01 July 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If... (Part Seven)

You know you really like a director if you can make a top ten list of your favorites from among his films. Previously I've offered top tens of Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wellman, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorsese. This week's installment features Frank Capra.

Capra was supposedly a Republican who voted against FDR four times. Yet he made some of the most liberal, verging on radical, mainstream films of Hollywood's Golden Age. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe in particular, he warned against shadowy powers exerting unimaginable powers in our political process. In Smith it was graft hungry businessmen who could control congressman and muzzle the press. In Doe it was a megalomaniac with fascist tendencies who could aspire to the highest political position in the land.

Capra imagined an America where an ordinary Joe (or Jefferson) could take on these giants like a modern day David slaying Goliath. The love and support of a formerly cynical woman helped. Indeed what Capra did so well was show people transforming. Not just just falling in love but embracing ideals or values.

To many Capra is overly sentimental. It's not productive for me to address this view of Capra which folks are fully entitled to. I do feel he went to heavy on the schmaltz with You Can't Take it With You (1938) a film I don't particularly care for. But a movie like It's A Wonderful Life, in my mind, hits at too many truths to accurately and too adroitly to be thought maudlin.

Capra loved the notion of ordinary people a heroes and in a day and age when we're inundated with super natural crime fighters this is especially to be appreciated. Bu Capra also was adept at comedy, witness Platinum Blonde and Arsenic and old Lace, but also note the humor in even his most dramatic films.

Lubitsch had a touch but so too did Capra. His films celebrate its characters. They move along deftly and entertain us along the way. There is room, in fact a lot of it, for Capra's depiction of gritty common folk fighting for better days. Capra loved America. It shows. Nothing wrong with that, especially when he can show its underside and give us chuckles along the way.

Here are my ten favorite Capra films.

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). My second favorite film of all time. In other words, I like it. Upon its release it was assailed by fascists, communists and even good ole American capitalists. In fact even today Mr. Smith draws fire for its supposedly subversive political message, mostly from conservatives. Obviously this film did something quite right. It's the story of political corruption over running one state that reaches all the way into the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate. Jimmy Stewart plays the naive Senator Jefferson Smith who challenges the graft hungry Taylor Machine. In addition to Stewart the all star cast includes Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, Jean Arthur and Guy Kibbee.

2. It's A Wonderful Life (1946). Now a Christmas classic although only the very beginning and the end of the film are set during the holiday. Stewart stars again this time paired with Donna Reed. Also returning is Thomas Mitchell who is a delight as Uncle Billy. It's one of the few movies that seeks to be heart warming and succeeds beyond any possible expectation. Its eternal themes of appreciating what you have and the importance of family and friends have and likely never will be better realized on screen. For me watching it is one of the joys of the Christmas season.

3. Meet John Doe (1941). Like many great films it comments on several themes. One is the madcap world of newspapers, another it the Great Depression and a third is the politics of demagoguery. I've only just started. Gary Cooper is the title character, a hobo who becomes a political cause celebre. Barbara Stanwyck is the reporter who creates the John Doe character and unwittingly launches a populist movement. Edward Arnold is as evil, nasty and mean as he was in Mr. Smith.

4. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). One of the screwiest of all screwball comedies and the only film Capra made with Cary Grant. Grant hated his performance but the rest of us delight in his turn as Mortimer Brewster a newlywed who discovers that his old maid aunts are poisoning elderly gents (don't you hate it when that happens). With the likes of Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson and Edward Everett Horton on hand, this is comic gold. Priscilla Lane is the blushing and befuddled bride.

5. It Happened One Night (1934). Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a road picture the likes of which you'll we've never seen since. Gable is a reporter, Colbert an heiress on the run from daddy and the two form a partnership that can only lead to them falling in love. It swept the Oscars but more importantly has endured and stands up no matter how often you watch it.

6. Platinum Blonde (1931). It's a Jean Harlow picture but 18 year old Loretta Young is do damn gorgeous and plays such a sweetie pie that she steals the picture. The great tragedy of watching the film is to realize that the male star, Robert Williams, died about the time of the film's release. he was on the verge of stardom. Thankfully we have this delight to enjoy him in, Young and Harlow. Williams plays a reporter who in the process of looking for the scoop on a young heiress (Harlow) falls in love and marries her. They're mismatched. A fellow reporter (Young) is more his cup of tea. Will true love out or will this unhappy union go on?

7. Broadway Bill (1934). What, another heiress? Yup, this time played by Myrna Loy with Warner Baxter as the male lead along with a horse named Broadway Bill. There's horse racing, gambling, romance and comedy. It is a vastly under appreciated film despite its presence on DVD. Do yourself a favor and rent it some time. Thank me later.

8. Lost Horizon (1937). It's rotten luck when your plane crashes in the Himalayas just as you've escaped war torn China, but if you in turn stumble upon Shangri-La, it's your lucky day. Such is the happy lot of the five protagonists of this story. They find Eden within the mountains, peace and serenity abound and people suffer no ill health and live eternally. It could be pretty cornball stuff but Capra does a nice job with James Hilton's novel. Ronald Colman, Thomas Mitchell, H.B. Warner, Edward Everett Horton and Jane Wyatt star.

9. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). What could be better than in inheriting a fortune? As far as Longfellow deeds is concerned, plenty. Especially when big city shysters come along and try to take advantage of him. He's a small town lad, happy enough to play his tuba. Jean Arthur plays a reporter who uses deception to get the scoop on Deeds. But wouldn't you know it, the two fall for each other. Meanwhile our hero has to fend off the swindlers.

10. Lady for a Day (1933). With character names like Dave the Dude, Missouri Martin, Apple Annie, and Shakespeare you know your watching a Damon Runyon story. From IMDb's plot summary because I couldn't put it better myself: "Apple Annie is an indigent woman who has always written to her daughter in Spain that she is a member of New York's high society. Now her daughter plans to return to America with her new fiance and his father, a member of Spain's aristocracy. Annie must pretend to be wealthy or the count will not give his blessing. She gets the help of Dave the Dude, who considers Annie a good luck charm, to obtain a luxury apartment and entertain the visitors, but things don't always go quite as planned." May Robson and Warren Willliam star.

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