Turner Classic Movies is showing a five-movie tribute to director Frank Capra tomorrow beginning at 8 pm EST. Capra, whose career spanned the end of the silent era to the early 1960s, was one of the great American film directors. He’s best known for his classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and he made numerous other fine movies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (another real classic), Meet John Doe, the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, Dirigible, Lost Horizon, the poignant Lady for a Day, and the delightfully screwy comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
The five films to be shown tomorrow night are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (interesting and good but not nearly as fine as Mr. Deeds), You Can’t Take It with You (yuk, even though it won an Oscar—see below), American Madness (very underrated film starring Walter Huston), Lady for a Day, and Arsenic and Old Lace.
Capra was a very patriotic immigrant from Sicily who supported the Republican Party, which was just as unpopular in Hollywood then as it is now. His political and cultural instincts were a populist conservatism, and his usual cowriter was more of a leftist populist. (Capra generally did not get writing credits on his films although he oversaw every aspect of the screenplays.) As a result, the ideas evident in his films are sometimes complex and sometimes rather confused, but he always gets to the emotional heart of things, as is perfectly clear in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The politics of You Can’t Take It with You, based on a play cowritten by leftist Broadway satirist George S. Kaufman, by contrast, are very openly left-wing, infantile, and dislikeable, and the same sort of googoo-eyed populism crops up in Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe, though less intensely and therefore less annoyingly. The politics of Capra’s films seem to resemble most closely those of Pat Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative, a stance with which I am not the slightest bit sympathetic. Most of Capra’s films, however, are a good deal less simpleminded than You Can’t Take It with You.
Even in the more overtly political films, however, Capra was trying in a rather artistic way to consider the question of how to live as a Christian in a corrupt society. Capra was at his best when the story dealt with these issues on a more personal level, as in It Happened One Night, Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, American Madness, The Miracle Worker, Broadway Bill, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Most of those films also explore the political implications of the characters’ predicaments and choices, but without providing easy, stupid answers.
Tomorrow’s tribute on TCM is well worth watching as an introduction to Capra or as an enjoyable return to a time when Hollywood films had a nice balance of ideas and entertainment. Set your DVR pronto.