American Pie

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

by Joseph McBride
Simon and Schuster, 768 pp., $27.50

As plotted on the chart of conventional success, Frank Capra’s career as a movie director would seem to describe a particularly American parabola. He was born in 1897, immigrated from Sicily with his family in 1903, entered the movie business in the wideopen early 1920s. He remained an obscure journeyman director for a few years and then, during the Depression, swiftly rose in stature, power, and esteem until, by the mid-1930s, he was one of the most important figures in Hollywood. But his curve crested just before World War II and he slid slowly into commercial oblivion, managing only six movies—as many pictures as he had made in 1928 alone—between the end of the war and 1961. By the time he died, in 1991, few were aware he had survived as long as he did. This trajectory might be a perfect illustration of Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives.

At the same time, however, even as he was settling into his long professional twilight, Capra was invisibly being accorded a kind of secular sainthood, universal name recognition accompanied by near-universal affection, an honor America seldom bestows upon its creative artists. Now the director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life is seated at the big table on the dais, between Parson Weems and Norman Rockwell, with bunting all around. The only other film makers who might conceivably be nearby are John Ford and Walt Disney. Millions of those who have elevated Capra to this position have never heard of, say, Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, who were far his superiors as movie makers. But his achievement of this pedestal has little to do with his skill as a director, anyway—he made good movies, but he also made bad or indifferent movies, depending on his collaborators—but a great deal to do with his deployment of rhetoric. In this he was a politician, not to say a demagogue, and he taught bona fide electoral politicians, beginning with Ronald Reagan (whom he never directed as an actor), more than a trick or two.

Shortly after Capra’s death, a staff writer at the New York Daily News named Wayman Wong wrote a brief opinion piece in which he took issue with the obituary hosannas being unspooled by critics in his and other papers. Capra was not a genius, Wong wrote, he was never all that imaginative, and furthermore “his legacy of mawkish and manipulative movies isn’t worth all the weeping and wailing.” The reaction from readers was swift and thunderous. “Decent common people with principles will always rear our heads because of Frank Capra,” wrote one, and others chided Wong for his “jaded” denigration of mass pleasures. But there was a grimmer undertone. A reader from Manhattan wrote, “I felt an overpowering need to write and tell [Mr. Wong] what I think of his lack of understanding of what made America the great country she is …

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