TCM Spotlight: Frank Capra

Tonight, Turner Classic Movies will show a lineup of some of director Frank Capra’s best.


Now that I’ve gotten the warning/mild-threat-of-violence-if-you-don’t-comply out of the way …

If you’ve read my introduction page (in the links to the right), you know that I consider Capra one of my five favorite film directors of all time. His films, considered by some to be overtly corny (evidenced by those “high” critics who would later label his films “Capra-Corn”), reflect an almost idealized view of the American sensibility, for at the heart of every Capra film is the message that humanity, in and of itself, is inherently “good.” Fittingly, many of Capra’s characters tend to find redemption in the seeming mundanity of their lives (a perfect example of this being George Bailey, the erstwhile hero of Capra’s Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life), and the films celebrate a kind of “Average Joe American” who triumphs over the forces of cynicism and greed. Not for nothing, Depression-era audiences of the 1930s lauded Capra’s approach, and he was awarded all three of his Best Director Oscars within that decade.

On a side note, for those who may be wondering why Turner Classic Movies has left Capra’s best-known work off its schedule this holiday season, It’s a Wonderful Life does not belong to Turner Entertainment; instead, all broadcast rights in the United States belong to NBC. Thus, if you’re going to catch it on TV this year, you’ll have to endure it with commercials (I know … that sucks. A lot).

Tonight’s lineup does not include my personal favorite Capra film, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (sadness). But the five films being shown tonight embody one of the things that made Capra’s work so great: that amazing, seamless blend of screwball comedy and genuine heart. Of these, I’d like to draw your attention to my favorite three: It Happened One Night (showing at 8PM); You Can’t Take It With You (showing at 12AM); and Arsenic and Old Lace (showing at 2:15AM).

It Happened One Night (1934) is a milestone film in that it was the first film ever to win the top five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay) in a single year, a sweep that is all the more surprising considering that the film’s stars reportedly did not enjoy making the film. In fact, according to the TCM film guide Leading Ladies (a review of which will appear here soon), Claudette Colbert was so frustrated with her experience making the film that, upon completing her role, she reportedly told several friends: “I’m glad I got here; I just finished the worst picture of the year.”

Well, that's one way to hail a cab.

Yet Colbert gives what is arguably the best performance of her career in this film. As a spoiled heiress who runs away from her father when he attempts to annul her marriage to a gold-digging pilot, Colbert flees by bus from Miami to New York, encountering Gable’s rakish reporter on the road and falling under his wing. Ultimately, through their increasingly ludicrous journey, each learns lessons about life and love from the other. From the infamous hitch-hiking scene, wherein she hails a ride by showing off her shapely gams, to the “Wall of Jericho” she insists separate her double bed from that of Gable’s in their shared cabin, Colbert brilliantly portrays the awakening of a pampered princess to the joys of freshly-picked carrots and bargain breakfasts. Gable’s own work here is first-rate; as he deftly straddles the line between pragmatic “everyman” and romantic gallant, it is not hard to believe that Colbert’s dilettante could be attracted to the rough-edged journalist.

Four years later, Capra won his second directing Oscar for 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You, starring his self-proclaimed favorite actress (and one of mine as well), the squeaky-voiced Jean Arthur (in the second of her three collaborations with Capra). The film also features the always-wonderful James Stewart (in the first of his three collaborations with the director) and a very effective supporting cast that includes Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, and Ann Miller. Of special note for Alabama natives such as myself, the cast also features character actor Dub Taylor, a former player for the University of Alabama football team, in his first role. And while the performances truly make this a film to remember, the screenplay, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, crackles with wit and heart.

Harmonica solos make everything better.

The story revolves around Arthur’s eccentric family, the Vanderhofs, and its clash with Stewart’s moneyed clan, the Kirbys, which creates difficulties for their star-crossed romance. While the Vanderhofs believe that people should always do what they please in order to live their lives to the fullest, the Kirbys pursue social advancement and the almighty dollar with an unmitigated passion. When Kirby Sr. decides to buy up an entire section of real estate in order to build commercial property, he runs into a roadblock when Grandfather Vanderhof refuses to sell. A proposal, some fireworks, and an unexpected visit by the Kirbys to the unconventional Vanderhof home lead to utter chaos … and utter hilarity.

After a detour into drama in the aforementioned Washington and 1941’s Meet John Doe, Capra revisits his love of screwball comedy in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the ultimate examples of the genre. The film had actually been made in late 1941, but was not released theatrically until the original play had completed its run on Broadway. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, the sane center of a completely psychotic family, and plays the increasingly crazed straight man brilliantly. Grant is sometimes underrated as a comedic actor, in part because he typically plays urbane, witty types rather than straight screwball characters. But in this movie (as in such previous films such as Holiday and Bringing Up Baby, both with the luminous Katharine Hepburn), Grant lets loose with a wild, unrestrained performance, reminding filmgoers that the suave “Cary Grant” had, in his earliest acting days, been a product of broad comedic training on the burlesque circuit.

Say what??

In this film, he has a great supporting cast of kooks to play off of, including Raymond Massey as his creepy brother, Priscilla Lane as his unwitting new bride, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as his addled aunts, and Peter Lorre as Massey’s unwilling accomplice. The script, adapted for the screen by playwrights Julius and Philip Epstein, is a great blend of screwball and black comedy, with just enough lightness to take the edge off the darker themes of murder and mayhem. As Mortimer comes home to announce his wedding to the family, he is at first horrified by and then determined to hide his aunts’ “mercy poisonings” of their lonely, elderly male callers. Things are complicated by the antics of his brothers: the delusional “Teddy,” who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, and the murderous Jonathan, an escaped criminal. Mortimer scrambles to cover some crimes and expose others, in the process wondering if he’s just as crazy as the rest of them.

And there you have it. If you’re looking for some feel-good, laugh-your-ass-off comedy, check out these films (and more!) as TCM celebrates the amazing Frank Capra tonight!

One thought on “TCM Spotlight: Frank Capra

  1. Thank you for clearing up the It’s a Wonderful life thing. You’re right. It sucks. A LOT. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of my favourite Christmas films but one of my top favourite films. Period.

    Have no fear about Mr. Smith. He will be on on Dec 21 just in time for Christmas.

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