to Kennedy, stressing the film's vindication of democracy and the point that criticism was integral to democratic systems. The concern expressed in Kennedy's reply, says Capra, was and still is the concern of many Americans 'about the inherent power of the American film' (292).
(Mr.Capra's) fine work makes the indictment of our government all the more damning to foreign audiences...I feel that to show this film in foreign countries will do inestimable harm to American prestige all over the world...The fact remains...that pictures from the United States are the greatest influence on foreign public opinion of the American mode of life. The times are precarious, the future is dark at best. We must be more careful. (292)
Capra tells us the allies took the film's calls for freedom and democracy seriously, running it as a kind of symbol of the fight for democracy. (For Fran½ois Truffaut it was 'Watergate thirty-five years ahead of its time' (69).)
One of the reasons for the richness of a Capra film like Mr Smith and for its subtlety, is that as well as featuring reactive characters, there are also reactive arguments. This can be seen either as a clever device which, according to some theorists of ideology further strengthens the dominant argument, by acknowledging their inherent problems; or as evidence of an awareness of the complexity of ideas and beliefs as they are rendered meaningful, packaged and played out in everyday life. My suggestion is that in films like Mr Smith, they are both. 18
At one stage in the film, Smith/Stewart despairs over the rot that threatens the foundations of the capital, built as he sees it, on great ideals. His speech specifically refers to and foregrounds the way that great ideals can be advertised and used as hooks to manipulate people. The young Senator has gone to the Lincoln Memorial, alone and in despair. As he cries, Saunders appears. Joseph Paine, whom he has 'admired and worshipped all [his] life' has sworn, and gotten others to testify, to his dishonesty. Smith asks Saunders what one can believe when a man like Paine can act as he has done. His beliefs are shaken:
I don't know...there're a lot of fancy words around this town, some of them are carved in stone, some of them...I guess the Taylors and Paines put 'em up there so suckers like me could read 'em. And when you find out what men actually do...
Reformed cynic Saunders, now in love with the idealist, gives him an inspirational talk - there is more than the Taylors and Paines and the machines and lies. She invokes Lincoln, who
had his Taylors and Paines - so did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn't stop those men - they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that...
Smith, she insists, cannot quit. He did not just have faith in Paine or other living men. He had faith in something bigger than that, he had 'plain, decent, everyday common rightness'. Smith's vocation, his call to fight his battle for democracy, Saunders even insists, was handed on to him by none other than Lincoln - who, as the camera implies, had been waiting for him! 19
A dominant theme in Mr Smith, as I see it, is precisely that values and ideals, like freedom, justice, personal commitment, virtue, etc., are usually trodden on, prostituted and irrelevant in any real sense to the functioning of so many human relationships and social/political institutions. But if they disappear completely, or are allowed to remain frozen, sterilised and inoperative, or left as stuff for packaging by the media, we will have no hope of changing anything for the better.
Jeff Smith says to Saunders when they are drafting the Boys' Camp bill:
Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, "I'm free, to think and to speak". My ancestors couldn't. I can. And my children will.
I do not take this as meaning that ideas like liberty, or even hope cannot be debased, used and prostituted. The uses to which "authenticity" can be put are dealt with in Capra's later Meet John Doe (1941). When Ann Mitchell/Barbara Stanwyck is writing her "phony" John Doe speech, her mother (not implicated in the deceit involved) suggests she write something simple, real, with hope in it. Capra in fact foregrounds the idea of using symbols. In a publicity campaign, the hero is photographed with two midgets, 'symbols of little people'. Meet John Doe extends and illustrates many ideas presented in Mr Smith. The idea of ideological interpellation, the cynical use of our deepest desires is here quite explicit.
In Mr Smith, just before Jeff Smith faints, struggling to continue to say that he, and what he stands for, are not defeated, he makes a last appeal to Paine, who has had several opportunities to speak the truth, but taken none:
I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule: "Love thy neighbour." And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust...
Mr Smith Goes To Washington relies on the corrupt and prospering Senator Paine being reached by Smith, on his personal redemption. The odds are against this. But if, in his office as politician, he is so thoroughly corrupted, on what other grounds could he be appealed to, if not as a person, a person once bound to a friend in idealism and affection?
