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Remembering Frank Capra

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Remembering Frank Capra

Like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, Frank Capra, who died last week of natural causes at age 94, handcrafted a whole film genre out of the stuff of his own worldview. Though he was forever being accused of peddling ”Capra-corn,” his films endure because they hold out hope with the idealized likes of Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds yet recognize mankind’s capacity for evil. The angelic fantasy of It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t cloy precisely because it is counterbalanced by Jimmy Stewart’s scary despair. In the century of the Great Depression and World War II, Capra’s films are an affirmation, not an evasion.

That fierce optimism grew out of tough soil. Born in Sicily, an immigrant to Los Angeles at age 6, Capra spent years scrabbling out of poverty. Filmmaking was an odd job that turned into a career, and the novice was soon writing and directing slapstick comedies for silent clown Harry Langdon. By the early 1930s Capra was the main talent at Harry Cohn’s low-rent Columbia Pictures. But when 1934’s It Happened One Night won five Oscars, Columbia and its resident genius were suddenly in the majors — and the director’s direction changed. Where he had entertained, he would now ennoble.

The rest of Capra’s work was filled with that sense of mission — in his features, in his wartime Why We Fight documentary series, even in late-’50s educational science films like Our Mr. Sun, still beloved by baby boomers. Capra’s sentimental populism fell out of step as postwar disenchantment flowered into ’60s discontent: After a botched attempt to revive his style with A Pocketful of Miracles in 1961, the director retired to a long sunset of elder-spokesman status on the lecture circuit. But he lived to see the cycle completed: His best work — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life — is not only watched today, it is widely beloved. Each of those films is a pilgrim’s progress of idealism. Each is beautifully told, for Capra was a natural filmmaker. And each is now a piece of the American myth, made by a man who saw his own life as proof that the myth could come true. Here’s the best of Capra on video.

It Happened One Night (1934)
Enduringly frisky, this class-conscious romance between runaway heiress Claudette Colbert and cynical reporter Clark Gable responded brilliantly to Depression-era audiences eager to see the wealthy humbled. Capra’s attentive direction shows in the leads’ saucy interplay. A+

Lost Horizon (1937)
Capra troweled on the gosh-I-love-humanity idealism in adapting James Hilton’s novel about a group of airplane passengers hijacked to a Himalayan utopia, Shangri-La. Stylistically, the film is dated, with Ronald Colman spouting soul-searching monologues, but the pacifist message is still compelling. B+

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
James Stewart, as gullible freshman senator Jefferson Smith, is the ideal vessel for Capra’s commonsense kindness. However cynical you may be about the possibility of routing political corruption, it’s impossible not to be moved by Stewart’s call to decency in the filibuster finale. A

Why We Fight (1942-44)
Churchill commended Capra for the effectiveness of this propagandistic seven-part World War II documentary series. Though the films’ more jingoistic moments are jarring today, Capra’s virtuosic command of vérité footage makes this an irresistible view of how things looked on the home front. A-

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
There’s a good reason public-TV stations show this film during pledge drives: Its teary, upbeat finale, in which suicidal building-and-loan manager George Bailey (Stewart) finds redemption through the largesse of his friends, is a perfect purse opener. Such coarse merchandising dishonors Capra’s artistry: The Christmas Carol trappings cover a grim, unflinching tale of working-class regret and desperation. A+

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