This page only contains excerpts from Ray Carney's writing about Frank Capra. To read more, consult his book American Vision by clicking here.


A Memorial Piece
The Two Capras – and My Capra

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Frank Capra's death in 1991 marked the end of an era. The last major director who began in the golden age of the silents was gone. Capra lived the entire history of Hollywood, in his thirty-six features directing many of its greatest stars—including Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Peter Falk—and producing some of its most memorable movies, from It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, and Pocketful of Miracles. At the peak of his career, in the decade and a half from the early 1930s to the late 1940s, he was without question America's best known and most beloved filmmaker.

In the months and years since his death, numerous eulogistic tributes and references to his work have appeared on radio and television and in newspapers and magazines. They have displayed a remarkable degree of consensus about his films. Yet I must say that, to my mind, almost every single one of them has completely missed the point of his life and work. Their Capra is a cinematic Norman Rockwell—sentimental and nougatty, defending family values, celebrating small-town life, and championing (as the commentators never tire of repeating) "the common man"—whoever in the world that might be.

Their Capra was someone out of a mythical American golden age, a man who never existed in a past that never was, someone quaint and antiquated and infinitely distant from the present moment, like Santa Claus someone adults love but know that only children or Walt Disney really believe in. Still worse, some of the appreciations of Capra's work sketched a man only Jerry Falwell or a Fellow of the Hoover Institute could endorse—a Capra of the Pledge of Allegiance, a man who looked out across America and congratulated himself that, at least in These United States, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. (If you don't like it, you can leave.) Their version of "The Frank Capra Story" clearly would cast a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan in the title role.

I wondered if we had seen the same films. Their Capra is emphatically not the Capra I knew and loved. Their Capra is not the Capra I spent five years writing a book about. The Capra whose work meant—and still means—so much to me was a completely different man from theirs. Rather than being the populist champion of the guy on the street, the Capra I knew from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe showed how sheep-like the masses are and how dangerous democracy itself is—how mobs can be manipulated into believing practically anything a demagogue or a newspaper wants them to. While the Capra of the eulogists hearkened back to a Father Knows Best America of smugness, safety, and complacency, the Capra I knew dramatized social disruption and personal insecurity. Almost all of his films began by uprooting the main characters, yanking them out of small towns and family support systems, and plunking them down in big cities and institutions where they had to fight to hold on to their sense of who they were and what they believed. The worlds in which the lead figures made their way were not cozy and warm, but power—saturated, predatory, and life-threatening. When Longfellow Deeds dares to act or think independently, without clearing his words with a team of corporate lawyers before he says or does something, the American legal system is mobilized against him and he is put on trial to defend his own sanity. When Jefferson Smith attempts to beat the American political system without first playing the old "go along and get along" game, the bureaucratic machinery of the entire United States Senate shifts into gear to silence him. An all too familiar negative ad campaign whips up an instant public movement to impeach him. As a newspaper publisher named Jim Taylor brags, and as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington itself resoundingly affirms: public opinion easily can be "Taylor-made" to suit any political purpose. Sound familiar? That's our America, not some Golden Age Camelot.

For a reality check, I'd remind a contemporary viewer that the subversiveness of Capra's work was not lost on the real-world subjects of his movies. Following an advance screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Washington D.C., legislation was introduced in the Senate whose ultimate goal was to block the release of the film and to persuade Columbia to destroy the negative.

Rather than celebrating the power of the common man in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra treats rugged individualism as a myth only fools or children still believe in, a fairy tale concocted to give the masses the illusion of democracy. The film tells us that political leaders are not born but made—"Taylor-made"—created by saturation ad campaigns, PR blitzes, journalistic shabbiness, and political expediency. Politicians are processed, packaged, advertised, and sold to the public no differently from any other piece of merchandise. Sound familiar? That's our present-day culture of celebrity. The newspapers are no different now than they were then.

The ironically titled Meet John Doe goes even further than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did. It turns the American dream that anybody can become president into a nightmare vision of a national, fascistic political movement organized around an inspirational leader who doesn't even exist: "John Doe" is a fiction created by a public relations campaign and played by a hired performer. Capra demonstrates how imperiled our identities are, how easily we can lose ourselves in systems that make us over in their image, even as, like the character who plays "Doe," we may not even realize that we are giving ourselves away.