Capra, Poague argues, is aware of the difficulty of maintaining personal integrity (90). Coursodon suggests that Capra's own admissions of eventual moral failure, of selling artistic integrity for money, spell out clearly what was 'strongly suggested, but always tempered by built-in reassurances' in his films, his belief that 'integrity is the most precarious of virtues, that every man has his price, and that the victory of good over evil is never a sure thing' (42). In fact, Coursodon argues that beneath Capra's professed idealism is a pessimism: 'In his most serious movies, the powers of evil - greed and corruption foremost among them - are ever threatening to engulf fragile honesty...' (41). In the ongoing battle between good and evil, he stresses, in Capra's later films, the odds are in favour of the latter (45).
Even in Mr Deeds, Poague notes, there is no implication that goodness alone is 'going to fix a crippled economic structure' (179), though it may redeem people who are essentially good at heart. In Mr Smith it becomes obvious that appeals to values like freedom and justice are regarded as necessary but seen to carry no guarantees - just as appeals to personal integrity, to fight for lost causes and live by the "Love Thy Neighbour" maxim, even if heard, will not bring down walls of domination erected over time on behalf of vested interests. One ethical politician, Poague notes, does not make a viable and trustworthy political system (189. Cf. Phelps 56).
The point of the film, what the film and Mr Smith's/James Stewart's performance is about, is surely something like a gesture. People, in all kinds of corrupt and oppressive political situations can nevertheless assert their emotional and moral integrity. While such personal assertions are not necessarily political solutions, personal integrity is seen as 'a necessary qualification for ethical political behaviour...' (Poague 189, my emphasis).
Though I have quoted Jeff Smith's/James Stewart's words at length, the moral gesture is not only verbal. Virtue and morality are so often conceived to be separate from the sensuous, the corporeal (as in Kant). In Capra, the sensuous and corporeal are integral to morality (as in Blake). Morality is not something which transcends everyday life, which detracts from it. The charm of morality in Capra is not abstract - it is full of emotion, physicality, beauty and pleasure.
What Jeff Smith/James Stewart says is important. But it is one dimension of a film which is multidimensional. Concentrating on the speeches, I have in a sense consigned to the background the sheer beauty and drama of the film's climax. The youth, beauty and moral intensity of Stewart/Smith, displayed in the still on the cover of the journal in which Quart's critical article appears, for example, jar with the author's unnuanced negative verdict about 'vaporous humanitarian ideals' which Capra's films shared with the American Communist Popular Front. Smith/Stewart stands left of centre, pointing to Paine who is not in the frame. His stature and gesture in the photograph and the film from which the photograph is taken, are something to be dealt with in themselves. (Though I am not implying they are separate from the things I have been talking about.) Smith/Stewart is so small in relation to the majestic structure of the Senate and the enormity of the corruption within it. Yet the film can accord him and his expressive message a pre-eminence, a legitimacy, a seductive power as it displays his 'Calvary agonies' as Coursodon calls them. This Christ figure, James Stewart, is radiant, he is a star.
In American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, Raymond Carney has a still photograph of Smith/Stewart, centred, standing before baskets of telegrams denouncing him, holding some out in his hands and looking upwards, to the Gods in the Senate, as it were. The caption beneath the photograph reads:
The difference between words and gestures: speaking through a silent glance more powerfully and eloquently than the written telegrams he holds in his hands. (340)
Though I cannot engage in any depth here with arguments in Carney's chapter on Mr Smith, aptly titled "Speaking the language of the heart", I think he is right to stress the expressivity of the film, composed from elements other than the scripted speech; the high-key-lighting effects, close-ups, agitated gestures and movements, musical orchestrations. I would suggest the texture of Smith's/Stewart's voice is of supreme importance as are the hesitations in the speech which Carney mentions, the very inarticulateness of it. (These are both, of course, features we associate with James Stewart, as much as they are Jeff Smith's.) Smith's speech, Carney argues, 'is broken up, disrupted, interrupted, and frequently arrested by his overcharge of feeling' (336).
While I am less interested in the 'language of desire' than Carney, I find his emphasis on the personal, the emotional, the imaginative and the ideal, tied as they are in Capra to the social and moral, most fruitful. I concur with him wholeheartedly about the 'expressive audacity' Smith and Capra bring to their quests (see Carney 336).
