Mr Capra Goes to Heaven


Frank Capra is one of the most eternally present of all Hollywood filmmakers. The homages to his films by other filmmakers never stop coming, sometimes popping up in the least likely of places, like Gremlins (1984) and Look Who’s Talking (1989). How many more times shall we see characters in contemporary movies laugh or cry in their lounge rooms, bedrooms and kitchens as they watch on their TVs Claudette Colbert flashing a leg to hitch a ride in It Happened One Night (1934), Jimmy Stewart collapsing to the floor of the Senate after his fabulous filibuster in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and especially the same Jimmy Stewart rejoicing as he finds the petals given him by his daughter and running home for Christmas in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? Now that Frank Capra has died at the age of 94, I expect we’ll see these clips lovingly replayed plenty more times.


Capra was a showman and a populist of the cinema. Few filmmakers have taken on the mythic cause of America with as much zeal or energy as he, a Sicilian-born immigrant eager to make good in a land of opportunity. His films like Meet John Doe (1941) and Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) have a grandly preachy side – becoming, at times, almost feverish soapbox sermons on the state of the American nation, not to mention the state of the American soul. At its worst, this leads directly, in American culture, to the sanctimoniousness of a Steven Spielberg or a Bill Cosby. But Capra would not have survived for so long in popular memory if there was not a great deal more going on in his films.


Capra is loved by virtually all film fans and serious film lovers, even if the latter group have not always known what to say in-depth about his movies. He is in a tradition of Hollywood directors, including Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey and Billy Wilder, who centred his creative energies on the script, and on his luminous, immortal star actors – rather than on the possibilities of the camera or editing. Capra’s films, in truth, have a rough, slapdash cinematic edge that accords well with their cultivated naïveté and their boundlessly enthusiastic optimism. Capra was a showman in a true popular-culture sense because, to him, the energy of a film – what we call today ‘feel good’ energy, which he virtually invented – was everything, overriding (when necessary) the strictly logical requirements of a story. Yet, complete with that reckless energy, Capra’s classics are still models of inventive, economic screenwriting; he got the very best from his famous script collaborators like Robert Riskin.


Capra’s greatest years as a filmmaker were in the 1930s. Even before he hit stride with wildly popular hits like Mr Smith, the string of films he made at the beginning of that decade – Miracle Woman (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), American Madness (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) – make for startling, inexhaustible viewing today. What makes Capra memorable is not only the vital expression of an American Dream, but also what critics including David Thomson and Robin Wood have called the worrying of that dream, the explicit dramatisation of its deepest tensions, contradictions and fears. 


Take It’s a Wonderful Life which, at one level, is quite simply the biggest, most persuasive apology for the status quo ever produced by mass culture. Post-war Everyman George Bailey (Stewart) comes to doubt his lot in life as a modest father and provider, so Capra goes into bat trying to convince him – and us – that sticking with normality is worth it, after all. To this end, Capra pulls out of the hat not only a guardian angel, but finally a veritable vision of Hell – what the world would be like if George had never been born. Yet, for any of this persuasion to work, Capra must first concede a little – a dangerously tantalising inch, indeed – to the opposite side of the argument: the terrible thought that, in accepting home and family and small town, George has unnecessarily sacrificed ambition, libido, romance and adventure – those opposite, anti-social American dreams which Hollywood elsewhere peddles so well. All Capra’s films are built on this type of human and social paradox.


The last word goes to a director who died two years previously (even though his career began just as Capra’s was winding up); someone who, in his own extraordinary way, consciously reinvented Capra’s cinema. I’m referring to John Cassavetes, who regarded Capra as “the greatest filmmaker who ever lived”, while admitting: "I wish I could really express the beautiful ideas he could without feeling perhaps that these ideas are not truthful”. That’s a reflection that goes right to the heart of the ambiguous richness of Capra’s films. 


But Cassavetes’ finest thought on his hero was also his most succinct: "Maybe there never was an America … maybe it was all Frank Capra".



Broadcast as an obituary tribute on the Australian radio program Screen, 5 September 1991.


© Adrian Martin 5/9/91, 6-8am

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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