Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

Calder Pickett

April 29, 2001


You wouldn't see much of the Capra touch in his early pictures. He was a Sicilian immigrant who got into movie-making in the 1920s, with some of the "Our Gang" short subjects, some starring the comedian Harry Langdon, and the Jack Holt-Ralph Graves thrillers "Submarine," "Flight," and "Dirigible." I quite enjoyed "Dirigible."

He was Barbara Stanwyck's director, in some soaps and in "The Miracle Woman," about an evangelist, and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," about a missionary in China who is attracted to a warlord. There was little of the "touch" in these.

The movie that forecast the Capra greatness was called "Platinum Blonde." It's a newspaper tale about a fast-talking reporter who marries an heiress and finally realizes that his real love is back in the news room. An actor named Robert Williams was the reporter, and he'd have become a star, but he died about the time the movie came out. Jean Harlow, incredibly miscast, was the heiress, and Loretta Young was the gal back at the paper. This movie is good fun.

"Lady for a Day" was the breakthrough picture for Capra. It came from a Damon Runyon story about a Depression-era woman who sells apples on the street, consumes a lot of gin, and sends money to her daughter in Spain. Apple Annie, marvelously played by May Robson, learns that the ritzy daughter is coming to America with her titled boyfriend, and Annie has to have help from a gang of 42nd and Broadway types to pass her off as a lady of quality. Capra thought he'd get an Academy Award for this one, but he missed out.

He got one for his next picture. Columbia, a Poverty Row studio, was where he worked, and the studio had a story called 'Night Bus." The big shots tried to hire some big stars, and wound up with two big ones who were quarreling with their studios, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. "Night Bus" became the celebrated "It Happened One Night." Academy Awards came to all hands. Depression day motor camps, noisy old cars, an heiress and a reporter hitchhiking from Miami to New York.

Most people probably don't know about "Broadway Bill," a real charmer about a man who wants to be with Bill, his race horse, and not run the factory owned by his daddy-in-law. A pretty girl, daughter of the daddy, wants to be with the hero and his horse. This had Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy. Years later Capra remade this as "Riding High," with Bing Crosby. It was OK.

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" was a triumph, with Gary Cooper as a fellow who inherits millions, comes to the city, is exploited by a reporter, Jean Arthur, with whom he falls in love, and has to defend himself in court after he decides to give his fortune to people who were out of work. The same theme showed up in the "Mr. Smith" movie: a naive fellow named to the Senate, fighting powerful interests, falling in love with, yes, Jean Arthur. Jimmy Stewart, as you know, was Smith.

Between "Deeds" and "Smith" Frank Capra went high style with "Lost Horizon." This seemed a mistake back in '37, but the years have told us that Capra had another good one. He made "You Can't Take It With You," about one of the nuttiest families in creation, and it won an Academy Award. Arthur and Stewart again. And Capra went to Warner Brothers and made "Meet John Doe," Gary Cooper again and Barbara Stanwyck, and it was "Deeds" and "Smith" all over again.

You all know "It's a Wonderful Life." Capra and Jimmy Stewart thought it was the best. There were others, "Arsenic and Old Lace," "State of the Union," a couple with Bing, one with Frank Sinatra, and a remake of "Lady for a Day" that was rather lame. It's the earlier ones from Capra that we honor, great standard classics of the movies.

-- Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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