The charm of morality in Capra, immigrant dreamer and conman, has something to do with the fact that virtue and goodness are embodied; they are to be gazed at - unashamedly. It is as if we are struck with them at the same time as we remain aware of the corruption at the heart of the Senate, the microcosm of the society in which Jeff Smith speaks and acts.
Like Heller, I am arguing against the devouring of ethical, existential and personal problems by "public" and "political" perspectives. As she notes, 'good and rational political institutions are the preconditions of the good life...they are not identical with it' (263). Her learned article, like this popular film, claims a space for the sorely neglected ethical dimension in politics and the beauty of the unselfish act, the gesture for the other. (See her discussion of the 'transculturally good person', the person we can call good in a transcultural sense (257 ff.).)
Heller, like Capra, has no illusions about the human record:
Histories of civilized humankind have been histories of murder, looting, plundering, human suffering - and they still are. If we examine histories they appear as Bedlam rather than any march of progress, reason, and freedom.
She goes on to suggest:
The only crutch inherited from (certain) histories that we can rely upon is that of value ideas, all usually infringed, and the moral genius, always exceptional. If we can legitimately call anything 'reason in history', this title should be reserved for the value ideas and the transculturally good person alone, because we have to revert to them in order to gain any conception of a rational ethics and a good life. (261)
It is here that I depart from her and her suggestion that 'ordinary human goodness cannot be measured with the yardstick of a moral genius' (258). I do not subscribe to the disjunction between 'ordinary human goodness' and 'moral genius' and am interested in thinking about the connection between outstandingly good acts and those we see about us in everyday life; in the fact that complex and confused human beings, given certain circumstances, despite tremendous handicaps, surpass and transcend themselves. Heller's 'transculturally good persons' cannot usually give good reasons for why they do what they do, 'it is not argument, but only the gesture, that has relevance' (258). I would suggest that it is precisely around the possibility of this gesture that countless popular films revolve, particularly the redemptive gesture, that of the individual who was in no sense 'transculturally good', but who often, at a crossroads decision, decides for others when they would normally have decided for themselves, when a hard life has taught them that the most "reasonable" thing to do is to look after themselves. Popular films ritually reaffirm that people can act well despite overpowering pressures not to do so, that poverty and brutalisation are not inevitably linked to moral weakness. Actors like James Cagney, Bette Davis, John Garfield and Marlene Dietrich have tended to embody the fact/possibility of such moral strength in their films (each have also embodied more ruthless and diabolical responses to the world).
To further my argument against elitist conceptions of goodness and virtue, I suggest that in a time when high art, in an oppositional stance, refused the affirmation of values and virtues, the popular films of a Capra, particularly a film like Mr Smith Goes To Washington, continued the "promise" of Herbert Marcuse's 'truth, protest and promise' to be found in great art (The Aesthetic Dimension xii).
Marcuse had his own worries about affirmative culture (see Negations, for example). We must know that the charm of morality may be used against us - that nothing is guaranteed. Not so very long after Otis Ferguson's discussion of Gary Cooper's embodiment of human dignity in Meet John Doe (see excerpt cited above), that star, embodying all this honesty, dignity and integrity, the Lincoln/Christ figure who never looked phony (see Capra, The Name Above The Title 182-183) testified at the Un-American activities hearings. He giggled with all the 'ridiculousness of virtue' (see Coursodon above) as he admitted his ignorance of Marxism, but concluded that from what he had heard, it wasn't 'on the level'. The magical effect of stars upon us is no simple matter. 20
But the challenges of complexity have to be met. I introduced this article by quoting Jeanine Basinger's definition of "Capraesque", with its multidimensional thrust, its bottom-line understanding of the harshness of the world and the difficulty of living in it much of the time. It would be surprising if the Sicilian American immigrant Capra had not learnt a great deal about sheer survival. Yet his cunning was even greater than most of his detractors allow. His work shows he knew that we earn our laughs, we need the courage to see things with humour. It shows too that all that is dear to us can be used. Perhaps most crucial for me here is his realisation of the importance of the gesture, the gesture towards ethical behaviour and moral personal integrity. It is entirely up to us, the audience, in our life after film, whether these gestures are ultimately empty or meaningful.