The commentators treat Capra's films as if they were paeans to the common man's power to speak common sense, but those aren't the movies I saw. In the eulogists' descriptions of them, Robert Conway, Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith, and George Bailey are pacified. Their imaginative extremity is tamed. Their films are robbed of their melodramatic intensity and power. Look at the movies again if you have forgotten. These characters are desperate, wild-eyed American dreamers. Their films are full of charged glances, stuttering silences, and operatic urgencies of expression. My Capra is a poet of suffering and tragedy, whose protagonists fall back on lurid, melodramatic gasps and silences, like nothing we encounter in a Rockwell painting or a Disney movie.

Capra's 1946 masterwork, It's a Wonderful Life, is often cited as conclusive evidence of his Saturday Evening Post vision of life, when in fact the reason it can still bring tears to a viewer's eyes is the toughness of the vision of experience. Rather than treating life as one long Thanksgiving dinner of togetherness and contentment, Capra focuses on the cracks in the facade of the happy-face American way of life that Norman Rockwell, Gary Bauer, and the publications of the Heritage Foundation conveniently paper over. Rather than cheerleading for "traditional values," Capra exposes the repressions of small-town American capitalism, and the spiritual emptiness of the Protestant work ethic. He shows us the emotional and imaginative bankruptcy of Chamber of Commerce systems of value and the hollowness of the American culture of acquisitiveness.

Forced by economic necessity and family responsibility to keep the people who depend upon him happy, George Bailey's life in Bedford Falls is one frustration after another. He has to sell-out the dreams of his youth and the ideals of his adulthood in order to maintain a positive cash flow. He has to mortgage his desires to pay for his responsibilities. It's not an endorsement but a critique of our Infomercial culture.

In contrast to the Bill Buckley/Malcolm Forbes/George Bush fairy tale of capitalism triumphant, Capra shows us how difficult, dangerous, frightening, and exciting the real American experience is. He dramatizes the difficulty of translating dreams and desires into practical, lived realities, and how much—sometimes it seems not less than everything—is always lost in the translation. Buckley and Forbes are Norman Rockwells by comparison.

Capra suspends George Bailey between irreconcilable alternatives. He captures the contradictions of the social system around him by organizing George's drama around a series of mutually exclusive alternatives which almost tear George apart (and eventually force him to the point of suicide)—with family values, small town responsibilities, and the renunciation of personal pleasure on one side; and the gratification of the life of the imagination and the senses on the other. Far from being a safe-haven for development (in both the personal and real-estate senses), Bedford Falls is as predatory, prying, and power-saturated as the big cities in the earlier films. In a series of contrasts—between the eroticism of Violet Bix and the domesticity of Mary Hatch, between the dangerous excitement of Pottersville and the safe boredom of Bedford Falls, between the free expression of the individual's imaginative impulses and their sublimation into family and social responsibilities—Capra captures the contradictions of our own lives. His film honors both our passions and our commitments; both our lust for Violet and our need for Mary; both our wild-eyed quest to escape the confines of our social responsibilities, and the fears and loneliness that lie on the other side of social embeddedness. That was the Capra I wrote about in my book. But is it any wonder that every other serious American film critic has ignored this more complex Capra? It's much easier to treat him as a huckster of the American dream?

And then there are the endings. It's almost as if what Capra actually presented on screen is so disturbing that we need to soften it in remembering it. Like the audiences who saw the films the first time round, we need the obligatory happy endings that Capra tacked on as their final scenes to help us to forget the disturbing experiences that preceded them.

The Capra I want to remember captures the contradictions, complexities, strains, struggles, and emotional and imaginative displacements of our own present-day culture. He is not a sentimental relic of a simpler time and place-Bauer, Buckley, and Forbes, and Bush are that-but a profound historian of the present. In that sense, he is still with us, still helping us to understand our lives.

This page only contains excerpts from Ray Carney's writing about Frank Capra. To read more, consult his book American Vision by clicking here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.