MOVIES : The Timeless Gift of Frank Capra : With his blend of idealism and cynicism, he lifted the spirits of one generation and the ambitions of filmmakers who followed

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday and Michael Wilmington reviews movies for Calendar. </i>

Movies should be a positive expression that there is hope, love, mercy, justice and charity. . . . It is (the filmmaker’s) responsibility to emphasize the positive qualities of humanity by showing the triumph of the individual over adversities.

--Frank Capra in 1960

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 15, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo caption in some editions of last Sunday’s Calendar incorrectly identified the star of “Meet John Doe” as James Stewart. The actor was Gary Cooper.

Motion pictures would be about as varied as Sunday morning TV sermons if all filmmakers answered that evangelical call. But there are times and places for promoting the simple values of life, and no one in the first century of film was better at picking those spots than Frank Capra.

From the 1934 “It Happened One Night,” in which romantic love transcends social class, through his common-man trilogy (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe”), in which the raw idealism of small-town simpletons wins out over big-time corruption, through the 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which an angel shows a good man just how good he is, Capra lifted the spirits of one generation and left a cinematic calling card for all those to come.


When Capra died Tuesday at 94, in a certain sense, he rang down the curtain on Hollywood’s Golden Age. That may sound like a corny remark--Capra-corny--but it’s not, not really. It is sentimental enough for him--no one could ever accuse Capra of lacking sentiment--but it doesn’t have the other side: the raciness, cynicism and air of knowing urbanity that put the edge on his films, gave them their crisp, dark counterpoint and elevated them to timeless classics.

Other major figures from the 1930s survive him: Katharine Hepburn, his favorite actress, and James Stewart, from whom he got, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the screen’s greatest performances. But Capra was the last of the star directors of the ‘30s and the man whose movies, in many ways, came to symbolize the era. He was the most honored of ‘30s directors--the Oscar winner in 1934, 1936 and 1938--and it was Capra who, more than anyone else, shifted American film from a producer’s to a director’s medium. It was Capra, as much as Welles, Ford or Hitchcock, who influenced generations of succeeding filmmakers.

Frank Capra was also a mass of contradictions: conservative and radical, traditionalist and rebel, iconoclast and myth-maker, idealist and cynic, worshiper and wisecracker. It’s that volatile blending of opposites that has kept his films alive and vital and has turned one of them--”It’s a Wonderful Life”--into a cinematic national anthem. If it’s not the greatest movie ever made, a title that Capra himself claimed for it, it’s probably produced more tears, more repeat viewings and more good feelings than any other. Whether you regard the unabashed sentimentality of it as Capraesque or Capracorn, whether that final scene in the Bailey living room makes you weep or cringe, its simple moral--that goodness matters, that individuals matter, and that good individuals matter most--cuts to the core of social behavior.

Capra didn’t invent the themes of his movies, though his mythology came to accommodate them--if so, Charles Dickens occasionally wrote Capraesque stories, Jesus gave Capraesque sermons and the ancient Greeks invented Capraesque myths. Nor was Capra the only filmmaker to weave personal philosophy into his movies. There have been scores of Capra emulators--including, at times, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Jonathan Demme, Norman Jewison, John Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky”), Joe Dante and Chris Columbus (“Gremlins”)--and hundreds of Golden Rule movies made since he retired in 1961, including half a dozen this summer. (To name two: “Regarding Henry” and “The Doctor.”)

So, what is it about Frank Capra’s movies that sets them apart? What is his legacy?

You can look at the movies Capra directed before the 1932 “American Madness,” in which he and frequent writer-collaborator Robert Riskin introduced the theme of the idealist bucking the corrupt system, and you can look at those after his 1948 “State of the Union,” about a presidential candidate’s attempt to maintain his integrity during a tough campaign, but the Capra legend really hangs on just 10 movies made over that 16-year period.

Whether he would have risen at another time, or have made the same kinds of films, we’ll never know, but Capra hit his philosophical stride during the Great Depression, when Americans were desperate for both escape from the harshness of their lives and a reaffirmation of the values that had seemingly abandoned them. Almost every film Capra made during the ‘30s put identifiable protagonists in desperate situations, took good people and threw them in with evil, brought them to the brink of ruin, despair, even suicide, then rescued them.

* In “Lady for a Day,” an alcoholic apple vendor (May Robson) is made over by a local mobster to appear to be the wealthy widow her visiting daughter expects to meet, and is saved from exposure at the last minute when Manhattan’s real social elite show up and participate in the ruse.

* In “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” the protagonist seems about to be declared insane and stripped of his fortune and freedom when he suddenly turns the tables, wins over the court and brings the crowd to a standing ovation.

* In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart’s discredited and frazzled senator, near the end of his apparently futile filibuster in the Senate chambers, is suddenly rescued when one of his opponents, racked by guilt, attempts suicide.

* In “Meet John Doe,” a drifter recruited for a newspaper publicity stunt and used by a corrupt politician is about to act out a phony threatened suicide when his converts go to him at the top of a skyscraper and talk him down.

Things weren’t as bleak in “It Happened One Night,” the 1934 film that won five Oscars and elevated Capra to major-director status, but its improbable story line--a snooty rich girl (Claudette Colbert) falls in love with the wisecracking reporter (Clark Gable) with whom circumstances force her to spend time on the road--probably helped viewers bridge the economic gap between poverty and wealth (at least for two hours in the theater).

Capra seemed to wrap all of his themes up in one movie with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where the self-sacrificing George Bailey is rescued from suicide by a guardian angel who shows him how important his life was by letting him see how bad things would have been without him. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, George is given a second chance--lessons learned--and we are left with the notion that wealth is measured by love, faith, trust and friendship, not in yards of money.