1. See Jeanine Basinger, "America's Love Affair with Frank Capra" (48).
2. See Capra's account of his early adventurism in the first two chapters of his autobiography, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title (1971). Andrew Bergman stresses the 'immigrant dreamer and con man' Capra. For him, 'Capra's comedy was a wide-eyed and affectionate hustle - the masterwork of an idealist and door-to-door salesman' (135). Joseph McBride, production associate and co-writer (with George Stevens Jr.) of the A.F.I. Salute, has recently published a bad faith biography on Capra, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. A detailed discussion of McBride's book is the stuff for an article in itself. However there is background information on Capra's early and later life which is interesting. Of relevance here is the fact that Capra, as a Sicilian immigrant to the United States, had his loyalty to the country called into question on more than one occasion.
3. On the occasion of Capra receiving the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, Basinger noted that despite the fact that he had made his last Hollywood film twenty years before, 'his movies are talked about today as if they had just been released...President Reagan explains part of his economic program by quoting a lengthy speech from Mr Deeds Goes To Town. After several years of persisting in a suit against the Pentagon, a man explains in a midwestern newspaper, "I grew up on those films like Mr Smith Goes To Washington, where the little guy never gives up"' (46, 48).
4. Said Harold Salemson, 'Because of the unchanging reticence to call things by name, to make clear the revolutionary implications, John Doe brought Capra under severe attack from the Left for what appeared objectively as a pro-Fascist call for a Man on a White Horse. The interpretation was doubtless unfounded, but not nearly so unfounded as the recent allegation by columnist Hedda Hopper, at the time of the Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into Hollywood, that Meet John Doe was a prime example of Communist propaganda on the screen' (31). See McBride's chapter 9, "American Madness", on the array of opinions and interpretations of Capra's and his films' politics. Throughout Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, McBride makes the common mistake of reading the films reductively, in accordance with knowledge about the director's stated politics (and supposed sexual neuroses!). I am regarding Capra as the auteur (rather than Auteur) of his films here and do not wish to minimise the contributions of Robert Riskin, Sidney Buchman, Jo Swerling, Myles Connolly or other writers who worked on Capra films. Nor do I want to deny their significance for the films themselves or the "politics" to be found in or gleaned from them. Basically McBride sees Capra as failing when he was cut off from good writerly influences. He says the '"auteur" theory of criticism, which Capra did as much as any filmmaker to promote, helped make his egocentrism fashionable, indeed elevated it to the status of a principle' (259). McBride never mentions his own co-authorship with Michael Wilmington of a good, youthfully worshipful book on John Ford. I would like to suggest that the star, Katherine Hepburn's assessment of Capra and his politics shows more insight than many scholars/journalists, including McBride who quotes her: 'Capra seemed a sweet fellow, nice and easy, and I think truthful about how he felt. He certainly wasn't very left. I don't think he was a party man in any violent sense. He was a very fair man, I would say. He didn't like anyone to push him around or try to tell him what to do. Was he an immigrant? I didn't know. Well, I think they know more about what this country means than those of us who were born here, we take it for granted. Capra's complete originality, his own outlook, was that of a fellow from Sicily coming into this country. That was his politics. "Pleased to be here"' (545- 546).
5. See Agee's whole review for the context.
6. Cf. Handzo: 'The basis of the Deed-Smith-Doe trilogy is its modern recasting of the Gospels (No wonder they have such strong plots)' (12). See also Hellman (1940) and Valenti (1981).
7. See Poague (89) and Coursodon (44). Capra's attitude to the mob or crowd can be seen clearly in early films like Rain Or Shine (1930) or American Madness (1932).
8. See, for example, Prelude To War (1942).
9. Capra invokes lists of great liberators in several of his films. His 'men of vision' again go back to Moses in State Of The Union (1948). He uses the idea of 'lighthouses in a foggy world' in Meet John Doe (referring to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln).
10. I cannot do justice to this point here which is the stuff of a paper on its own. Nor can I discuss the three films mentioned. I will just assert that The Bitter Tea is an extraordinary film and suggest that the discussions of Poague (1975) and Carney (1986) are well worth looking at.
