Gather round the holiday hearth, boys and girls, and consider the strange, happy -- you might say Capraesque -- saga of Frank Capra, the Hollywood director of, among others, "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Meet John Doe" and "It Happened One Night."
During the '50s, these Capra classics fell from favor, particularly among intellectuals who, drunk on their Book-of-the-Month-Club Freud and hungry for sophistication, derided his work as "Capra-corn," phony sentimentalism too soft-bellied for the postwar set. When the French New Wave set the agenda for the '60s, reviving the reputations of Howard Hawks, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Capra was somehow forgotten.
Nevertheless, he lives on today: simply as Frank Capra (he is 88), also in the book he wrote ("Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title," perhaps the best book ever written about making movies) and in the institutions he forged (his string of hits built Columbia Pictures, and he was instrumental in the founding of both the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild). Capra virtually invented the concept of the director/producer and the director's possessory credit (the name above the title), fixtures which have since become familiar.
But mostly, Capra lives through his influence on a new generation of filmmakers, for whom his craft, his meticulous storytelling, his unerring sense of the audience, have become a book to study. "We always use his films as models of strong construction," says director Bob Zemeckis, who, along with his cowriter Bob Gale, created this year's biggest hit, "Back to the Future." "And I read his book every time I start to make a movie. I've got this dogeared paperback copy, my lucky copy."
Ron Howard, director of "Cocoon," another summer moneymaker, read "The Name Above the Title" and decided to become a director: "It really lit a fire under me." And Phillip Borsos acknowledges his debt to Capra in his fine new Christmas tale, "One Magic Christmas."
There's an enormous difference between "feel-good" movies and movies that make you feel good, and the difference is Capra. What's crucial about Capra is not the heartwarming conclusion, but how he gets you there -- how all that goes before is carefully grounded in a harsh reality, even chillingly so. In "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Meet John Doe," for example, Capra brings the hero to the brink of suicide before saving him. From genuine despair, genuine transcendence.
"I think a major problem some people have had is they've tried to do Capraesque pictures but without the edge," says Borsos, who values the sense of reality of Capra's films. "You can't go on making movies where 700 people get killed, just as you can't go on making space movies. We wanted to make a film set in 1985 that reflected the reality that Capra's films had -- taking a middle-class character and Christmas in a simple story, and showing the audience that that can be as exciting as a spaceship."
In "One Magic Christmas," life gets pretty dure for its heroine, Ginnie Grainger -- her husband is shot in a bank holdup, and her children, kidnaped, perish with the bank robber in a car crash. As with Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," only loss makes her value what she has; without giving away the ending, just say that faith makes her whole again -- but it's a faith that's hard-won.
And like Capra, Borsos grounds his movie in a portrait of economic hardship that is, again, careful about realism -- at the outset, Ginnie's husband is laid off, and she's constantly threatened with the same by her boss at the supermarket -- hardship that is highlighted at Christmas time. "What you see on TV is Christmas presented as perfect -- it's enormously hard to match it," Borsos says. In making his movie, Borsos drew on his own childhood in British Columbia. "My parents weren't particularly well-off -- in fact they weren't well-off at all. There was always something under the tree, but it was difficult."
That's Capra's world, as well, a world of hobo-heroes and threatened foreclosure -- even in the comedy "It Happened One Night," Clark Gable almost loses Claudette Colbert because he's off cadging money from his editor so he can propose to her. In Capra's universe, politicians are inevitably corrupt, mobs turn ugly, newspapermen will do anything to get a story.
He was sentimental about people, but not life. "He takes that optimism," says Howard, "and says, 'It's not unrealistic, it's just not easy.' " In movies today, the villain is always punished and sent packing, or, in high feel-good style, turns out to have a heart of gold just like you and me. Not so Capra. If Claude Rains, the venal, hypocritical senator of "Mr. Smith," kills himself at the end, there's none of the satisfaction of a comeuppance; Edward Arnold's evil millionaire of "Meet John Doe" goes on being an evil millionaire; Lionel Barrymore's Potter, in "It's a Wonderful Life," is never caught for stealing $8,000 from the building and loan, and continues Scrooge-like till the end.