Unfortunately for Capra, the mood of America had swung dramatically between the start of World War II and the end of it, and although it won over some critics and received several Oscar nominations, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a success. It was Capra’s masterpiece, but it was outdated the day it was finished. Its fantasy elements, its maudlin sentiments, its love-thy-neighbor philosophy marked it as a film from the ‘30s; its style was the style of the past. The future was in realism, in real emotions, like those expressed in William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which was released the same year as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and pushed it aside at both the box office and the subsequent Academy Awards.

It seems amazing now, after television and other hard times have revived “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a Christmas perennial, that it was scorned by so many critics for its corny sentimentality when it was released. Many of the same people who levitated on the gaseousness of “Meet John Doe” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” complained that “It’s a Wonderful Life” just wasn’t realistic. Yet few movies made are realistic, or intended to be; they’re all stylized, all dreams.

That paradox--the unlikely union of dreams and reality--is reflected in the most common of all Capra relationships, the affair between a naive idealist and the newspaper reporter who is likely to expose those ideals. Time and again, Capra gives us this curious union: in 1931’s “Platinum Blonde,” and in each of the “Deeds,” “Doe” and “Smith” movies. In “State of the Union,” Spencer Tracy’s Republican presidential candidate has an extramarital affair with news tycoon (and Republican kingmaker) Angela Lansbury.

The motif isn’t exhausted there--Bing Crosby plays a newsman in the inconsequential 1951 romance “Here Comes the Groom”--but it was still at its strongest in the ‘30s when reporters, fixtures of screwball comedy, constantly littered the Capra landscape. In “Lady for a Day,” they prove so obnoxious that a series of them are kidnaped by gambler Dave the Dude to keep them from exposing Apple Annie’s masquerade as a wealthy dowager.

The whole notion of falling in love with the news reporter who has the power to expose you is a curious nightmare. But, for Capra, it represents a union of opposites. Most of Capra’s reporters fall genuinely in love with their subjects and then fight to make their dreams (delusions?) come true.

The reporters, of course, represent cynicism and worldliness, and when they fall in love with their naive, romantic subjects they’re in some sense succumbing to their dreams, validating them--just as Capra validates his own emotionalism by bringing in cynical insiders like Lionel Stander’s brash publicist Corny Cobb in “Deeds,” and allowing them to be conquered, showing how they are changed by contact with someone genuinely pure and decent.

Capra meant his films to have both an intoxicating and elevating effect. That’s probably why so many younger filmmakers, from the 1960s on, have found him an inspirational figure. They can admire Alfred Hitchcock for his technique, Howard Hawks for his intelligence, John Ford for his cinematic poetry, Preston Sturges for his wit, Elia Kazan for his way with actors and Stanley Kubrick for his dedication--but Capra is someone they can admire both for skill and his sense of mission.

The truth is that most of Capra’s films--at least those made after “Mr. Deeds,” which he marked as the beginning of his message movies--are dramatized sermons. They are more effective than sermons because they preach nondenominational themes and are star-driven entertainments, but Capra was a genuinely religious director. He was not intensely pure and austere, but he was at times dogmatic, refusing in the mid-’60s, when it might have revived his career, to direct Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” because “all the characters were atheists.”

His was that curious mixture of show business and religion that typified ‘30s Hollywood: a time when Cardinal Francis Spellman was both railing at the movies’ immorality and trying to float script ideas through the studios, in an industry providing entertainment for the largely Protestant masses while run largely by Jewish executives according to a code devised by Roman Catholics.

Capra, himself a Catholic, intended his movies to function as parables: portraits of temptation and redemption, and of exemplary moral behavior. Yet, at the same time, he wanted his parables to be movies--to be fast, entertaining, bursting with life and humor. At his best, he folded these moral themes into tall tales in ways that created some of the most lasting motion pictures ever made.

Capra’s films are often fables in which, quite literally, the last becomes first. Longfellow Deeds was dubbed the “Cinderella Man” in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and most of Capra’s Depression-era movies were lightly veiled or inverted Cinderella stories: Cinderella stories in which moral triumphs eventually outweigh riches. Still, riches and good deeds are intermingled. Shangri-La, James Hilton and Capra’s vision of Earthly paradise in “Lost Horizon,” resembles a blend of Buddhist retreat and Hollywood pleasure palace--conveniently screened off from the world, wars, acquisitiveness and eventual decay and deterioration.

If Capra’s themes were not unique, his energy was. His movies buzz with life; for a simple interior scene, he would often stage multiple actions beyond a window to suggest life swarming around outside. His rapid cutting and pacing influenced directors throughout the world--including the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who often cited Capra as one of his youthful favorites, and whose 1950 newspaper drama “Scandal” is as Capraesque as they come.

More unabashedly than any other director of his era, and few since, Capra wanted to wring his audience’s emotions. That’s why he has strong detractors. Many people--and especially many movie critics--don’t want their emotions attacked; often, they seem to feel that if they succumb too readily, they’re somehow demonstrating inferior taste or over-susceptibility.

Capra vacillated through most of his career between wanting to cultivate his love affair with the public and his need for artistic validation. Both “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” and “Meet John Doe,” he admitted, were deliberate, if failed, attempts to curry critical favor. Similarly, his most memorable scenes swing from one extreme to another. A Capra movie can contain giddy, hysterical laughing jags--the bus serenade of “It Happened One Night,” the mass frenzy of the high school dance scene turned pool orgy in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or moments of awful, harrowing despair, like the suicidal grief of Longellow Deeds, John Doe and George Bailey.

Capraesque or Capracorn, the terms express the unique tone of a Capra movie, that mix of idealism and cynicism that both draw our affection and force us to keep a distance. They are dreams, they are impossibilities, they are pure, unvarnished wish-fulfillment, and though the timing may not always be right for them, their themes are certainly timeless.