AN APPRECIATION : Frank Capra’s Wonderful Life


It is one of the ironies of Hollywood history--one of the sadder ironies in fact--that Capraesque has become a highly desirable word to describe a new film. The irony was not lost on Frank Capra himself, who died on Tuesday at the age of 94.

Except for a rare foray into television, Capra stepped aside from the camera in 1961, bitterly convinced that audiences no longer wanted his kind of movies. His last movie, “Pocketful of Miracles,” was unkindly received when it was released that year.

He was then 64, near the customary retirement age, although not for filmmakers. George Cukor and Luis Bunuel worked past 80, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean into their 70s. Billy Wilder made “Buddy Buddy” at 75.


But Capra, although his mind and body were both still vigorous, felt, those 30 years ago, that his particular vision of the screen and of life had been supplanted by a harder, darker way of looking at things.

In Capra’s vision, ordinary people were worth our attention and our admiration. They generally lived in a world of agreed positive values. Happy endings were not only possible but were likely to happen to those who had, one way or another, earned them.

Capra’s ordinary men and women were actually quite uncommon in their passions (James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), their eccentricities (Gary Cooper in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) or their particular and eccentric charms (Jean Arthur in practically anything). Yet the message always was that it was inward qualities rather than the advantages of birth or inheritance that made the person.

Having made his own American dream come true by working his way through college delivering newspapers (this one) and then by starting near the rock-bottom of the industry (processing amateur film at an independent lab), a man born in Sicily as Capra was had no reason to doubt that American dreams did indeed came true.

But the untimely truth was that at the start of the ‘60s, the movies were changing in a near-revolutionary way: reeling (or unreeling) under the impact of television, which was stealing their audiences by the tens of millions, and the influence of foreign films, which saw life with a realism that was alien to Hollywood aesthetically as well as geographically.

In a postwar society whose manners and mores were also changing fast, filmgoers and filmmakers alike were chafing under the sentimental optimism and the poetic justice (in the absence of any other justice) that were imposed on American movies.

The pressures to create new latitudes of expression in the films--for commercial reasons (to compete with television) as well as for creative reasons (to free the filmmakers’ hands)--were growing yearly.

Capra, as he told me one day at lunch in the mid-’70s, had begun to feel that he no longer knew where the audience was or what it wanted, and that he had no heart or skill to make the kind of harsh and pessimistic films the new audiences appeared to want.

Yet even as we spoke, those nearly 20 years ago, Capra said he had come to feel that in fact he had quit too soon and that it turned out the audience’s real preferences had not changed that radically at all. A comforting number of filmgoers still wanted to escape, be reassured, be uplifted, have a good laugh or a good cry--the kinds of things that made Capra’s films Capraesque.

The continuing popularity of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has already become as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus or tinsel, is proof in itself that there is still nothing like an uplifting good cry. It was his favorite among his films, as it is James Stewart’s, and its long afterlife has been as pleasing a review as a filmmaker could ask for.

Capra had come up a hard road, having to hustle all the way as gag writer (a remarkably unfunny way to make a living) and then directing two-reelers before he joined Harry Cohn to make features and history at Columbia. It always seemed to me that it was his battles along the way that had left Capra curiously defensive for a man of his undoubted achievements.

His debt to Robert Riskin, who wrote “It Happened One Night” and several other of the classics in the Capra canon, for example, was huge and evident. It did not diminish Capra to say that this was so, any more than it diminishes Orson Welles’ achievement in “Citizen Kane” to say that the Herman Mankiewicz script was crucial to its success. Yet Capra for years appeared reluctant to give Riskin his public due. For a time he conducted angry exchanges in Calendar over the question of credit.

Paradoxically, reminiscing over lunch, Capra fondly remembered how he and Riskin would take off for La Quinta (then an obscure getaway place for Hollywood) and hide away while they roughed out “It Happened One Night” and the later films.

Capra became a great pal of Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker. He would arrive like a visiting rajah, Capra said, and command Capra, restaurateur Dave Chasen and other local pals to go duck hunting at June Lake, where Capra had a place. “We were expected to drop everything and spend time with him, and we did, and it was a lot of fun.” The thing was, Capra added with a touch of remembered asperity, “I’d be in New York and call him and I could never get him on the phone.”

Capra’s legacy includes not only all those timelessly entertaining films, but one of the most revealing of all the books from and about Hollywood. “The Name Above the Title” is a self-portrait that leaves little doubt about the defensive feistiness required to survive and succeed in a raucously competitive industry. It also evokes that distant time when Hollywood itself was young and everything seemed possible, as in a Frank Capra movie.

Neither the world nor the movies play make-believe as easily as they used to. We know a little too much for our own amusement. Even the movies we can now describe as Capraesque usually arise in a world pitched close to reality. It may not be social realism, but it isn’t and can’t be a kind of unidentifiable limbo. What will continue to survive and honor the memory of Frank Capra is an eye for social foolishnesses and likable eccentrics and a steady conviction that despite our most bumbling efforts, things may just turn out all right.