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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. [Since] his last name is Wong, that tells me he should not write about people and things American that were before his time.” And that was merely the most polite entry in this vein. Poor Wong was left to assert that he was born in the United States and that his family had been in the country since the turn of the century.

The half page of letters (published September 29, 1991) possessed a cumulative ugliness and near menace that would perhaps not surprise any regular reader of tabloid letters columns. But, racism aside, that they were prompted by mild iconoclasm at the expense of a film maker whose most famous works had been achieved half a century earlier is, on the face of it, bewildering. What they suggest is how deeply Capra tapped into a national reservoir of pride and mistrust, of American competitiveness and competitive Americanness. It is perfectly appropriate that he should be evergreen in popular consciousness during a time of national impotence.

Joseph McBride’s biography does not appear to have been intended as a debunking exercise. McBride has been a Variety critic for two decades—he was in the news not long ago as a result of his very public reprimand by that paper’s editor for having detailed the political as well as aesthetic crudity of the movie Patriot Games, issued by an important advertising client—and he is the author of a number of books, including a perceptive study of Orson Welles and the extraordinary Hawks on Hawks (University of California Press, 1982), a wide-ranging and uninhibited book-length interview with Howard Hawks that is both an exhilarating memoir and a shrewd analysis of Hollywood style.

McBride is a serious film scholar, with an obvious love for American movies of the classic period. He embarked on the project, as he notes in his acknowledgments, as a consequence of writing a tribute to Capra for the American Film Institute on the occasion of its 1981 Life Achievement Award. In the course of his work he became troubled by the mystery of Capra’s decline, and by discrepancies between the documentary record of Capra’s life and work and what the director wrote in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title. The mysteries only deepened the further he investigated, and finally he decided that a full-dress biography was required. Capra accorded him a number of lengthy interviews before being incapacitated by a series of strokes when he was eighty-eight, and McBride also interviewed everyone he could locate who had known Capra, most of them, by the time of his research, very old.

The astonishing amount of documentation McBride assembled is evident on every page, but without drowning the book’s purpose in trivia; such patient and judicious employment of detail is as unusual for a movie-business biography as it would be for the sort of posthumous assassination that was the fashion in biographies a few years ago. McBride is fair and strict in his method and self-effacing in his style. The portrait he presents is as convincing as it is devastating.

The tone is set at the very beginning by an account of Capra’s 1977 visit to the Sicilian village where he was born. Dressed in lemon-yellow turtleneck and slacks and brown-and-white checked sport coat, preceded by motorcycle outriders and a squad of carabinieri, accompanied by assorted dignitaries, and followed by a uniformed brass band playing folk tunes. Capra was marched through the narrow cobblestone streets lined by virtually the entire population. The scene, McBride notes, was cast from the mold of every heartwarming climactic reunion in Capra’s pictures. But Capra, who had agreed to the visit as a feature of an Italian tour sponsored by the United States Information Service, remembered almost nothing of his home town (which he had not visited since emigrating), harbored sundry resentments toward his family, and was furthermore plagued by an attack of diarrhea. He spent about an hour with his relatives and then ran to his limousine and fled, in the middle of everything, before the testimonial dinner. Later he summed up his feelings at a press conference: “I felt nothing…. Who the hell cares where you were born? That town meant nothing to me.” Despite Longfellow Deeds’s attachment to Mandrake Falls (in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and George Bailey’s to Bedford Falls (in It’s a Wonderful Life), this too was characteristic of Capra. He had spent his life and career attempting to deny his origins and to become American in the most mainstream, unshaded way.

His large family had settled in Los Angeles, drawn by an enthusiastic letter from an older son who had emigrated on his own. The family was poor but not impoverished, and Frank, the youngest son (who changed his first name from Francesco and his middle name from Rosario to Russell), was the ambitious one, who went on to attend the nascent Caltech, with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer. The lure of the movies proved stronger, however, and Capra got involved with them the way thousands of others did in those early days, chasing odd jobs in various locations with companies of varying size and stability, in his case with interruptions during which he peddled inspirational volumes by Elbert Hubbard and phony mining stock, among other things. In 1921 he directed his first short subject, an adaptation of a poem by Kipling that was meant to be the first of a series of famous poems literally rendered on the screen, then found his way to the Mack Sennett comedy factory, where he worked for several years as a gag man before graduating to directing two-reel comedies. In 1926 he directed his first feature, The Strong Man, a vehicle for Harry Langdon, the comic actor whom James Agee described as looking like “an outsize baby who had begun to outgrow his clothes.” The collaboration was a success: Capra had an instinctive feeling for the perverse element lurking just behind Langdon’s innocence. He himself contained a mixture of those qualities, so that he probably had little conscious idea what he was doing when he staged all those weirdly lurid scenes of the moon-faced Langdon victimized by women.

But Langdon, who was nowhere as simple in life as his character suggested he was, wanted to become his own auteur, after Chaplin and Keaton, and shoved Capra into the wings. Capra wrote letters to every columnist he could think of alleging that Langdon was a troublemaker who made work impossible on his sets, and the dissemination of the letters soon ended Langdon’s career. Capra himself was out of the slapstick business, but he ended up at Columbia Pictures, then located on Poverty Row. He was to remain there for a decade, meet his most reliable collaborators, and make his best movies. Before he found his footing as a director of message-imbued comedies, and as the man who would bring the studio up to major-league status, he made gangster pictures, ethnic dramas newspaper dramas, boxing comedies. He made three big service-gimmick adventures (Submarine, Flight, Dirigible) which so moved up in scale and success that, while climactic scenes in the first were shot using miniatures in an aquarium, the last featured real dirigibles. He adapted a hit Broadway musical (Rain or Shine) but cut out the hit songs (which included the epochal “Happy Days Are Here Again”) in order to save money.

It was around this time that Capra’s single greatest talent, his ability with actors, first became evident. Proof of it can be obtained from a viewing of Ladies of Leisure (1930), Barbara Stanwyck’s fourth movie and first starring role. The story is negligible or worse, the chestnut about the call girl who falls in love with the rich boy and then makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of his reputation, but Stanwyck so inhabits the role that her passion and heartbreak are fully credible even as they appear to bounce off the prop furniture. It is a sign of Capra’s sensitivity with actors that when he discovered that Stanwyck was always best on the first take, he reversed conventional procedure and shot her close-ups before staging the establishing scenes. He helped make her a star and she repaid him with extraordinary performances even in such a doozy as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), perhaps the ultimate piece of Orientalist tripe. Their working bond was so strong it survived her refusal to marry him.

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