"Jimmy Stewart is a guy who's got these dreams, and it's really tragic, in a sense," says Zemeckis of "It's a Wonderful Life." "Because here's a guy who wants to travel, and he never gets to do it. And somehow, you don't [really] care."
Though Capra's not known as a camera stylist, there's a kind of haunted expressionism to his best work (like the sequence of Jimmy Stewart's mad dash through town in "It's a Wonderful Life") -- something you realize when you see "State of the Union," among the last, and least, of his movies, not incidentally because of its flat, shiny, '50s-realistic lighting.
More important, he was a genius in picking his shots. In Capra, there's an intention behind everything: He never cuts to a different framing, a different angle, unless there's a reason to -- he made movies you could chart with graphs. He had a way of cutting to close-ups in reaction to specific events, or lines of dialogue, that keep you inside the action; his long shots keep you at arm's length only when the hero, too, felt that way. Story, not virtuosity, determined Capra's style; camera follows character.
The result is that Capra's work has become a kind of primer for today's directors. Consider a simple, but common, challenge -- how do you show two people falling in love? That's a problem Zemeckis faced with Jack Colton and Joan Wilder, the heroes of "Romancing the Stone," and in solving it, he turned to Capra, whose strategy was simple, but ingenious: have the hero doing something while, unbeknownst to him, the heroine is looking at him. It became the pivotal scene in "Romancing the Stone," where Jack is building a fire in the crashed airplane while Joan watches -- the love in her eyes, because it's a secret between her and the audience, becomes palpable, real.
It's an example of what distinguishes Capra's technique -- his mastery of point-of-view. Though his movies generally focused on one or two people, he was constantly looking to his minor characters (like Walter Brennan, the hero's buddy, in "Meet John Doe") to comment on the action, with a line, a look, a roll of the eyes. The respect he afforded everyone is the secret to their overriding humanity, and matched perfectly the movies' democratic themes; it was also part of their humor, a way of tipping us off to the fact that what wasn't funny to the central players, who were embroiled in the action, was awfully funny indeed. When Brennan rolls his eyes, it gives the audience permission, in a way, to laugh at the fix Gary Cooper's gotten himself into. As a result, Capra's humor could be sharp and warm at the same time -- a talent both Howard and Zemeckis have learned and profited by.
For if there's any overriding message to Capra, it's that it's not just a wonderful life, but a funny one, even at its most desperate. "That's something I really spark to in his work," says Howard. "To this day, if I'm in a story meeting and someone says, 'Is this believable? How can this be funny and sad at the same time?,' you can say, 'It's Capraesque,' and kind of skate by."
What's unique about Capra is not just the way he threaded a humorous perspective into his minor characters, but the bricklayer's care with which he constructed his gags, block by block. In today's reigning comic style, the legacy of "Airplane!," the strategy is an overwhelming density of gags. Setup and punch line are condensed; each joke is thrown out and forgotten as the next is piled on.
Capra, on the other hand, never forgot the lessons he learned as a gag writer for Mack Sennett, when he obeyed the law of the "topper." When one writer came up with a joke, another (the process was collaborative) would come up with a "topper" that followed and "topped" it, another would then top that, and so forth. James Agee called it a "ladder of laughs" that brought you from the titter, through the yowl and the belly laugh, up to the boffo, "the laugh that kills." "An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played," wrote Agee, "would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy." What's more, Capra's gags usually operate on a multiplicity of levels.
Consider the famous hitchhiking sequence in "It Happened One Night." Clark Gable, a newspaperman traveling with a socialite, Claudette Colbert, who he's rescued for his own purposes, brags to her about his hitchhiking technique, illustrating both his own and those of others (which are, needless to say, inferior). A car arrives, Gable thumbs, car passes -- laugh number one. Next, a whole flurry of cars passes, with Gable frantically employing all hitchhiking techniques, including the ones he's just disparaged -- laugh number two. Colbert demurely descends from the fence post, walks to the side of the road, and lifts her skirt; cut to close-up of an exquisite leg; hard, noisy cut to car screeching to a halt -- laugh number three.
