Lord knows the world hardly needs another self-proclaimed Frank Capra expert... Thus, I make no special claims about either my insights or knowledge of the man... I just like his films, and this page is a modest effort to help keep them all straight in my cluttered little mind.
"The Matinee Idol" (Columbia, 1928)
God Bless the French, for salvaging The Matinee Idol, a "lost" Capra movie uncovered in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise, bringing one of Capra's last silent films back into the world of the living. Johnnie Walker stars as a Broadway star who accidentally falls in with an earnest but untalented regional theater company, the Bolivar Players. His big city pals see the show and it leaves them in stitches, so they invite the hapless rubes to a run on Broadway -- as a comedy act, unbeknownst to the actors themselves. The end of the film is rather abrupt: Walker seeks to make amends for the cruel joke, and to patch things up with the gal who runs the troupe, but doesn't go through the type of elaborate manouevers we'd expect to see a few years later, in a classic screwball comedy. (One imagines the script was clipped and the movie kept shorter than Capra might have liked...) Actress Bessie Love is a really interesting onscreen presence, and the scenes in which she and her fellow actors are jeered at by the audiences in New York are absolutely heartbreaking, in the classic Capra style. Not a stunning movie in artistic terms, though invaluable for any fans of Capra to see him in his work in his early years. (The accompanying biographical documentary, narrated by Ron Howard, is also available separately as a VHS tape, without The Matinee Idol as a backup feature.)
"American Madness" (Columbia, 1932)
Frank Capra's fast-paced Depression-era drama stars Walter Huston as a bank manager facing a financial panic that leads to a run on his bank. Easy to see this early talkie as a dry run for It's A Wonderful Life, but it also stands on its own as a fine film, shot with a nice noir-ish feel. The desperation and panic of the time is painfully palpable throughout this film, and the indiscriminate hysteria of the opening sequences ratchets up into individualized, personal agony as Huston steels himself to lose all that he's ever worked for. Tense and anxiety-provoking; worth checking out!
"The Bitter Tea Of General Yen" (Columbia, 1933)
A groundbreaking story of an interracial romance between a Catholic missionary in wartorn China (played by a gorgeous young Barbara Stanwyck) and a cruel, haughty Chinese warlord, played -- unfortunately, but in the style of the time -- by a white guy. It's a very unusual film, and much different than the other Capra classics. To begin with, the story takes place outside of the director's usual Middle-America tromping grounds, and his dramatizations of the bloodshed and chaos taking place in Asia are pretty amazing... Hard-hitting stuff for a still-isolationist nation to sit through, but material Capra would sucessfully revisit in his WWII propaganda films. The main story, though, is about two people struggling to bridge a deep racial divide -- although the film is rife with sterotypes, Capra clearly meant to project a progressive image onto his characters. It may be a little difficult for modern audiences to passively sit through some of the dialogue, but the film's still a fascinating snapshot of its times, worth considering on a variety of levels. The cinematography and set design are also both quite stunning.
"The Miracle Woman" (Columbia, 1933)
Barbara Stanwyck as Sister "Faith" Fallon, charismatic leader of a Pentecostal sect. David Manners plays a blind man who falls in love with her after hearing a sermon which rouses hope in him; Frank Capra's unusually blunt attack on religious quackery previews familiar themes of individual moralism and the little guy going up against a crooked system. The baby-cheeked, 20-year-old Stanwyck is drop-dead gorgeous in scene after scene, and brings the house down -- literally -- in the beginning and closing scenes. Nice early exploration of Capra's populist ouvre, but mostly just a chance to admire Stanwyck's incandescence.
"Broadway Bill" (Columbia, 1934)
A once-lost Capra film, with a plot revolving around a long-shot champion racehouse that everyone had written off as a nag. Great chemistry between Myrna Loy and Warner Baxter, who had a Clark Gable-ish charm as the fast-talking rogue who gets Bill his big break. Cast notes: Clarence Muse is cool as Baxter's sidekick, in a surprisingly strong role for an African-American actor at the time; Margaret Hamilton (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) plays "vinegar puss", the spinsterish landlady of one of Baxter's ne'er-do-well pals. Capra remade this film in 1952, with Bing Crosby in the lead role; I far prefer Baxter. This is a good classic film; the ending will slay you.
