Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

Thanks mostly to It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Jimmy Stewart movie that rules TV every Christmas, director Frank Capra is famous as the Pollyanna of Hollywood, a brilliant spinner of fairy tales about the Little Fella whupping big bad capitalist wolves. Capra, who died last September at 94, was the leader of the pack, the best-paid director ever; his It Happened One Night the first quintuple Oscar winner in 1934. ”It sounds sappy,” he said, ”but the underlying idea of my movies is actually the Sermon on the Mount.”

Don’t be a sap. Joseph McBride’s astounding new biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, argues that Capra’s movies were actually darker, his motives far gnarlier than careless viewers realize. There was wormwood under all that corn syrup: If he was so upbeat, why do so many of his characters attempt suicide? If he was all for the Little Man, how come his crews put in 85-hour weeks with no overtime? Why did he make New Deal movies when he was a closet Republican who ratted out his pinko colleagues to FBI thought police and shamelessly heisted credit for his writers’ work?

McBride doesn’t really have a taste for the blood sport of literary pathography. He likes the hairpin turns in Capra’s involuted character. He’s a more convincing debunker than, say, Donald Spoto on Hitchcock or Pauline Kael on Orson Welles, because he includes scads of evidence that makes his subject look good. Like wheat, Capra’s soul is sifted and the chaff cast away. The book is a kind of sober companion volume to the movie man’s disingenuous memoir, The Name Above the Title.

McBride catches him in a fascinating array of lies. Capra claimed he never went a penny over budget; Lost Horizon went 62 percent over budget. Capra said he never got a dime from Columbia in profit percentages; in fact he was the only 1930s Columbia director still earning profits in the 1980s — $74,467 in 1984 alone. Implacable as an IRS auditor, McBride sets the record straight.

Not that his account doesn’t have some kinks of its own. McBride says that Capra’s gag writing for Mack Sennett somehow expressed pent-up sexual frustrations, that castration anxieties lurk in the director’s silent pictures starring Harry Langdon, and that the dotty old homicidal ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace correspond to Capra’s mother. McBride speaks in Freudian tongues.

Still, for the most part he seems on the level. His theory that the director’s calamitous collapse after 1946 resulted from guilt over his role in the Red scare is persuasive. And he deftly explicates Capra’s genius. His book offers a glimpse, reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, of what movies might have been like had Capra never lived: no screwball comedy, which he invented in It Happened One Night; no Columbia Pictures, which that movie rescued; no comic roles for Clark Gable; no starring roles for Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck; worst of all, no postwar Jimmy Stewart, who said that without It’s a Wonderful Life he might have gone from the Army back home to Pennsylvania to run his dad’s hardware store.

Capra’s masterpieces transcend their sappy sermonizing. McBride’s exposé of the complex cinematic minister is worth his lapses into pop psychology, his droning Court TV-like pace, and his uncontrollable profusion of facts. Capra’s autobiography is strictly apocrypha; on this subject, McBride’s bio is the good book. A-

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success
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