Friday, December 18, 2009

Frank Capra, a great director

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I saw "American Madness" directed by the great Frank Capra on television recently.

What a terrific film! Walter Houston was magnificent. Capra keeps the pace moving along quickly and a subject that would on its face seem boring (banking) turns into a riveting film about money, personal faith and how a panic can begin. To think that the picture was made in 1934, in the depth of the Great Depression, and is as topical and watchable as any film made in 2009!

One wonders if this film is being suppressed in our current, tough economic times. It was only playing on TCM in the very early morning hours, around 2 A.M. It is rarely shown on television. Perhaps a story of bank runs and public panic hits a little too close to home right now.

Note: I hereby label what follows as opinion as I am Constitutionally allowed to have an opinion under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In light of this obvious talent, it is all the more wonder how Mr. Joseph McBride could write such a mean-spirited biography on Capra. Of course, Mr. McBride tacitly acknowledges Capra's genius otherwise he would not have devoted such a hefty tome writing about Capra's life. Still, any chance to take a pot-shot at Capra does not go unexpressed. Reading between the lines of his book, Mr. McBride inadvertently makes the case for Capra not only being a great film director but a great patriot, too. For example, Capra volunteered for Army service in World War II even though he was exempt from military service both because he had already served in World War I and at age 42 he was too old for the draft in World War II. That's right: Capra served in the U.S. Army in both World Wars. Also, Capra enlisted in the Second World War when he was middle aged and a father. Even more astonishingly, Capra turned his back on a very lucrative Hollywood career. How lucrative?

In 1938, TIME magazine featured Capra on the cover noting that he was the highest paid motion picture director in the world, receiving a salary of one million dollars a year. Now, even today a million dollars is a lot of money but back in the Depression it was a staggering sum.

Capra was still working steadily in Hollywood when the U.S. entered the Second World War. Indeed, he had just finished shooting "Arsenic and Old Lace" and a few years before Pearl Harbor, at the 1939 Oscar ceremony, Capra picked up his third Best Director Academy Award [copyrights for "Oscar" and "Academy Award" duly noted and fair use at their being mentioned as part of the historic public record hereby claimed.] He gave up a top spot in the motion picture industry and a fat salary to go VOLUNTARILY into the U.S. Army.
Even the less than kind Mr. McBride is forced to admit that Capra was one of the very, very few Hollywood directors to serve in World War II.

Think of that for a moment: in the biggest war in history, a fight literally between good and evil, with the Allies facing a horrific force, wherein it was NOT a foregone conclusion that good would prevail, and in a war where he was exempt because of age and prior military service, Capra is one of the very few among Hollywood directors to enlist. That speaks volumes about Capra the man and Capra the patriot.
Not only did he serve but he emerged from the war a decorated veteran. So impressed was five star General George Marshall by Capra's service that General Marshall insisted on personally decorating Colonel Capra with the Distinguished Service Medal. A photograph memorializes the moment when General Marshall pinned the medal on Capra's chest.

Nor was Marshall alone. Prime Minister Winston Churchill (surely you have heard of Winston Churchill, Mr. McBride?) insisted on meeting Capra face to face in order to thank him for his service to the Allied cause. Churchill went on to issue an official public citation thanking Capra for his series of documentary films, "Why We Fight", made during the war.
Of course, later on other movie directors have received awards but none during World War II for military service. To my knowledge, Capra was the only film director to be decorated for his war service during the war or immediately after the war.

It is not enough that Frank Capra made memorable films. He was a good, loving, idealistic, brave and smart man. His was among the greatest American success stories ever told. He came to America not even speaking English. He put himself through college --Caltech no less--working as a janitor; got his degree from Caltech and fought to get into the movie business; then fought again for proper credit of film directors. He became the most famous film director of his time with his name above the title of his films. He picked up three Oscars and a fabulous salary. His films are still watched, studied, and admired by millions to this day. What politician in the United States has not seen "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"? Capra furthered the careers of Clark Gable; Claudette Colbert; Jimmy Stewart; Gary Cooper; Barbara Stanwyck; Jean Arthur and worked with film legends Katherine Hepburn; Spencer Tracy; Cary Grant; Bette Davis and a host of others.

So before anyone subscribes to the Joe McBride view of Frank Capra just ask yourself who else of his generation in the film business did as much as Frank Capra?

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