Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Frank Capra: A Not Always Wonderful Life

Director Frank Capra’s famous 1971 memoir, The Name Above the Title, contains a phrase that is often quoted in Hollywood: “Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men in the dark.” These were the words that Jane Fonda had inscribed on a plaque as a 1981 Christmas gift for her producing partner, Bruce Gilbert, around the time they made On Golden Pond. Like many other Hollywood denizens, Fonda found inspiration in the courage that had allowed Capra to make such hard-hitting social comedies as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

Alas, as Joseph McBride points out in his powerful 1992 biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Capra was not always the gutsy maverick his own memoir makes him out to be. Capra, a Sicilian immigrant desperate for fame and social acceptance, was a shrewd man who knew how to be affable. Actors loved him for his relaxed and supportive behavior on the set. But—determined to live by an auteurist credo of “one man, one movie”—he proved to be ungenerous to collaborators, never fully acknowledging the role played by such talented colleagues as screenwriter Robert Riskin and cinematographer Joseph Walker. Moreover, especially later in his career, he had debilitating periods of self-doubt.

During World War II the patriotic Capra enlisted in the military and proved essential to the U.S. cause as the head of the unit producing the “Why We Fight” morale films. He ended the war as a full colonel, valued by General George Marshall to the extent that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. But the post-war period brought him little personal satisfaction. An attempt to form an independent film company was a flop, and he seemed to lose the buoyant spirit that had marked his earlier movies. McBride sees the suicidal George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life as a near-portrait of Capra himself, without the Christmas-card ending.    

McBride, a longtime scholar and journalist (as well as a Roger Corman alum who once dreamed up the plot for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School)  had the advantage of working directly with Capra on the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tribute evening. When McBride moved on to this biography, he gained access to the Capra archive at Wesleyan University, as well as to documents in government files. He also spoke to many of Hollywood’s leading lights, who shared a wide range of opinions about the beloved but complicated director. A tireless researcher, McBride did not fail to pinpoint contradictions between Capra’s charming but self-serving memoir and the truth to be found in the paper trail. No wonder the book took him eight years to write.

Before reading this biography, I had not realized the extent to which Capra’s life was shaped by politics. The myth fostered by Capra himself was that he was a champion of the little guy within American life. And so his best films make him seem. He also, by playing a leadership role in the formation of what would become the Directors Guild, appeared to be siding with labor against the studio system. But he was also a lifelong Republican who consistently voted against FDR and at one time admired Mussolini. In the difficult years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was so desperate to avoid accusations that he became virulently anti-Communist, even to the point of naming names to the FBI. Said one former colleague, “The blacklist killed him—that panic. In effect, he was a victim of the backlist. [But] he had the soul of an informer.”

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