Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

Director Capra had golden touch

April 29, 2001


In the past few weeks I've been looking at a lot of old movies, and the ones I've liked best were those directed by Frank Capra. The four best-known Capras were shown recently at our public library, but people should know that Capra gave us a good many other pictures.

There's a thing called the "Capra touch" that came to mark his movies. That touch was, roughly putting it, one person, usually a man, battling ignorance and power. The "touch" was best demonstrated in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and, to a lesser extent, in "Meet John Doe" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

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.

"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 Crosby, 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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