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.

He helped make Jean Harlow a star, too, and her funny, touching, and erotic work in Platinum Blonde (1931) triumphed over the problem of her and Loretta Young’s being cast in what should have been each other’s roles. Capra went on, of course, to find actors yet more apt as embodiments of his cinematic persona, the most obviously characteristic being Jean Arthur and James Stewart. Arthur, who was born Gladys Greene and renamed herself after Jeanne d’Arc and King Arthur, was apparently much the same in life as she appeared on the screen: plucky, unconventional, uncompromising, idealistic. Although Capra did not give her her first big part (John Ford did, in The Whole Town’s Talking), he fashioned for her a string of roles that made her famous after the more than a decade she spent kicking around in semi-obscurity. Arthur was such an exceptional blend of toughness and vulnerability, ordinariness and glamour, that it may be difficult to imagine her becoming a star today.

Whatever else may be said about Capra, it is plain that he sought out strong women for his pictures, and helped make it possible for a whole generation of unconventional actresses to thrive in a oasis of sexual parity until the 1950s, when the industry would revert to recognizing only sexpots and housewives. For his part, Stewart—and Gary Cooper, too—represented an ideal that Capra, could only stare at across an abyss of class and ethnic background. The short, dark, brisk Capra went out of his way to find tall, unmistakable Anglo-Saxons as leading men. Stewart’s shy rectitude and unstudied presence are so much of a piece that he seldom appears to be acting at all, particularly in Capra’s movies, so that it is necessary to view the cold, hard performances he gave in Anthony Mann’s elementary 1950s Westerns such as Winchester 73 and The Man From Laramie to judge by contrast how good he was.

The first fully fledged example of what came to be thought of as Capra’s style (which led to two coinages: Capracorn and the ubiquitous adjective Capraesque) came in 1932, with American Madness. This tale of a beleaguered bank president who is saved from ruin by the spontaneous action of his depositors caught the spirit of the New Deal (even as its release preceded FDR’s election by three months), established themes that were to recur in Capra’s later movies, and, not coincidentally, marked Capra’s first full collaboration with his most significant partner, the screenwriter Robert Riskin. Riskin, who went on to write seven more of Capra’s bestknown movies, has never been given his due as an architect of the Capra style, in large part because of the revisionist accounts Capra gave in interviews and on a larger scale in his autobiography, where he aggrandized his auteur status at the expense of his colleagues, who also included such indispensable accomplices as the cinematographer Joseph Walker and the sound man Edward Bernds. Indeed, part of McBride’s mission in his biography is to untangle and correct impressions Capra gives in The Name Above the Title. He succeeds in proving that nearly every detail of that book is false, from his invention of a “little man” who supposedly talked him out of a period of depression (thereby giving his films an autobiographical premise) down to the implications of its title (Capra did not actually receive a pre-title credit until two years after he said he did—a minor point apparently, and one easily checked, but crucial to his wish to claim sole authorship for his movies).

Riskin was not just a good writer; he was also a committed Roosevelt Democrat. In this way he contributed to the indefinable mishmash that passes for a political viewpoint in Capra’s films, which have been labeled as “radical,” “fascist,” and nearly everything between those poles. In fact, Capra’s other writers included Sidney Buchman, who received sole screenplay credit for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and was a member of the Communist Party, and Myles Connolly, who worked on at least four movies (including Mr. Smith, uncredited) and was a rightwing authoritarian Catholic.

The impact of these loud and competing voices accounts for the way in which Capra’s movies so often appear to be taking a strong stand on the issues while doing nothing of the sort. Characters, most notably in Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe (1941), rail at the establishment while simultaneously upholding authority, knock down straw-man extremists, promote the “little people,” and finally end the day with a morass of platitudes about integrity and brotherhood and kindness. Capra himself was a Republican who “voted his pocketbook” until the end of his life, but he was both shrewd and malleable enough to give the audience what it apparently wanted in the contentious 1930s, a simulacrum of ideology that could be read any way the viewer chose, a Rorschach blot that would appease a hunger for change while in the end selling docility.

Before he made such pictures, however, Capra had established himself as the people’s director by less freighted means. It Happened One Night (1934), the first movie to win Oscars in the five leading categories, is remembered for the way in which Clark Gable’s jobless reporter introduces Claudette Colbert’s runaway heiress to plain pleasures, as typified by dunking a doughnut in coffee. Even more to the point is the scene, among the most genuinely moving in Capra’s entire career, in which all the passengers aboard the long-distance bus join in singing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which makes all the speeches about brotherhood and democracy in the other movies sound even more hollow by contrast. Broadway Bill (1934), sadly neglected as a result of Capra’s own pale remake of it as Riding High in 1950, features a breathtaking montage of two-dollar bettors on a horse race, a scene that has affinities with both Eisenstein and Preston Sturges while seeming less affected than either. His next movie, though, was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which the overreaching, calculation, and ultimate falseness are already apparent. Alistair Cooke got it right at the time: “I have the uneasy feeling he’s on his way out. He’s starting to make movies about themes instead of people.”

