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Harvard Film Archive traces Frank Capra’s depictions of America

Frank Capra in 1934. AP/Associated Press

Has any major Hollywood filmmaker had a stranger career trajectory than Frank Capra? He went from scrappy outsider in the late ’20s and early ’30s, to multi-Oscar-winning eminence during the rest of the decade (three best director wins in just five years), to has-been in the ’50s and ’60s, to rediscovered folk hero in the early ’70s, to all-but-forgotten man thereafter. The “all-but” was because of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and its blanketing the airwaves every Christmas season.

The strangeness of that trajectory is in part because Capra (1897-1991) made some of the stranger films in Hollywood history. Yet the strangeness is so often overlooked — the almost-unbearable darkness of the second half of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” say, ignored in favor of holiday cheer; or the obstructionism of the title character’s idealism in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) getting remembered as simple, instead of simplistic, civic virtue. Sentiment and mania furiously battle in Capra’s work. His best films show that, cinematically, a house divided against itself really can stand. The mediocre and bad ones remind us how right Lincoln was.


The many Capra virtues, and no less numerous Capra vices, are on display in The Capra Touch, at the Harvard Film Archive. The series, which started earlier this month, runs through June 2.

The title is meant as a play on words twice over: contrasting with the elegant “touch” that Capra’s contemporary Ernst Lubitsch imparted to his own films; and highlighting the common touch on display in Capra’s films, courtesy of their self-consciously populist message.

An even better title might be The Capra Shove. At his best, the filmmaker gave his movies a unique velocity. It’s most evident during his early years. After starting out as director of silent comedies starring Harry Langdon, Capra became one of the most innovative American filmmakers of the early Sound Era with a string of pushy, pulsing, often provocative features made on the (relative) cheap for Columbia. It was largely the success of Capra’s films that brought the studio up from Poverty Row.


“American Madness” (1932), which screens Monday, exemplifies this stage of Capra’s career. The story of a bank panic, it could hardly be more up-to-the-Depression minute. The film’s hero is honorable banker Walter Huston (foreshadowing James Stewart’s George Bailey, in “Wonderful Life”). But its real protagonist is the terrified crowd of account holders trying to get their money back. Capra loved spouting homilies, and his 1971 autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” is full of them. He recognized early on that that’s where the prestige was. But crisis and danger were what drove his filmmaking.

Also screening Monday is the film Capra’s career pivoted on, “It Happened One Night” (1934). It screens this Sunday and May 4. The film won Oscars for best picture, best director, best actor (Clark Gable), best actress (Claudette Colbert), and best screenplay (Robert Riskin, Capra’s favorite writer during the ’30s). There are sequences that remain as enchanting as anything to come out of Hollywood: the bus passengers joining in to sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” Colbert showing Gable how to hitchhike, the Walls of Jericho scene.

Capra at the height of his reputation is on display Saturday and next Sunday, with “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). The first, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s celebrated stage comedy, creaks considerably. But helped in no small part by the charm of young lovers Stewart and Jean Arthur, Capra makes it work. He won his third and final best director Oscar. (The other was for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” 1936. It screens May 24.)


James Stewart and Jean Arthur in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Columbia pictures/Associated Press

For “Mr. Smith,” Capra reunites Stewart and Arthur. Only “Wonderful Life” rivals it for degree of tension between dark impulse and lockstep uplift. The movie, which begins with a death and climaxes with a suicide attempt, presents itself as an homage to political nobility. What it thrills to is something quite different. That would be, as Graham Greene wrote in a review, “the whole authentic atmosphere of big bland crookery between boss and politician.” What holds together something so inherently incoherent is Stewart. As Jefferson Smith, he gives one of the great star-making performances in Hollywood history, transforming a nonsensical character into an American touchstone.

A word is in order about how cannily Capra cast his leads. Stewart and Arthur were each in three of his films, Gary Cooper in two, and Barbara Stanwyck, a Capra discovery, in no fewer than five. It’s telling that Stanwyck and Capra made four between 1930 and ’33. Her toughness and daring complemented early Capra superbly. The chemistry between filmmaker and star is most striking, perhaps, in “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933), which screens May 10. Stanwyck plays a missionary’s fiancee in revolutionary China captured by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther). What could have been a trashy melodrama about forbidden love — no, make that Forbidden Love — becomes a singular blend of emotional delicacy and unmistakable sexual charge. The movie failed commercially. That failure, and the arrival of the Production Code, encouraged Capra to effectively neuter himself as a filmmaker.


Capra, who wasted no time in enlisting after America entered World War II, was personally charged by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall with making a series of films explaining the Allied war effort to US service personnel — propaganda, in other words. Now here was an ideal outlet for Capra’s gee-whiz urgency. His “Why We Fight” series is justifiably famous. “The Battle of Russia” (1943), which he co-directed with Anatole Litvak, suggests why. It screens May 4.

Capra returned to a very different Hollywood — and a very different America. “Wonderful Life,” which screens May 9, shows Capra trying to take Capra-corn, as his brand of sentimental populism had been dubbed in the ’30s, into a postwar world. Bedford Falls meets Pottersville. Does it work? The fact of “Wonderful Life” having long ago become a holiday staple — truly, an American “Christmas Carol” — suggests that it does, though the incommensurability of the two visions argues otherwise.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.”ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

“Wonderful Life” was a commercial failure, and something went out of Capra’s filmmaking. A distinct swagger defines both the aggressiveness of the early Sound Era films and the in-the-American-grain aspirations that followed. Although a memory of that confidence informs “State of the Union” (1948), what’s most striking is how much this adaptation of Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play tries to copy previous Capra movies. Its political plot recalls “Mr. Smith,” and Spencer Tracy’s much more polished man of the people harkens to “Deeds.” Pairing Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is a shaky attempt to recapture the lightning that Stewart/Arthur and Cooper/Arthur were able to bottle. It screens May 5.


At least “State of the Union” has energy, however mechanical, which is more than can be said for “Riding High” (1950) or Capra’s last film, “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961). Where “State of the Union” aped previous Capra films, these two are outright remakes: of “Broadway Bill” (1934) and “Lady for a Day” (1933). The HFA has scheduled each original/remake pair together: May 30 for “Broadway Bill” and “Riding High,” May 11 for “Lady for a Day” and “Pocketful of Miracles.”

A story of rags-to-riches deception, “Lady” has a social-status desperation that makes it kin to “American Madness.” That film may be the emblematic Capra title. Only John Ford rivals Capra as a filmic shaper of America’s conception of itself — and Ford did so by focusing on (and romanticizing) the past. Except for “Pocketful of Miracles” and the opening portion of “Wonderful Life,” Capra set all his movies in contemporary society. The fact that his American now has become our American then should not obscure that fact. Maybe it’s not even a matter of then. Any useful understanding of how America imagines itself is impossible without some familiarity with this body of work. Capra’s American madness — that admixture of piety and frenzy, self-satisfaction and disarray — has a very familiar feel to it.

For series information, go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.