Robert Brent Toplin
Part 4: Some Critical Questions
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We can apply some—before I finish here— just a few critical questions to the Capra films and to Capra himself, not just to praise him, but to raise some questions. For example, the democratic values that are evident in some of his movies—are they the reflection of Frank Capra, the person? This is a question I really want to pose to Frank Capra Jr., the son. Or, did he incorporate these democratic values because he thought audiences would respond very well to them? He understood how to sell a movie. How do we deal with that kind of question? To what degree were these values the ideas of Frank Capra? Or were they the ideas of others who worked closely with him, such as Robert Riskin, the writer who was so crucial to the success of many Capra movies? Another question: Why was Capra so successful from the late twenties to 1946 in capturing the excitement of the audience, though even, It's A Wonderful Life, by the way, in 1946, was not a market success at first. It took years until it became much more appreciated and today, of course, it's always seen on Christmas day on television.

Anyway, why was he so successful for so long, but then suddenly he could not get the magic ring? He could not succeed after 1946 very much in his movies; he couldn’t touch the public’s nerve anymore. Another interesting question, but the principle inquiry we bring up tonight is this one: Was Frank Capra’s vision relevant to the America of the 1930s and the 1940s? And is it relevant to the America of today?

I asked the young men and women in my university classroom, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to discuss the relevance of Capra's perspectives for the nineties and I actually taught a class there with Frank Capra Jr. who runs the movie studio in the town. So we are asking about the relevance of Capra's perspective to the late nineties.. One student wrote the following – "Is this thought still relevant today? I argue, no. As a member of my generation, we know that the American Dream is dead. Another wrote, "I think that this populist vision is irrelevant today because people have lost faith in themselves, lost faith in the idea that they can make a change. People see themselves as helpless against the major issues that plague our country." So it should be evident that there's plenty of room for discussion about the relevance of Capra's vision, for the thirties and forties and for today.

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Robert Brent Toplin introduces Lawrence Levine: So, at long last, we get underway with our speakers. I turn to Lawrence Levine who is both the Margaret Byrne Professor of History at The University of California Berkeley, and professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. He is the author of numerous books including Black Culture and Black Consciousness: African American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom; also High Brow, Low Brow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, another—just a couple of more to mention among the many—The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History and finally, in this free advertisement for the books of Lawrence Levine, The Opening of the . . . (I like this one—it’s an attack on Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind; it's a fascinating book) The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History. Lawrence Levine.


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Robert Brent Toplin
Part 1: A Stunning Example of Success
Part 2: This Notion That the Little Guy Has Dignity
Part 3: The Women Were Usually Strong
Part 4: Some Critical Questions
Introduction | Toplin | Levine | Carter | Multimedia Index | Credits | JMMH

Frank Capra's America
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