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article imageOp-Ed: Frank Capra made other great movies too, y'know

By Jeff Cottrill     Dec 22, 2013 in Entertainment
When modern movie viewers hear the name Frank Capra, chances are high that only one title (if any at all) comes to their minds. No Christmas cookie for guessing that I refer to “It's a Wonderful Life”, a beloved holiday tradition for some.
Even if you've never gotten around to watching It's a Wonderful Life, you've undoubtedly seen enough parodies and references that you may as well have seen the whole film. Thanks to years of being in the public domain, which led to endless seasonal TV airings in the 1970s and '80s and eventually to its belated establishment as a holiday classic, the supernatural salvation of George Bailey is now as overexposed as your most hated Yuletide tunes and Fox News' delusional War on Christmas.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love Wonderful Life too. It's true that it's nowhere near as cheery and uplifting as its reputation would have you believe, as writers like Gary Kamiya and Wendell Jamieson have amusingly pointed out, as well as Phoebe from Friends. Well before that famous happy ending, George, cursed by his own stubborn unselfishness, has a ton of discouraging bad luck heaped on him. (Although, be honest — if you were shacked up with a young and horny Donna Reed, would you be complaining?) But that final message from his guardian angel — “No [person] is a failure who has friends” — is an important one. Especially today, when many of us put so much stock into the things we own and our careers, sacrificing much of the time we could spare for the people around us.
What disappoints me about the dominance of Capra's 1946 film is the way it overshadows the classics he made years before it. A shame, because his pre-World War II works are just as good. If not better.
How many people do you know who've seen the original Lost Horizon? Or how about the original Mr. Deeds? Or It Happened One Night? Assuming you haven't, you're missing out on an old master of ensemble-cast direction and comedic timing. (And screaming-headline montages, too.)
There's a reason why Capra was among the most successful and acclaimed Hollywood directors of the Depression years. His progressive-themed movies optimistically championed the plight of the little guy against the greed, corruption and mendacity of big business and the financial establishment. The irony is that the populist, left-wing sentiments of his movies usually came from the typing hands of screenwriter Robert Riskin. Capra himself, it turns out, was actually a staunch Republican, who opposed FDR's New Deal and believed the myth that anyone and everyone could succeed solely through his own hard work and perseverance, without society's assistance.
But the liberalism in Capra's movies has held up well, while his real-life conservatism is all but forgotten. Maybe it was because he knew how to sell a great script. Or maybe he was just a genius at capturing the zeitgeist of 1930s America, regardless of his own views. Some critics at the time ridiculed his sentimental fables as “Capra-corn”, but today, those same movies might ring true with today's “Occupy” generation, if they watched them. (Some of those populist values sneaked into Wonderful Life too, although Riskin had fallen out with Capra by then.)
So when the holidays are over, do remember that Capra's reputation didn't start with Wonderful Life. Want examples? Here are my five top picks.
1. It Happened One Night (1934)
Nearly 80 years old and still funny. Capra scored a handful of Oscars for this fast-paced romcom about an alcoholic newspaperman (Clark Gable) and a spoiled, runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) who meet by chance while on the road. They start off bickering, soon begin helping each other and eventually fall in love. The pair's repartee still crackles like fireworks; a few of their exchanges — about dunking donuts, hitchhiking poses and piggybacking — sound like they could have come from Seinfeld. Some of the humour and dialogue might come off as very un-PC and sexist to today's audiences; you may cringe at lines like, “What she needs is a guy that'd take a sock at her once a day, whether it's coming to her or not.” But taken on its own terms, It Happened One Night is a solid comedy that holds up brilliantly.
Memorable line: “The walls of Jericho are toppling!” (It's a sex metaphor)
2. Lost Horizon (1937)
Capra brings James Hilton's story of Shangri-La to life in this haunting epic that has a few visual echoes of Steven Spielberg's early hits. Ronald Colman stars as Robert Conway, a famous British diplomat who, along with a small refugee group, finds himself stuck in an isolated Himalayan utopia where everyone lives in peace and has an abundance of life necessities and culture. It isn't long before Conway — and the audience — is utterly seduced by Shangri-La's magic. But is it too good to be true? Today, Lost Horizon is available only in the 1980s “restored” version that displays still images over the audio of cut footage that's now lost. Whatever version you see it in, it's a beautiful experience. Wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin. Only real flaw: John Howard, who's supremely awful as Conway's skeptical (and inexplicably American-accented) younger brother.
Memorable line: “There are moments in every man's life when he glimpses the eternal.”
3. You Can't Take It with You (1938)
It's easy to see why the classic Kaufman/Hart play appealed to Capra and Riskin — it's a joyful celebration of doing your own thing, regardless of what society tells you. Riskin's script follows the basic story but expands its scope with added subplots and set pieces. The young Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are winning as a young couple from vastly different families, the rich but miserable Kirbys and the poor, eccentric but blissful Sycamores. But Lionel Barrymore (the future Mr. Potter) steals the movie as the Sycamore grandfather, who wins over the Kirbys' respect with kindness and humanistic wisdom. A bit overlong, but still a pleasure.
Memorable line: “How's Essie doing?” Dance teacher: “Confidentially, she steenks.”
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
If Capra deserves immortality for any one film, it's this one. Stewart gives one of his greatest performances as a naive young forest ranger who gets called up as an honorary U.S. senator — in what's really a plot to conceal graft in an upcoming bill. With the help of his beautiful, sharp-witted secretary Saunders (Arthur again), Smith exposes the corruption in a lengthy, emotionally charged — and often very funny — filibuster. A highly controversial critique of government in its day, Mr. Smith seems shockingly contemporary now. A stellar supporting cast (Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, others) helps, as does the film's passionate populism. You don't have to be American to be drawn into its idealism. Near perfect.
Memorable line: “All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them — because of just one plain, simple rule: 'Love thy neighbour.'”
5. Arsenic and Old Lace (filmed 1941, released 1944)
Now this movie ought to be the holiday tradition that Wonderful Life is — but for Halloween. If you think Cary Grant could play only relaxed, charming, debonair ladies' men, here's a rare chance to see him go waaay over the top. Capra cranks Joseph Kesselring's stage farce up to 11 on the energy dial with this gleefully black comedy about the Brewster sisters (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), two sweet old ladies who've developed a nasty habit of euthanizing lonely men with poisoned wine and burying their bodies in the cellar. Add a supporting cast that includes Peter Lorre and Priscilla Lane putting on their madcap hats, plus Raymond Massey as a psycho with Boris Karloff's face, and you've got one of the gems of the golden age of screwball. It's uncharacteristically dark for Capra, with a screenplay by the Epstein brothers (co-writers of Casablanca). Stagey at times, to be sure, but so hilarious and fast-paced that you won't care.
Memorable line: “Yes, I did [poison twelve men]. But you don't think I'd stoop to telling a fib?”
And if you want more, check out Lady for a Day (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941), which are all worth seeing at least once.
Now: off to the library DVD section you go, my friends.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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