Capra and American Democracy - Part 2 of Dan T. Carter on the films of Frank Capra  

Dan T. Carter
Section 2: Capra and American Democracy
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In a way, Capra film critics from the opposite side, far opposite side of the ideological picket fence, beginning with the leftists of the thirties through hardball skeptics like Richard Griffith and Andrew Sarris—they see Capra
Anti-materialism in
It's A Wonderful Life

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through much the same lens as modern cultural conservatives. For that very reason, they criticize Capra’s films for what they saw as their sentimentality, their optimism, and their worship of middle-class bourgeois values. Above all, they recoil from, again this is what they saw in Capra’s film, his naive faith that the brave and courageous individual would lead ordinary people to respond to crises with affection, kindliness and trust. As James Agee put it in a review in 1947, "Capra’s chief mistake or sin," and he called it that, "was his refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual and that no man may deliver his brother or make an agreement unto God for him."

Now those of you who are familiar with the nuances of Frank Capra’s films undoubtedly can see many ways in which these judgments, these readings, reflect a gross misreading of the subtle and complex messages reflected in the stories of Longfellow Deeds and Jefferson Smith and John Doe and George Bailey. I certainly see a much darker and more ambivalent mixture of hope and apprehension about the state of American democracy as it was poised between an ongoing depression and the rise of fascism. I don’t see how anyone can watch the films of Frank Capra for example, and see them, as one critic Elliot Stein called them, a kind of dress rehearsal for fascism in America, an endorsement of those ideas. But how do we read those films? I suppose one of the great appeals of studying mass culture of all kinds is that it allows us to get some insight into broad and often non-articulated attitudes within society.

When I begin to read films, however, I find the traditional problems of interpreting documents, sources, or as we now say, modes of discourse, seem to multiply. It’s not just the dispute between those who emphasize the role of the director versus those who see films as a collective art form. It is the fact that most filmmakers, certainly those who are successful in reaching a mass audience, instinctively make a film which can be seen and embraced by individuals with quite different ideological and personal perspectives. We might call it a filmic version of reader response theory multiplied. Frank Capra certainly wanted to do this. I’m not a film buff, but I knew of his practice of trying out different versions of his films on test audiences to see how the audiences responded. Thus, Newt Gingrich can read or respond to Capra's political trilogy of the late 1930s in quite different ways from liberals or others who don’t share his particular politically conservative viewpoints. Broadly popular films have, inevitably, a certain chameleon-like quality.

Having said this, one thing it seems to me is inescapable, however much we argue about the meaning of Frank Capra’s great films, for the thirties and for the generation that followed I believe, at least for now, they are out of step with our own time. I don’t mean they’ve been relegated to the archives to be poured over only by film and cultural historians searching through artifacts of earlier generations. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life still have the power to entertain us with their wit and verve and their complex sentimentality. Like any great creator of popular art, Frank Capra knew how to take the comfortable conventions of melodrama and stretch them just enough to make his audience respond with a mixture of pleasure and uneasiness.

Still, we live in a world separated by a great divide from that of Frank Capra and his contemporaries. In part, it is that great divide between the optimism and hopefulness of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the fifties and sixties and the cynicism of today's students, as Bob Toplin hasdescribed. But even the questions asked by a newer generation of scholars of film, and I'm certainly no expert on them, seem to be changing. One has only to read the critics, pro and con, of the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, and compare them with more recent works like Raymond Carney's, American Visions: The Films of Frank Capra [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996], to see the contours of these different worlds. Critics who were unhappy with Capra’s films, critics like James Agee, took them seriously as sociological documents, as representations of a world of power or as evasions of a world of power, politics, and economics. It’s not just that we live in a different time in which the issues of feminism and questions of race make these films somewhat outdated. It seems to me that under the corrosive gaze of post-modernism, these very realities have dissolved into discourses. Films which were once considered representations of reality have become representations of representations—gestures, visions which reflect the imagination of the observer, the one who is seeing the film. And so for Carney, and I suspect for the rising generation of film historians, Freud, Derrida, and Foucault are far more interesting guides to this filmic terrain than Thorstein Veblen. The personal has not become the political, it has often replaced it.

Still we should not assume that this generation's verdict is the final one on the films of Frank Capra. I remember nearly 30 years ago when I taught a course at the University of Wisconsin on 20th-century radical movements. On something of a whim I assigned several right-wing radical texts, including I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of essays put together by the National Agrarians. As you'll recall, these writers, mostly Southerners—all southerners—sought to defend different versions of the conservative agrarian South against the onslaught of Yankee modernism. The students which I had in that class were mostly liberal to radical. I assumed they would be appalled and disgusted. But to my amazement, they were more fascinated with this book than any of the other eight that I assigned. No, they assured me, they didn't like the implicit racism. Yes, the essays were unrealistic and hopelessly romantic in their view of the South, but they responded to the authors' outspoken anti-materialism, their reflections on spiritual values, even wrongheaded spiritual values, their search—their desperate search—for community, and their criticism of what these students saw as their own parents' embrace of bourgeois comforts. An embrace bought at the cost of the worship of the dehumanizing machinery of the modern age.

In his collection of essays and reviews of Frank Capra’s films, published in 1972, John Rayburn described the way in which the generation of the 1960s had rediscovered Capra and his work, and warmed to it. Some of the ways that my students at Wisconsin responded to I’ll Take My Stand. But that generation has passed. I would note somewhat defensively that there is a certain grayness to the quality of the hair of everyone who’s up here; I won’t say anything about gender here. I don’t know what will happen in the future in terms of how we view Frank Capra’s film, I simply close with a reminder that our judgments, whether of history or art, are always subject to revision.

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Dan T. Carter
Part 1: What Would Mr. Gingrich Have Said?
Part 2: Capra and American Democracy
Introduction | Toplin | Levine | Carter | Multimedia Index | Credits | JMMH

Frank Capra's America
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