The sequence goes on, getting even funnier as Gable insults the driver, and ultimately (with hilarious self-righteousness) steals his car from him. But the point is made. On one level, it's a perfectly constructed joke, in the "formula of threes"; on another, an economical way to get the pair a car so they can continue on to New York (the movie's ultimate destination); finally, and crucially, the joke is filtered through character, building a sympathy that hadn't existed till then for both Gable (he's more human for failing) and Colbert, who, whiny and dependent till then, shows she has some resources of her own -- just when you're starting to wonder why Gable's wasting his time with this dame, you suddenly understand it.
In short: pure Capra.
In dollar terms, Capra was the Steven Spielberg of his era, in part because, like Spielberg, he found a formula that worked and stuck to it. His movies, generally, were variations on a theme: An honest, naive man from a small town is drawn into big-city corruption, realizes what's happening and rebels; along the way, he falls in love with a woman from that milieu, is disillusioned and falls in love again.
There's a question as to whether Capra's formula, as opposed to his craft, could work today. The city/country opposition they relied on, for example, was so much a part of its time; today, most people live in cities, and perhaps as a result, it's the small towns that often are portrayed as dens of corruption. Similarly, the newspaper wars that provided the basis for "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Deeds" are largely a thing of the past.
"Capra is Capra," says Borsos. "You don't try to make a Capra film -- you try to make your own film." Zemeckis agrees: "The Everyman-against-the-world thing I really enjoy, but I don't try to copy that theme again today. I think it's dangerous if anybody tries to copy any film of a different era. You have to look at the way a film is crafted and plug it into the sensibility of today. If you had a guy today who said, 'Two rooms and a bath for everybody,' like Jimmy Stewart says in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' you'd say, 'You're crazy! That'll cost $750,000!' "
According to some, people are both more and less cynical today, so that both Capra's apotheosis of the common man, and his rejection of politicians and the rich, seem equally simplistic. But it could be as simple as the transition from black-and-white film to color, which occurred during Capra's career. There's a porosity, an open-endedness, to black-and-white films, an automatic suspension of disbelief -- on their face, they don't purport to be "real" -- that allows them to be realistic while admitting an element of fable. It's this quality of black-and-white film that made it so singularly appropriate to Capra, and that makes the current project of "colorizing" Capra's films so singularly misguided.
It's tempting to think that Steven Spielberg is the modern Capra, although, while there's much Capraesque sentiment in Spielberg's films, there's little Capraesque danger -- Spielberg really is Capra-corn. The closer parallel is found in George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy, which followed the Capra diagram almost jot-for-jot, with similar success. Here is the rural naif going to the big city (here, the Empire), doing battle with the corrupt politicians and the rich and falling in love with a sophisticated girl; here, too, the moment of ultimate despair (for Luke, the recognition that Darth Vader is his father); here Han Solo, Lucas' cynical, wisecracking equivalent of Capra's hard-boiled newspaperman with a heart of gold; here also the cast of comic supporting players (C3PO and R2D2) to provide ironic commentary on the action.
Even in style, Lucas shares something with Capra, in the celerity, sureness and simplicity of his storytelling. And "Star Wars" has the same balance of realism and myth that Capra aimed at -- as Dale Pollock reported in his biography, "Skywalking," Lucas arrived on the set at Elstree Studios and promptly ordered the technicians to grime up and batter the spaceships, to nick R2D2 with a saw. It could be that science fiction serves the same function for Lucas that black-and-white film served for Capra -- a way to open up the audience to fable.
What's missing, though, is Capra's incomparable feel for character; we may, perhaps, never again have a character like George Bailey, or a face that holds a close-up like Jimmy Stewart's. As Zemeckis says, "The thing that is at the center of any Capra film, which I think should be at the center of any film, is character. That's why his films live forever."