Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top Ranked Films of Frank Capra

Frank Capra
4 titles, 36th in points with 18,411

1. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) #17
2. It Happened One Night (1934) #160 [AA] best picture
3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) #209
4. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) #727

Those outside the top 1000
5. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) #1645
6. Lost Horizon (1937) #1940
7. You Can't Take It With You (1938) #2029 [AA] best picture

My favorite Capra is easily Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This film attacked congressional corruption so realistically that the U.S. Congress offered Columbia pictures twice the cost of filming (3m vs 1.5m cost, and during the depression) in order to scrap the film before the public could see it, in effect using taxpayer money to censor the taxpayers! Capra convinced the studio that this was the very reason the picture needed to be released, in order to help protect freedom and the government by exposing potential corruption of members of congress by big business using bribes and kickbacks for contracts awarded. (Unfortunately, this is s.o.p. today, they call it “congressional lobbying” and it’s all legal for some puzzing reason - could it be corruption?)

James Stewart turned in his best performance here, but lost the best actor Oscar® to Robert Donat of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but was awarded an “apology Oscar” the next year for a hardly rousing performance in The Philadelphia Story, a lightweight but classic romantic comedy.

Personally, I think It’s a Wonderful Life is overrated. According to Robert Osborne on TCM, the film was a commercial and critical flop when released in 1946, failing to win a single Oscar as Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives swept the awards. Later, the studio let the copyright lapse on the non-profitable film, so tv stations started showing it ad infinitum free of royalties, and a new audience was built up by repeated showings through the decades. I find the film depressing and also unrealistic – nowdays a banker who loses deposits through sloppiness is usually lynched in the press and thrown into federal prison.

This film seems to take the notion that everyone just takes up a collection (during the depression no less) and repays the money some idiot lost through negligence and incompetence. The film spends about 95% of its time in hard times before finally showing a little light at the end; by then, it’s too late for the holiday suicides, they’ve already jumped off a bridge for real. This film paints a Norman Rockwellian view of a utopian America, which is actually run by Mr. Potters while George Bailey is the rare exception – and the bad thing is the Mr. Potters are proud of themselves and consider making money by impoverishing the working class to be “good capitalism”. (Even in the film, Potter still benefits from the found money!) A more accurate picture of the U.S. is to be found in films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Wall Street (1987), where psycho killers and high level corporate thieves are both heroes for an aberrant society.

That said, the film does have a genuine and almost ribald sense of humor. When town hottie Gloria Grahame walks by the 'boys' one day and flirts (“I only wear this ole dress when I don’t care how I look”), as she walks away one says, “how would you like to..”, interrupted by “yes” immediately from Stewart, while policeman Ward Bond says, “I’m going home and see what the wife’s doing for lunch”. They (Stewart and Donna Reed) also keep singing the “Buffalo Gals (won’t you come out tonight)” song, and the real buffalo girls were the Native American women who hung around U.S. army camps to make money the old fashioned way.

You Can’t Take it With You was a completely wacky, if uneven, best picture winner from 1938, which should be ranked in the top 1000, as it's Capra's funniest film. A talented and eccentric cast is led by Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur, a poorly dancing Ann Miller, and two more wackos with a fireworks factory in the basement. I think it should change places with the limp It Happened One Night, which has a couple of mild chuckles and little else – for me that’s one of the worst best picture winners. It's obviously for a different generation than mine. Clark Gable is simply awful, no comic timing whatsoever, and generally wooden, as if he had to get his lines done and get back to something more interesting. (He was on loan from his studio, MGM, as punishment) I didn’t find it in the least romantic either, no onscreen chemistry is evident to me with co-star Claudette Colbert, who is just competent here, nothing extra. The Oscars for this had to be for “lack of competition”. I liked Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) far more from that year, a rauchy and more passionate comedy, about con-artists who slowly become attached while using their wiles to fleece others.

Arsenic and Old Lace is another goofy one that works, as Cary Grant finds his two spinster aunts have a hidden homicidal streak. The film is cast well and is just bizarre enough to be interesting decades later, as it pokes fun of murder in a Hitchcockian manner.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has Gary Cooper miscast in a gentle comedy – he’s ok but adds no comic intuition and the film suffers as a result, it's pretty dull throughout. Lost Horizon is a good adventure, sort of a fantasy about faraway places and escaping civilization to a hidden utopia, called Shangri-La. Unfortunately the film had some scenes snipped, now usually shown with stills and with dialogue intact, and it appears the scenes are little more than innocent conversations taking place in bedrooms in the morning – I assume the Hayes Commission cut them because clean living people don’t go into bedrooms unless married to each other (!) So the film is marred by an uneven cut that now exists, and as a result, the novel by author James Hilton is still far more artistic.

We occasionally get a modern film described as "Capra-esque", which usually means an uplifting and positive film about average Americans. Some of the best of these to me are also true stories - Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), about the inventor of the Tucker automobile; and October Sky (1999), the story of rocket scientist Homer Hickham as a teen in West Virginia.

Capra is genuinely liked for his homespun sense of humor and lack of taking the big picture seriously. He was also healthily cynical of big government as You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington showed, rather overtly, too. In the 38 best picture winner (You Can’t Take It With You) Lionel Barrymore argues with an IRS agent over how much he thinks he owes the government for 10 years of non-filing, “I'll pay you what it's worth to me. Seventy-five dollars – that’s about all the government is worth to me, so that’s all I’m going to pay!”

During the war he spent those years filming the "Why We Fight" series of Allied propaganda films, often putting himself and his film crew in real danger. That series is a well-made series of short documentaries and should be seen by all those interested in both the war and the films of Capra. Of course it's propaganda, but when that's done for your side, we call it 'patriotic'. It's interesting to see Nazi versions of the same era war films - in those Nazi soldiers are welcomed as 'liberators' in the streets by occupied populations, freeing them from 'Allied invasion and domination', and of course, their belt buckles all said "God Is With Us". This all sounds eerily familiar.

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