"You Can't Take It With You" (Columbia, 1938)
A fine Frank Capra comedy featuring Jimmy Stewart at his most boyish and gangly, and Jean Arthur as the girl of his dreams. It's a comedy of mismatched lovers: Stewart plays the son of a cold-hearted business tycoon (Edward Arnold) who looks forward to the coming world war as a way to make a killing on the stock market. In the path of Dad's capitalistic machinations lies a family of carefree bohemian kooks, whose open, life-affirming attitude holds together the neighborhood where Arnold hopes to build his next munitions factory. And guess what? Surprise...!! Jean Arthur's character also just happens to be the object of his son's affections. Into this "Dharma & Greg"-like scenario, add Lionel Barrymore as her saintly, eccentric father, who was once a businessman but then dropped out and now spends his days smiling at life, following his passions, and encouraging others to do the same. In all honesty, although the film is charming, it isn't Capra's best work -- adapted from a stage play by George Kauffman and Moss Hart, it shouts out its kookiness, and has the feel of an off-Broadway production gone awry. The scenes that are meant to show how wacky her family is often play out too broadly, with shouting and wild gesticulation, and a flurry of chaotic action -- dancing, xylophone playing, cooking, painting, newspaper rustling, fireworks going off -- and all of it happening at once. It's too obvious and dramatically weak... Plus, Stewart really hasn't found his feet yet as a star actor. On the other hand, both Barrymore and Arnold give delightfully strong performances, and Jean Arthur is always easy on the eyes. Even when slightly muddled, Capra is still better than practically anything coming out comedywise from Hollywood today. A charming 'Thirties comedy.
"Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (Columbia, 1936)
"Meet John Doe" (1941)
One of Frank Capra's most openly ideological, and deeply disturbing, films. Gary Cooper stars as a disillusioned hobo who is pulled into an elaborate publicity stunt cooked up by girl reporter Jean Harlow and her unscrupulous editor, who both just want to make a quick buck. They use Cooper, a down-and-out baseball player to become the fictional everyman, "John Doe," and in the process accidentally build him up into a national hero and powerful charismatic leader. The scenes that show Doe's flirtation with demagogery, the mass audiences and mobs that follow him, and the cruel, pitiless pressure used by The Powers That Be once Cooper and Harlow try to cross them are among the darkest and most disturbing material that Capra ever filmed. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington explored a similar theme, but in a much softer, more accessible comedic style. This is actually a pretty scary film, and captures the tilt towards fascism that was prevalent at the time. Recommended.
"Riding High" (1950)
A remake -- by Frank Capra -- of Capra's great 1932 horseracing film, Broadway Bill. The original was so good that I confess I can only see this version as a bit of a curio. Apparently Capra was on such a tight budget when he shot this new version that he had to recycle the original '30s racing scenes into the new footage.
"Here Comes The Groom" (Paramount, 1951)
When folks discuss the great films of Frank Capra, this film seldom seems to come up... and there's a reason! This was a pretty terrible film, one of Bing Crosby's least charming outings, and certainly a low point for Capra. The script is atrocious, the realization is shoddy and abrupt, and the film's end may make you feel a little queasy. Here's the plot: Bing is a foreign correspondent, off in postwar Europe, writing heartwarming stories about French war orphans. His editor wants something juicier, and his jilted American fiancee does, too. So, Bing has to come back to the States with, naturally, a couple of toussle-haired raggamuffins in tow and a song in his heart. Alas! He is too late: his sweetie (played by a remarkably shrill Jane Wyman) has dumped him in favor of her millionaire boss, amiably portrayed by Franchot Tone. In fact, it's Franchot Tone, easily outshining Crosby, who gives this ricketty film its one glimmer of class... A long scene between him and Bing, when they size each other up, is the single redeeming sequence... Everything else is rough, slipshod and frantic, including Capra's directorial work, particularly the editing. Bing does his best to be cool and hip, but his schtick just isn't working this time around... Mostly it's the film's fault; this is an amazingly substandard production... It's worth skipping, even if you're a big Bing Crosby fan.
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