11. Thomas Schatz says about the films of director, Douglas Sirk: 'Critical reservations were intensified, predictably, by the tremendous popularity of Sirk's "weepies", particularly with the middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow "women's matinee" crowd. But his talent is at last receiving its well-deserved acclaim...' (245). See Adrian Martin on film theorists who are 'closet buffs', and the 'blind, hopeful desirings of all the dour theoreticists on Framework and Camera Obscura who are looking for a quick route out of their heads and into their hearts...' (49).
12. Says Basinger: 'Capra, like all artists, has his detractors. ("Yeah", said one of my students, "and they're all fifty-five years old".) It is true that his critics tend to belong to the generation that attended college in the fifties, a time when the intellectual elite rejected what were thought to be his "sentimental" and "mindless" values' (48).
13. Griffith's evaluation of Capra is higher than it might seem from what is said here. He believed Capra's work had not been fully appreciated by many critics (see "The Film Since Then" 482). In the early post-war period Capra's It's a Wonderful Life was, he thought, one of the few films that were 'calls to sanity and reason', approaching 'real issues' and representing 'the most intelligent way to use the mass media in the public interest' (468).
14. Handzo suggests: 'To a great degree, Thirties films, especially Capra's, are a "people's theater": the reaction shot is a kind of Shakespearean aside, and the on-screen crowd in Deeds (shifting its allegiance as Cooper gains the initiative) is a continuation of the 19th-century melodramatic tradition of audience participation' (9- 10).
15. See Dickstein (45-46). See Richards (1976) and Quart (1977), for arguments about Capra's populism and Maland (1980) arguing against the populist label for Capra.
16. The media is not completely bought off. We see a CBS broadcaster speaking of 'democracy's finest show - the filibuster - the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form...The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can't see at home - democracy in action'.
17. In "The Film Since Then" Griffith actually says that Smith 'calls forth the goodwill of the "little people", and through their combined protest, he triumphs' (452-453). Cf. Otis Ferguson's review (1939), Graham Greene's (1940) and Penelope Houston's "Mr. Deeds and Willie Stark". The ending which Capra himself liked most, Geoffrey Hellman tells us, showed the destruction of the political machine opposing Smith. Preview audiences, however, preferred the 'noncommital conclusion leaving the fate of the political boss in doubt' and Capra settled on that version (24).
18. Penelope Houston nicely articulates the kinds of suggestions made about Capra and successful Hollywood films having their cake and eating it too. Of Capra she says: 'He admires and believes in the little man; he would like to believe that the meek will indeed inherit the earth; in a world dominated by power politics and big business he still finds refuge in idealism. The idealism, however, does not ignore the realities: Capra is always careful to build up a towering structure of dishonesty before he allows his hero to advance against it and knock it down, like the walls of Jericho, with his trumpet call' (277). American film shows us, says Houston, that it is always important to face the facts, 'and to be reassured that their implications are less disastrous than they appear' (278). Hollywood, she concludes, acts as both the national conscience and the national comforter: 'To solve the problems of society, at a personal level and on the screen, is to suggest the possibility of a national solution, and so - in accordance with the first rule of showmanship - to send the audience home happy. This presenting of a true picture, and twisting it to arrive at a happy ending, is an ingenious way of having your cake and eating it - perhaps a failing to which Americans are slightly more prone than other nationalities' (285).
19. See Joyce Nelson (249) on the power of Slavko Vorkapich's montage in the film.
20. See Cooper's performance/testimony in Hollywood On Trial, directed by David Helpern Jr. Cinema Associates 1976. Cooper's star performance before the Committee/audience demonstrates the need for complex and thoroughly contextualised considerations of star magic, of the embodiment in actors of value-ideas and dreams. For some consideration of the star phenomenon, see Charles Affron, Star Acting, Richard Dyer, Stars and Edgar Morin, The Stars.
Affron, Charles. Star Acting. New York: E.P.Dutton, 1977.
Agee, James. Review of "It's a Wonderful Life". The Nation (February 15 1947): 193-194.
Anstey, Edgar. Review of "Meet John Doe". The Spectator (October 10 1941): 355.
Basinger, Jeanine. "America's Love Affair with Frank Capra". American Film 7.5 (March 1982): 46-51, 81.
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