Friday 30 December 2022


 Louise and I have established a programme of films from our DVD and Blue Ray collection for evening watching during Advent, and then from Christmas to Epiphany on January 6. We watched Frank Capra's 1938 masterpiece 'You Can't Take It With You' last Friday, 23 December. It may have been a year since we last saw it, but the film had lost none of its charm or meaning. There were even sequences which had me exclaiming with joy, 'This is a socialist film!' That makes it a real Christmas treat.

The Capra film that took two Oscars in 1938 - Best Director and Outstanding Production for Columbia Pictures 

Of course, with Frank Capra (1897-1991) things are sometimes not quite what they may seem. That is what I have learned, now I have been inspired by his films to find out more about the man. There is a moment in You Can't Take It With You, towards the end, when Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, the eccentric American idealist who doesn't understand why he should pay taxes to the government, refuses to tell James Stewart, in the role of  Tony Kirby, the young banker, the whereabouts of the woman he loves, Vanderhof's granddaughter, Alice Sycamore, played by Jean Arthur. 'I'm not and never will be a snitch', says Grandpa Vanderhof. 

But Frank Capra learned to compromise and became a snitch himself.

His biographer, Joseph McBride, in 'The Catastrophe of Success' (1992) wrote:

'How long Capra may have been informing before September 1951 cannot be determined from the available evidence, but it was as early as 1947 that he "began to act strangely, to look for 'villains'". (p.604)

This was around the time the Hearings on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began in Washington and the McCarthyite witch-hunt started, seeking to purge the USA of any trace of the 'red menace': Communism. The world of the witch-hunt was not a rational world, not least when the heat was turned up on Hollywood by HUAC with its 1951 round of hearings. Two Hollywood figures of note, Sidney Buchman and Michael Wilson, probably never knew that Capra had named their names to the security board. Both men's careers were soon severely damaged. Capra had not collaborated openly with the committee so the American public never knew for certain what Capra had done - and Capra

himself remained in a confused state of self-denial. In 1977, looking back on those Red Scare years, he commented:

"I love America. after all it has done for me, I'd never turn on her. . . . But that blacklist thing was not America. America is above that sort of thing." (p. 607)

Yet Ian McLellan Hunter, who successfully resumed his scriptwriting career after being blacklisted, commented in 1984 when told that Capra had named him to the security board: 

"Capra didn't mean anything to us, because he couldn't say whether somebody was in the Communist Party . . . he wasn't in the Party himself . . . but the blacklist killed him - that panic. In effect, he was a victim of the blacklist. But he had the soul of an informer".

Yet Capra earned the respect of those who worked on his film sets - he was gentle and considerate - "a director who displays absolutely no exhibitionism".

Capra was the son of Italian immigrants; he knew the truth in what he saw as the Darwinian message that only the fittest survive. He understood that there were messages in the films he had made in the 1930s that meant he would be under investigation; better to name names that were already out there in order to take the pressure off. Almost immediately after 'snitching' in 1952, he left for an Indian Film Festival, at the request of the State Department, to play his part in what was, in effect, a US crusade against communism overseas. He boasted he wasn't long at the Festival before 'The Stars and Stripes were going up, and the Hammer and Sickle was going down'.    

It seems that Capra never recovered from these compromises. He stayed away from feature filmmaking until his less than successful Hollywood comeback in 1959 - and from thereon began to suffer the so-called 'cluster headaches' that afflicted him until 1971 when his autobiography was published with its partial story of his security board crisis. One night in 1960, sleepless with his head pain, he asked himself what was causing these headaches - and he then answered his own question:

"It's the Judas pain. You welshed, compromised, sold out." (p.610) 

The stakes were high for Capra - he knew his own power to enthrall. 

Born in Italy and raised in Los Angeles from the age of five, Frank Capra (1897-1991) had a rags to riches story that makes him the personification of the American Dream. It was that Dream that shapes his most successful films. Instead of working after leaving school as his parents wanted, he enrolled in the California Institute of Technology and studied chemical engineering, graduating in 1918. He was then commissioned into the US Army as a second lieutenant but soon caught the Spanish flu. This he survived but it did lead to his medical discharge - and his entry into the world of silent film comedies. He was cocksure, agreeable, and ready and willing to learn. 