But Capra by this point was commercially unassailable, or at least he was so perceived—he came very close to ruining Columbia with Lost Horizon (1937), for years one of the most expensive movies ever made, and saved from colossal failure only by riding on the coattails of his previous films. As Otis Ferguson put it: “The Master’s hand was not steady on the throttle because in diving off the deep end he had landed on the horns of a dilemma and laid a pretty terrific egg.” Anyway, after You Can’t Take It With You (1938), which as a defense of eccentricity and nonconformism managed to be even more anodyne than the George S. Kaufman–Moss Hart play on which it was based, Capra consolidated his position with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe, both pictures that were redeemed by their actors and swallowed whole by the public, the side of Capra’s work that led Manny Farber to call him “a smooth blend of iconoclast and sheep.”

During the war Capra went to work making propaganda movies for the War Department. The “Why We Fight” series, as it is often called, is made up of impressively percussive works on montage, with a technique influenced by the Soviets and substance culled from a bewildering array of sources. As McBride points out, although there is much effective use of documentary materials in the films, some of their strongest bits come from Hollywood fiction features ranging from George Stevens’s Penny Serenade to All Quiet on the Western Front, and such prewar German movies as the Bertolt Brecht–Slatan Dudow collaboration Kuhle Wampe.

Working for the government changed Capra, or at least it brought out his identification with authority. For one thing, he was eager to establish a high security clearance, which was not especially simple since, given the inevitable Hollywood associations, he had more than once been seen at gatherings officially suspected of connection with subversive forces, and to remove this blot he had to go to some lengths to curry favor with the powerful. Also, as McBride quotes the screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter,

Once he got into this government stuff, it gave him a new sense of values, and then he was dead. He was working with people who were the heavies in his own pictures, and it turned him completely around. From that point on, in trying to develop scripts be developed nonsense.

Hunter may have been overstating the case, since Capra’s identification with power in practical matters dated back at least to his involvement with the Motion Picture Academy, which, as a tool of the producers, attempted to break the power of the various craft guilds. The 1937 Oscars, for example, almost failed to be awarded when the actors’ and writers’ guilds both called for a boycott. Capra reclaimed respectability for the occasion by suggesting a special award for the ailing and neglected D.W. Griffith, and the show went on, its house filled by liberal papering. During the HUAC investigations of Hollywood after the war, Capra went further: he pressed for the adoption of a loyalty oath by all members of the industry, and he named names, including, among others, his former close collaborator Sidney Buchman.

Capra was motivated not so much by ideological considerations or even cynical calculation as by raw fear. And his terror of finding himself on the wrong side of the witch hunters derived less from any apprehension of his own political ambiguities than from his lifelong sense of exclusion, of not being sufficiently American, of being ethnic and an immigrant and subject to deportation.

The postwar period also saw the final shriveling of Capra’s imagination. He had by this time driven Riskin away and was attempting to show the world that his style was uniquely his product, although his only significant post-Riskin movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), was stitched together largely from bits of business derived from previous films: as McBride enumerates them the run on the bank and the hero as savior of the community come from American Madness; “the fickle nature of the people, the hero’s nearly fatal selfishness and despondency, the miraculous appearance of a little man to show him the way” come from Mr. Deeds; and the suicide and Christmas themes are from Meet John Doe. Although it has since become a seasonal standby and a classic by popular acclaim, It’s a Wonderful Life was a failure when it was first released, and in its depressive strenuousness it is not hard to see why. Although Stewart is, as usual, impeccable, the movie is punishing and leaden, and the emotional release of its ending is sheer manipulation. Its claim upon the present-day public is probably largely dependent on a factor not applicable at the time of its release: it can now be seen as suffused with nostalgia for a kind of community, the intimate scale of the classic American small town, that is all but gone forever.

For the rest of his career Capra was left to try to please everyone while failing to please much of anybody. He remade two of his earlier movies with grim results, attempted flailingly to adapt to new cultural and social conditions without understanding them, and made do with succeeding sets of assistants and colleagues markedly less inspired than the old ones he had alienated or fired. In his old age he even fired his personal secretary, Chester Sticht, on six weeks’ notice after thirty-nine years. For many of these people the 1971 publication of The Name Above the Title was a coup de grâce. In the book—rejected by at least one prominent editor for being “a novel”—he declared “The simple notion of ‘one man, one film’…became for me a fixation, an article of faith…. I knew of no great book or play, no classic painting or sculpture, no lasting monument to art in any form, that was ever created by a committee—with the possible exception of the Gothic cathedrals. In art it is ‘one man, one painting—one statue—one book—one film’.”

The tragedy of Frank Capra is uncomfortably reminiscent of the quandaries of some of his own heroes—the “nearly fatal selfishness and despondency”—but it was not accompanied by a heartwarming twist at its end. His drama of fear and hubris is that of the person who, having achieved everything wished for, finds the achievement wanting and attempts to destroy it. It is dependent on a fear of self-examination as well as a loathing of genuine cooperative effort. The continuing popularity of his most facile movies suggests their narcotic potency for people in trouble who want desperately to believe in a happy ending. Elevated to a national level, this sentiment may portend a national consequence reminiscent not of Capra’s films, but of his life.