Frank Capra always struck me as one of those directors who were almost too good to be true. His films were polemics, coming from a specific point-of-view, and yeah, sometimes they were preachy - I don't think one could dispute that - but they were products of their time as well, a time of tremendous economic hardship followed by a period of world war.
Capra was the perfect filmmaker for the New Deal era of President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR entered the White House during the heart of the Great Depression and he brought hope to millions of Americans in desperate need of money, jobs, food and shelter. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that Capra's films fed off of this climate. Look at some of his common themes:
- The American Dream. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the obvious example, but throughout a number of his films, he was very big on extolling the ideal of making it in America, no matter where you come from. Capra himself emigrated to the US from Sicily when he was five and he never forgot the experience of traveling by boat with other immigrants. He graduated high school and went to college against the advice of his parents, who insisted he start working instead, and he enlisted in World War 1 even though he wasn't a naturalized US citizen at the time. This was a guy who really believed in America as the land of opportunity, and the success he achieved in Hollywood allowed him to help his country out again during World War 2, when he not only enlisted again (this time with the rank of major), but he put together a series of films, called Why We Fight, to explain the American soldier's role in the conflict.
- Class warfare. Pitting rich against poor, turning rich people poor (as in It Happened One Night) and poor people rich (as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), is a Capra staple, and it's easy to guess who he favored. There's a scene in Mr. Deeds where an unemployed man, a victim of the Depression, tries to assassinate Deeds because he sees him as frivolous and shallow, a man who spends his wealth on trivial things like feeding donuts to horses, not realizing, perhaps, that Deeds is still new to his wealth and is just having fun. It's an eye-opening moment for Deeds, who eventually decides to help out others like this man. It's a sobering jolt of reality in what has been to that point a fairly light comedy.
- The worth of the individual. Related to class warfare, Capra's heroes are their most heroic when the odds are steeped heavily against them and they have to stand alone - but it turns out they're not really alone in the end. As Jeff Smith engages in his epic filibuster with the Senate, Taylor undermines him by spreading lies about him in his home state, but wait! Here come the Boy Rangers to the rescue, handing out leaflets letting people know about the fight Smith is waging to defeat Senator Paine's bill. Smith's lone stand inspires others because of who he is and what he's fighting for. George Bailey doesn't think his life accounts for a great deal until he sees what things would've been like without him. Longfellow Deeds is afraid to stand up for himself when his sanity is called into question because his actions have been misconstrued, but his friends urge him to speak out because of the example he has set and what it has meant to them.
- The value of small towns. It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls resonated with so many people, in part, because of its verisimilitude. Whether or not you believe that Seneca Falls, NY served as inspiration for the fictitious town, Capra had a great amount of detail put into its creation, including planting 20 full-grown oak trees, outfitting a drugstore with real products, and having pigeons, cats and dogs roam the set. The Mandrake Falls inhabitants of Mr. Deeds are befuddling to the visitors from New York, but we're clearly meant to sympathize with them. Even the Brooklyn of Arsenic and Old Lace resembles a small town, if one ignores the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
- The possibility of a better world. Lost Horizon takes place in a secret utopian community hidden from the rest of humanity. The ersatz John Doe, created on a whim, inspires a real movement in which people all over America strive to be better neighbors. The mirror-universe Bedford Falls is everything the real Bedford Falls is not, and it makes George realize how good he has had it all along.
Kindness and decency and fairness in an unjust world may come across in films like these as "Capra-corn," but he believed in it enough to return to it time and again. This quote attributed to Capra probably says it all, in the end: "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other."
Next: Bernard Herrmann
Films by Frank Capra:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Edward G. Robinson