By 1928, he was working for Harry Cohn's studio, Columbia Pictures, as a director and bringing his engineering knowledge to bear in the new world of movie sound. He was one of the few directors who knew what they were doing with sound and Capra became Cohn's most trusted director. During his years at Columbia, Capra often worked with screenwriter, Robert Riskin, whose sharp dialogue helped make the Capra-Riskin pairing Hollywood's most admired director-writer team. When Louise and I thrill to the inspirational messages in You Can't Take It With You, credit is due to Riskin as well as Capra. 

The feel-good fantasy ending from You Can't take it with You - Grandpa and the banker; Grandpa's grand-daughter and the banker's son - all are united in perfect harmony - the American Drean Lives!

From 1934, Capra started using his films to convey messages to the public who were now flocking to the movie theatres. Some call it Capra-corn; others, more kindly, a Capra-esque quality. We are firmly in the latter camp. Here is Capra, explaining his intention:

'My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.'  

You have to be cocksure in an American way to pull off that kind of role as a Christian prophet in a movie-director's chair with a spell-bound cinema audience running into the tens of millions. Capra's films now became as much about themes as about people. The Capra-Riskin pairing had already secured five top Oscars for It Happened One Night in 1934, an escapist screwball comedy that celebrated the American Dream. In 1936, Capra won his second Best Director Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In 1938, You Can't Take It With You secured him his third Director Oscar in five years. 

How did he achieve such heights in this novel medium of sound film? Capra's directing style relied on improvisation to a great extent. When he entered the film set, he had a reputation for only having the master scene written. In his words:

'What you need is what the scene is about, who does what to whom, and who cares about whom ... all I want is a master scene and I'll take care of the rest - how to shoot it, how to keep the machinery out of the way, and how to focus attention on the actors at all times.'

Capra - the Director Extraordinaire

Capra used unobtrusive craftsmanship when directing. He avoided fancy technical gimmicks. Instead, he relied on the edit after the shooting to help his films sustain a sequence of rhythmic motion. His films move at pace - and the tempo of the film becomes synchronised with the action. There is a naturalistic quality to the dialogue; speakers can overlap with one another as they often do in real life. Capra was an  innovative artist who was helping lead the movies away from the world of the stage into a new visual and sound theatre. Breathtaking brilliance. 

As for the themes that were now emerging in his work, the film writer, Richard Griffith, describes it thus:

'A messianic innocent ... pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His inexperience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls for the goodwill of the "little people", and through their combined protest, he triumphs'.

That's a basic Capra theme and each movie has its own take on that theme. His films resonate with a message that human nature, deep down, is basically good. We need to believe in the value of unselfishness. Redemption for those who stray from the path of goodness is always possible. You Can't Take It With You is a frantic unbelievable frolic which is still able to bring to life and explore deep discords in the American way of life. The most successful and selfish banker in town, Anthony P. Kirby, played by Edward Arnold, is the epitome of the capitalist fat cat - yet he is a father too who has feelings of tenderness towards his son. Kirby, senior, is granted an epiphany moment by Capra and Riskin. He abandons his plans to buy up the block of houses in which Grandpa and family live. Kirby, junior, is able to marry the love of his life, Grandpa's grand-daughter - and everything ends happily with all the cast sitting around the family table, sharing a meal. A good, wholesome ending. 

Yes, that's the Capra-corn - but what insights spill out on the way! The viewing public have their feel-good ending but they also have those minutes en route which confront them with the iniquities of unregulated capitalism, if they choose to listen. Riskin was a left-of-centre kind of guy; Capra, however, was a conservative Republican who was opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal, no government intervention for him - but that did not prevent him from giving a voice to those who could see something was rotten in the system. Yet Capra was convinced by the American myth - that good would always prevail; the corruption would be rooted out by the good guys and through them American individualism would triumph. 

One of the final frames from You Can't take It With You - Grandpa is saying grace as the banking family and his own family of American individual eccentrics share that communal meal - Capra returned to the Catholic church in his later years after being what he called a 'Christmas Catholic' in his early adulthood.

I hope you are encouraged to watch some Capra films. They don't make them like that anymore.  





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