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The World Outside the Pictures : FRANK CAPRA: The Catastrophe of Success <i> By Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster: $27.50; 655 pp.) </i>

<i> Lambert is a novelist, screenwriter and author of the biography, "Norma Shearer." </i>

In 1985, at the age of 88, Frank Capra suffered the first of a series of strokes that left him fuddled and twilit until his death in 1991. Although he could still recognize visitors, as one of them reported, “he doesn’t really know who he is anymore.”

But did he ever? Joseph McBride’s biography, superbly researched and almost continually surprising, is a Faustian story of false identity as the price of fame. By the end of the 1930s, the bargain had paid off, thanks to the success with audiences and critics of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” These two movies, with basically the same story of a naive small-town idealist triumphing over powerful dishonesty in the big city, established their director as a spokesman for the poor and “the little man,” and a passionate opponent of the selfish and corrupt rich.

Yet, McBride tells us, the man who rode the crest of a liberal reputation was in fact deeply conservative. He admired Mussolini, supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War and hated Roosevelt. While Capra’s movies satirized the rich, in private he complained, just like them, about high taxation. Having come to America in 1903 with his family of poor Sicilian immigrants, and having sold newspapers in the street to help pay for his education, he saw his own rise to prosperity and success as a living example of the American Dream.

In the early days of the Depression, his mistrust of banks led him to hoard money in cash and convert it into gold; but in his 1930 movie “American Madness,” he portrayed a bank president as the head of an ultimately benevolent and honorable institution. During the McCarthy era, he supported a proposal by the Screen Directors Guild that obliged its members to sign a loyalty oath.

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Publicly, Capra claimed that the industry had to make its anti-communist position “known to America and the world”; privately, he was furious to learn that he himself was under suspicion of disloyalty (mainly because he had visited the Soviet Union in 1937, and because Sidney Buchman, screenwriter of “Mr. Smith,” was a suspected communist and he wanted to emphasize his patriotism.

With the publication of his autobiography (“The Name Above the Title”) in 1971, the former champion of freedom and idealism changed his stand yet again. Bitter over years of failure and inactivity, Capra announced that “the hedonists, the homosexuals, the hemophilic bleeding hearts, the God-haters” had taken over Hollywood.

The autobiography is also remarkable for the way Capra minimizes the contributions of his screenwriters and claims almost sole credit for his most successful movies. Egotism, of which he never ran short, was only one reason. As McBride shows, two writers were crucial to Capra’s legend. Robert Riskin (“It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds,” “You Can’t Take It With You”), a liberal who supported Roosevelt and the New Deal, was clearly the voice behind Capra’s social conscience. Myles Connolly, who contributed (sometimes without credit) to “Mr. Deeds,” “Mr. Smith” and “Meet John Doe,” was a right-wing Catholic to whose 1928 novel, “Mr. Blue,” Capra was much indebted. It tells the story of a Christ-like innocent mocked for his virtue in the big city. Anti-intellectual (like “Mr. Deeds”) and anti-agnostic (like “Meet John Doe”), it puts in a rather patronizing word for the “good common people.”

Fluctuating as he did between influences from left and right, voting Republican all the way from Coolidge to Reagan and yet delighted to find that he was admired by Soviet film makers, it is not surprising that most people who worked with Capra could never decide, in Julius Epstein’s words, “how he felt outside his pictures.” Although equally undecided, Capra was certain that the way to make successful pictures was “to strike a responsive note in the mass mind.” He even told a reporter from Variety in 1932 that “the conflict between rich and poor” was a subject ripe for plucking by any director smart enough to capitalize on the public mood.

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It’s impossible not to conclude that Capra’s populism was basically a bid for popular appeal; and by the time of “Meet John Doe” (1941), he seemed hopelessly confused by the conflict within himself, attacking the New Deal with Connolly’s right hand and a fascist press tycoon with Riskin’s left.

A lapsed Catholic who finally returned to his church, Capra also misjudged the mass mind when he offered it pop Buddhism in “Lost Horizon.” But a persistent if hidden Catholic streak appears in the obligatory “conversion” scenes in his movies--the know-it-all heroine humbled by the innocence of Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, and, grotesquely, the joyless armaments manufacturer of “You Can’t Take It With You” discovering the simple life when he takes up playing the harmonica again.

The same streak appears in Capra’s private attacks of guilt and fear. Uneasy about his prosperity during the Depression, he downplayed his earnings; at the peak of success, he began (rightly) to dread eventual failure, which he later blamed (wrongly) on everyone except himself.

“The basis of optimism,” G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “is sheer terror.” This certainly seems true of the happy endings in Capra’s movies, where a kind of hysteria takes over. “Mr. Smith” asks us to believe in a hero who filibusters for 22 hours on the Senate floor, a political boss so powerful that he can prevent the entire national press and every radio station from reporting the speech--and then it asks us to believe in the last-minute “conversion” of a corrupt senator, who exposes the baddies and (also on the Senate floor) tries to shoot himself.

Even more frenzied is the climax of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), Capra’s last film of any consequence, weirdly muddled but personally his most revealing. It starts by reversing the myth of idyllic small-town life, which George Bailey finds so mean and frustrating that he throws himself into the river. Then an angel (whimsical type) comes to his rescue, and not only converts George to the belief that life can still be wonderful, but converts everybody in the town to collective goodwill. Fade out on a mass celebration of the Christmas spirit.

Capra’s own life is a record of euphoria alternating with suicidal moods to an almost manic-depressive degree. Nothing could be more (unconsciously) depressive than the Shangri-La of “Lost Horizon"--its Oriental Theme Park framing characters so static and glazed that they might be under sedation as they delude themselves with fortune-cookie mantras: “Don’t look at the bottom of the mountains, look at the top.” Yet, when not floundering with “ideas,” Capra could be a brilliant realist. The scenes of political machination in the first half of “Mr. Smith” are wonderfully crisp and shrewd and daring for the time. As a director of actors, Capra was also extraordinarily skillful; Gary Cooper, James Stewart and Jean Arthur were at their most persuasive and dynamic when working with him.

But unlike the two great masters of American film comedy, Ernst Lubitsch with his tender skepticism, Preston Sturges with his wild, liberating irony, Capra had no genuine vision of the world. And his greatest energy seems to have been focused on a desperate evasion of the complexities of life. Ironically, McBride’s biography reveals a man far more complex than his work, and the result is a major book about a director who remains, in spite and because of his extreme ambition, minor.


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