Frank Capra's Popularity- Part 1 of Lawrence Levine on the films of Frank Capra, JMMH Vol.2 ~ 1999 Lawrence Levine on the films of Frank Capra

Lawrence Levine
Part 1: Capra and the Politics of Culture
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Thank you. There are several lessons that we should learn from today, one is that these meetings should all be held in California. I thought when you heard that Newt Gingrich wasn’t going to be here we’d see the biggest exodus since the ancient Hebrews, but you are very kind to stay and listen to us poor academics. There’s a magic thing that happens at conventions and that is titles get appended to papers that the paper givers never see, and I don’t know how that happens. It’s the same problem with hangers in closets, I guess. But I don’t know what the title on my paper [is], if anyone was paying any attention to it. I guess if I have to title my remarks, I guess it would be: "Frank Capra and the Politics of Culture."

Some years ago when I was staying at a hotel in Orange County, California, I picked up the hotel guidebook and I read this: "Standing at the plaza at the intersection of Chapman and Glassall Avenues in Orange is like journeying back to your grandparents' neighborhood—that pleasant feeling of familiarity takes hold. It’s all here—the soda fountain and the corner drugstore, Victorian houses, park benches detailed in wrought iron—and it's all real." [The Guest Informant, Orange County, Fullerton Marriott Hotel.] This
One man against the system. Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
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pleasant fiction about our common grandparents has as little to do with Frank Capra's grandparents' neighborhoods as with mine. His forebears and indeed Capra himself hailed from Sicily, while the neighborhoods my grandparents, and parents traversed were in Lithuania and Odessa, the South Bronx and East Harlem. But unlike myself, I have no doubt that Capra would have welcomed this Orange County mythos. Indeed Woody Allen, who came from my neighborhood, my 'hood of New York, Woody Allen could easily have had Frank Capra in mind when he created his 1960s stand-up comedy routine in which he is in Alabama surrounded by Klansmen with a rope around his neck. "Suddenly," he told his audiences in the nightclubs of the 1960s, "Suddenly my whole life passed before my eyes. I saw myself as a kid again in Kansas, going to school, and swimmin' at the old swimmin' hole and fishin' and fryin' up a mess of old catfish and going down to the general store and gettin' a piece of gingham for Emmy Lou and suddenly I realized, hey that's not my life! They’re going to hang me in two minutes and somebody else’s life is flashing before my eyes." [Woody Allen: Nightclub Years, 1964-1968. Audio CD (Musicrama; ASIN: B000003PX2, 1997).] That’s the secret of America, really, and that’s why it’s such a wonderful story; somebody else’s life flashes before all our eyes, I think, all the time.

Frank Capra, whose populism was always more cultural than political, was always one of those forces—and I use this term advisedly—forces that help to fix this image of the idyllic small town indelibly in our collective fields of vision. And he did it, interestingly, he did it while hardly ever actually depicting this cultural epicenter in his films. This immigrant from Italy attempted to explain America by portraying another series of immigrants, not from abroad, but from America’s small towns and villages, trooping into the great cities and immediately undergoing a cultural trial by fire. Thus, in Capra’s films we learn about the virtues of small-town life—and I think this is significant—we learn about the virtues of small-town America secondhand, not by actually seeing them and experiencing them, but much as Capra himself did in his own life, we learn about them by hearing about them. A salient paradox of Capra’s career was that he became one of the nation's most effective champions for small-town American way of life he himself never directly experienced.

From the great silent comedies of Harry Langdon, which Capra directed in the 1920s, through the Depression years, one can find in Capra's films, as Bob Toplin said, an emphasis upon the little guy struggling against the faceless impersonal system. "The individual is divine, he's worthy, he's unique and he's the most important thing there is," Capra proclaimed." [Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies, (NY: Atheneum, 1975), 77.] This belief, he wrote, "became for me a fixation, an article of faith." [Frank Capra, Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography, (NY: Da Capo Press, 1997), 34.] It was such a fixation that Capra, in his own mind if not in reality, transformed the intricately interdependent, bureaucratic, technological art of filmmaking into individual enterprise. "One man, one film," was Capra’s motto. "I believed one man should make the film, and I believed the director should be that man, I just couldn’t accept art as a committee, I can only accept art as an extension of the individual." [American Film Institute, Dialogue on Film, A Series of Seminars with Master Filmmakers: Frank Capra, 1979. Documentary film (Library of Congress, Division of Motion Pictures).]

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Lawrence Levine
Part 1: Capra and the Politics of Culture
Part 2: Capra's Political Populism
Part 3: Capra's Fundamental Values
Part 4: Pessimism in Capra's Cultural Politics

Introduction | Toplin | Levine | Carter | Multimedia Index | Credits | JMMH

Frank Capra's America
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History