One of the hallmarks of Christmas since I was a child has been watching It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a great film, one that makes me appreciative of my friends and family. The director of It’s A Wonderful Life is Frank Capra, one of the finest directors of the 1930s and 1940s. One of the things that I love about the Capra films is the love that Capra has for the average American and it’s extolling of the values of American community. The characters are fun, energetic and humble, and they have supportive and loving family and friends. The optimism and sentimentality in these films though are balanced by a willingness to look at the harsher aspects of American life. Frank Capra’s films offer us a look at how Americans viewed themselves in the Roosevelt era, and they influence how we would like America to be today.
My favorite movies of Frank Capra were those made in the mid 1930s to mid 1940s. Films like Lady For A Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, It’s A Wonderful Life. I was lucky to catch a festival that the Stanford Theater had in the 1990s on Frank Capra and managed to watch several of his movies for the first time. One of the most appealing things that I found when I first watched these films was the affection that Capra lavished on the ordinary working people of his movies. The taxi drivers, waiters, bellhops, maids, policemen, gas station attendents, and drug store owners didn’t just blur in the background; they were funny, kind, generous, and humble, the kind of people I’d like to meet. The heroes were usually of humble origins. Mr. Smith (from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) was a boy ranger leader, Peter Warne (from It Happened One Night) was a down on his luck reporter, John Doe (from Meet John Doe) was a has-been baseball player and itinerant hobo. Capra’s heroines appeal to me because they are capable and intelligent, more than equal to the heroes of the movies. Most of the women are more wise to the world than the heroes were, and these women often had to provide the street smarts to help their men fight against corruption. Clarissa Saunders, in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, helps Jefferson Smith with the Senatorial rules necessary to filibuster a corrupt bill. Babe Bennett, in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, teaches Longfellow Deeds of the pitfalls of New York City high society. Both the heroes and the heroines are funny and decent at heart, and they enjoy the company of every day people.
In these films, community is very important. In most of his movies, the hero and heroine are beloved members of a loving community or small town. George Baily, of course, is the center of his town as the savings-and-loan officer who was responsible for many of the townspeople being able to afford their homes. Longfellow Deeds, of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, is sent off to the city by the entire small town as they serenade him goodby. These friends and family not only offer love and support to the Jefferson Smiths and George Bailys, they also root their heroes in the small town values that gird them from the temptations of a materialistic and corrupt world. I read somewhere that American culture was still struggling between the virtues of a small town farming society and an urban city society, and this seems to be depicted in the values that are in conflict in Capra’s films.
I read a lot about how Capra’s movies are overly optimistic and sentimental, but the Capra movies that I’ve watched are not shy about showing the dark side of American culture. These movies were made during a time when many Americans were under severe economic distress, and there were worries overseas about the growing threats to democracy from Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union. The Capra films wasn’t afraid of showing the effects of the Great Depression on their characters. In the middle of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, the comedy and high spirits of the first part of the movie is stopped cold when a hungry vagrant confronts Mr. Deeds and asks how he could spend his wealth frivolously while people around him starve. In It Happened One Night, the frivolity of a sing-a-long on a bus trip is interruppted when a woman faints and her son explains that the woman had been looking for a job and hadn’t had anything to eat. Both American Madness and It’s A Wonderful Life depict a bank run, as the ordinarily happy and decent people turn into a desperate mob afraid of seeing their life savings disappear. Meet John Doe has a seen where a group of townspeople tell John Doe of the ways that the economy has affected them, of a man who snuck in the middle of the night to sell his furniture to get needed money, or of the man who went through trash cans because he was too proud to take help.
Capra’s most political films, in my eyes, are Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and Meet John Doe. Mr. Deeds Goes Town deals with the divide between the rich high society elite of New York City and the struggling poor and unemployed. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington deals with political corruption and the struggle that all politicians face between political pragmatism and politican idealism. Meet John Doe touches upon the dangers when corporate heads control newspapers and how dangerously easy it is to manipulate a population through the media (a lesson that is fresh to America after Bush’s campaign to invade Iraq). A common theme in all these films is how a community can be transformed into a hostile mob through the manipulation of the press. Although Capra loves the American community, he realizes that groups are not always benign. In such circumstances, his films believe justice is best served by individuals who take courageous stands. This is in keeping with Martin Luther King’s observation in Letter From a Birmingham Jail that groups tend to be immoral than individuals.
When I observed the sympathy that these films had for the common American, I always assumed that Frank Capra was a New Deal liberal. It surprised me to find out that Capra was actually a Republican who disliked Roosevelt and the New Deal. I always found his films to be unabashed liberal films, but as Donald Willis wrote in a critical study of Capra’s films: “Depending on one’s political point of view and on what Capra film or films or parts of Capra films one is talking about, Frank Capra is an advocate of Communism, fascism, marxism, populism, conservatism, McCarthyism, New Dealism, anti-Hooverism, jingoism, socialism, capitalism, middle-of-the-road-ism, democracy or individualism.” I guess my initial response to Capra’s films shows my own bias as a liberal Democrat and the failure to realize that many Republicans like Capra do have compassion for working Americans and the poor.
Though Frank Capra is a Republican, I believe that his films do have a liberal and left wing influence. His films are not just his views alone, but the amalgamation of his views and those of his screenwriters. His close friend and frequent screenwriter, Robert Riskin, was a New Deal Democrat. Sidney Buchman was a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Capra was able to collaborate with people of diverse opinions because of his open mindedness and his respect for divergent views. Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,
“The auteur theory… did not recognize the degree to which a filmmaker such as Capra could be influenced by conflicting points of view and incorporate them into his work, nor the degree to which a filmmaker might be expressing his times as much as he was expressing himself. And though there was much controversy in the 1970s about how much credit Robert Riskin deserved for Capra’s success, not even Riskin’s supporters ever pointed out that the crux of the problem ws that Capra and Riskin did not have identical sociopolitical views, or that their films could have been a volatile fusion between two conflicting viewpoints rather than a smooth and unified expression of one man’s ideas. Nor was there any cognizance of the degree to which Capra in the 1930s acted as a relatively passive sounding board for the political views of his diverse brain trust, which included the far-right Myles Connolly, the Roosevelt liberal Jo Swerling, and the left-liberal writer and associate producer Joseph Sistrom…. Capra in the prime of his career liked to surround himself with colleagues who were not yes men, and his ability to listen to and absorb such a range of viewpoints ‘made him an interesting guy’, contributing to the complexity of his films. “
Though the America of the 1930s and 1940s seem so far away now, the movies of Frank Capra can help remind us that we have more in common with that time than we think. It was a time of economic hardship, when Wall Street was in shambles and banks were foreclosing, people were losing their homes, and danger seemed to growing overseas. As the financial crisis have hit Wall Street and the banking system in these past 2 weeks, as our economy slows down and people go out of work, as our security becomes threatened by terrorists and new world powers, it becomes easier for us to sympathize with the America of the 1930s and 1940s. And as those Americans did, we could look to Frank Capra to encourage us, to remind us of our American values, and to support us for the struggle ahead.