Tuesday 19 September 2017

Beyond 'It's a Wonderful Life': Frank Capra's other films

Sentiment and redemption: It's a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, was largely forgotten until the 1970s
Sentiment and redemption: It's a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, was largely forgotten until the 1970s

Paul Whitington

I've often bemoaned the fact that classic movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s never get shown on television any more, but one film that always gets an airing at this time of year is It's a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra's 1946 comic drama is one of those movies that withstands repeated viewings and never, ever disappoints. I find it's always darker than I remember, richer and bleaker at its lowest points, and it's to Capra's huge credit that he managed to turn the story of a man who tries to commit suicide into one of the most uplifting tales ever committed to celluloid.

It will be shown over Christmas on at least four channels, and you can currently catch it on the big screen at Dublin's Light House Cinema and the IFI. Its enduring popularity is remarkable, and understandable (see panel), but It's a Wonderful Life has been remembered at the expense of Frank Capra's other films, several of which were every bit as good. So what were they, and who was the man that made them?

In many ways Capra was a product of the American dream that recurred so frequently as a theme in his movies: a first generation Italian immigrant, he ended up by chance in California and got bitten by the movie bug while working as an extra in the early 1920s.

He was born Francesco Rosario Capra in Bisacquino, Sicily on May 18, 1897, the seventh child of poor rural peasants. When he was five, his family decamped lock, stock and barrel to start a new life in America. The journey can't have been easy for the Capras, who endured a rough crossing in steerage, and Frank would later recall a "degrading" and "miserable" experience. But California was the prize, and by late 1903 the family had settled in eastern Los Angeles.

A bright child, Francesco scooped up the opportunities his new home offered him with both hands, and though his parents put pressure on him to drop out of school early and start earning some much needed money, he doggedly insisted on finishing his education instead.

He served in the US army during World War One, and became a naturalised (and passionate) American citizen in 1920, having adapted his name to Frank Russell Capra. But he struggled to find his way as a young man, was unemployed for a couple of years and rode freight trains across the wide expanses of the western United States.

It was movies that would settle him down, but he learned about film the hard way, starting out as an extra and prop man before graduating to bits and pieces of screenwriting. As a result, he learnt the business inside out, and got his first chance to direct in 1922.

Fultah Fisher's Boarding House was a bit of a mess by all accounts, and through the 1920s Capra would be hired and promptly fired as a director by both Mack Sennett and silent comic Harry Langdon (who later regretted it), but all the while he was learning.

In the late 1920s he wormed his way into Columbia Studios, and had the good sense to ally himself early on to a great screenwriter in Robert Riskin, and a fine cameraman in Joseph Walker. His early films in the sound era were only moderate successes, but he hit the big time in 1934 with It Happened One Night.

Among the very earliest and perhaps the prototypical screwball comedy, It Happened One Night was a delightful and bewilderingly fast-moving comic romance starring Clark Gable as a roguish newspaper reporter who falls for a spoilt socialite played by Claudette Colbert. It swept the board at the 1935 Oscars, and gave Capra the clout to make the films he wanted.

After that, the signature Capra style quickly emerged; his best films would drop the frantic screwball conventions in favour of high-minded moral tales with a tendency towards late redemption and happy endings, and told with a cunning mix of humour and pathos. And the first of these distinctively original Capra films was Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Gary Cooper played Longfellow Deeds, a small-town businessman who inherits a fortune and becomes a target for various vipers, including Jean Arthur's sneering reporter. But Deeds' unshakable morality triumphs in the end. Here was the first of Capra's simple, provincial, morally incorruptible heroes, men who always knew what the right thing was to do, and never failed to do it. Cooper fit the bill fine, but Jimmy Stewart would be even better.

He first appeared in the 1938 film, You Can't Take it With You, a classic slice of Capra, and perhaps the closest in tone to It's a Wonderful Life. Stewart is Tony Kirby, heir to a hugely powerful company owned by his avaricious father. Tony falls in love with his secretary (the wonderful Jean Arthur again), but becomes deeply conflicted when he finds out that his father's plans involve the demolition of her family home.

Flaunting the sort of overt anti-capitalism that would have got the whole lot of them blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities mob 20 years later, You Can't Take it With You was a wonderfully warm and funny drama that also starred Capra regular Lionel Barrymore (Mr Potter in It's a Wonderful Life).

James Stewart played another wide-eyed idealist in the 1939 film, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, about a hick scout leader who's made a senator by accident and is horrified by the corruption he finds when he reaches the nation's capital. Jefferson Smith is out of his depth, vilified in the press and outmanoeuvred by his treacherous colleagues. But Smith comes into his own in a famous filibuster scene, when he talks heroically for days on end to block a corrupt piece of legislation. The film was a huge box office success and made Jimmy Stewart a star, cementing his image as the quintessential small-town American.

When the United States entered World War Two, Frank Capra became an enthusiastic producer of documentary propaganda films, and his Why We Fight is considered a classic of the genre. But he helped lighten the war mood a little in 1944 with Arsenic and Old Lace, a screwball farce based on a successful stage play and starring Cary Grant as an urbane writer who's about to get married when he discovers that his two sweet old aunts might be serial murders. Effervescent and extremely funny, Arsenic and Old Lace is a lovely film but not distinctively Capra-esque.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) certainly was, but it was to be the last true Capra picture. He made a fine film in 1948, the Tracy/Hepburn vehicle State of the Union, but it contained none of the distinctive Capra ingredients.

And by the mid-1950s the ­increasingly marginalised director was making films with titles like The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays. He became disillusioned with Hollywood, and was horrified by the sufferings he saw inflicted on many of his old colleagues and friends by the McCarthy witch-hunts. In the early 1960s he stopped making movies altogether, and would spend his declining years writing songs and short stories, and collecting rare books. He died in 1985, at the age of 88.

Though now by far Capra's most famous film, It's a Wonderful Life was not originally one of his most successful projects. It was nominated for several Oscars, but performed indifferently at the box office and was considered excessively sentimental by some condescending reviewers. It was all but forgotten before it emerged from obscurity in the 1970s thanks to a happy accident: a copyright loophole was discovered allowed US TV channels to show it for free. This new exposure made it hugely popular with the public, and by the late 1980s it had become synonymous with the American Christmas.

But there's so much more to It's a Wonderful Life than that. In ways it's a more ambitious film than Capra's others, and people forget that before the teary conclusion, much of its action is distinctly dark. Its hero, George Bailey, tries to kill himself at the start, and the town of Bedford Falls is in the grip of an avaricious, amoral businessman. The sentiment and redemption that comes later is only digestible because of this earlier grimness. And perhaps as a result, it's almost impossible not to get drawn in.

Somehow, the film's relentless warmth briefly melts your shell of knowing cynicism, leaving you free for that short time to once again believe that most folk are basically good, that little people can make a big difference, and that everything really will be alright in the end.

Frank Capra's masterpiece

Though he didn't know it at the time, It's a Wonderful Life would be both Frank Capra's greatest moment and the beginning of his film-making decline. It was he who spotted the potential of a rejected and unpublished short story by Philip Van Doran, and hired a team of writers to turn it into a sharp and workable script.

Henry Fonda was in the running to play George Bailey before Capra settled on James Stewart, and only when his favourite leading lady Jean Arthur had turned down the part of Mary was it offered to Donna Reed. Before shooting began a massive, four-acre 'Bedford Falls' set was built on the back lots of RKO's studios in Culver City.

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