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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, May 21 1997
Capra at the Castro
This is the second week of the Castro Theater's centennial tribute to Frank Capra, an impressive ensemble with a new double bill daily. A parallel, even larger series is ongoing at the Stanford in Palo Alto. Capra's work is still too easily dismissed (or celebrated) as canned Americana -- a charge that can be leveled at, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington only by willfully ignoring the despair about America's institutions and leaders the film skirts. Every single U.S. Senator turns his back on honest Jeff Smith, after all, and it takes the miracle of a thwarted suicide to save him. Suicide and madness recur as motifs throughout Capra's work. It's a Wonderful Life is only the most obvious example; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Arsenic and Old Lace extend these fears into the realms of near-tragedy and farce, respectively.

The many Capra films featuring journalists as heroes (The Power of the Press, Platinum Blonde, It Happened One Night), villains (Forbidden, Mr. Smith), or as something in between (Jean Arthur's Judas with a heart of gold in Mr. Deeds), point to the filmmaker's awareness of the media's power to make or break hapless individuals, a point made quite sharply as early as 1931 in The Miracle Woman, a powerful expose of a fake evangelist (Capra muse Barbara Stanwyck). The fickle public of Miracle Woman, Deeds, and Smith, along with the runs on the bank in American Madness and Wonderful Life, demonstrate an acute fear of mob panic that sits uneasily with Capra's reputation as a simple spreader of democratic homilies.

The newly rediscovered silent film The Matinee Idol is an early (1928) display of Capra's split persona about the public. We and a big Broadway audience are set up to laugh at an incompetent theatrical troupe, but are then made to feel bad for our mockery. Laughter for Capra can scald and wound, but it can also, when shared, herald a democratic utopia, as in the impromptu "Flying Trapeze" musicale in It Happened One Night. This auditory utopianism carries over to Lionel Barrymore's reform of gruff capitalist Edward Arnold with a harmonica in You Can't Take It With You, or the games with echoes in cavernous rooms played by Robert Williams and Gary Cooper, respectively, in Platinum Blonde and Mr. Deeds.

Capra's films were usually shot by master cinematographer Joseph Walker, and their words more often than not penned by Robert Riskin. Their efforts, however, and those of a stock troupe of supremely talented stars, character actors, and bit players, would have amounted to less without Capra's energizing presence unifying them and in particular energizing them. While there's no wasted motion in story-driven films like American Madness or Mr. Smith, the viewer is also often encouraged to relax and enjoy leisurely character bits, often quite bizarre. A conversation-by-marionette in The Miracle Woman tops a list that includes the many scenes of backchat and banter between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Night and also the drum solos, tuba playing, and general mooning about by various combinations of Cooper, James Stewart, and Jean Arthur in the other films. Capra's heartfelt romanticism must not be gainsaid. In particular the haunting courtship between Stanwyck and a Chinese general (Nils Asther) in the remarkable The Bitter Tea of General Yen should be noted. It's a film to impress anyone still willing to write off this visionary filmmaker as childish.

-- Gregg Rickman

For complete schedules of the Frank Capra films playing this week at the Castro and Stanford theaters, see Reps Etc., Page 78.

About The Author

Gregg Rickman


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