Frank Capra’s American Dream

The filmmaker forever identified --- both affectionately and derisively --- with apple-pie Americana gets a superb re-evaluation in "Frank Capra's American Dream." Fascinating docu is playing select theatrical dates, mostly in tandem with a touring Capra retrospective (including his newly restored silent gem "The Matinee Idol").

<B>Narrator:</B> Ron Howard.

The filmmaker forever identified — both affectionately and derisively — with apple-pie Americana gets a superb re-evaluation in “Frank Capra’s American Dream.” Fascinating docu is playing select theatrical dates, mostly in tandem with a touring Capra retrospective (including his newly restored silent gem “The Matinee Idol”). The perennial appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other “Capracorn” classics should ensure a long broadcast life as well.

Capra moved with his parents from native Sicily to Los Angeles at the age of 6, and formative Stateside prejudices and a hardscrabble work ethic stoked his desire to celebrate both the “common man” and America’s opportunities for class-transcendence. After brief WWI service, he odd-jobbed into the film industry, soon bluffing into directorial duties on a Kipling-based two-reeler. Gag-writer stints for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett followed.

Capra graduated to helming Harry Langdon’s best vehicles (“The Strong Man,” “Long Pants”), which briefly put latter on a box office plateau alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. But such success inflated that baby-faced silent comic’s ego; no longer willing to share credit, he became his own director, to instant career-crashing effect.

This rejection devastated Capra, but “poverty row” Columbia mogul Harry Cohn was his savior. Their stormy relationship allowed the helmer to prove himself a reliably on-budget master of warmhearted, successful comedies. His sure touch with actors ensured an easy transition to the snappy, dialogue-based new world of talkies.

The early ’30s were Capra’s most diverse period, with films ranging from the action hit “Dirigible” and the Depression-panic drama “American Madness” to four fruitful collaborations with onetime Capra inamorata Barbara Stanwyck (notably the Aimee Semple MacPherson-inspired “Miracle Woman” and daring interracial romance “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” both strikingly excerpted here).

“Yen’s” B.O. wilt was countered by “Lady for a Day,” whose Damon Runyon-based seriocomedy provided blueprint for the mature “Capraesque” style.

No one expected his romantic comedy “It Happened One Night” (1934) to surpass that success, let alone win all five major Oscars (including Capra’s first of three directorial nods).

Here as elsewhere, docu helmer Kenneth Bowser, who previously directed a documentary on Preston Sturges, chooses just the right clips to convey a classic’s lingering potency.

Such success perversely agitated Capra’s lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. At this point, it led him toward creation of those lasting works whose famed, oft-ridiculed idealism surfaces only after much man-against-the-mob darkness — “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Lost Horizon,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Meet John Doe.” Capra spent WWII making documentaries in the “Why We Fight” series; their furious Allied agitprop provides an intriguing sidebar here.

From an early point, but particularly with the advent of the 1960s, Capra provoked accusations of audience manipulation and pandering sentimentality — though few argued that his methods were ineffective. Ironically, his most famously tear-jerking ode to American can-do spirit and family values was a 1946 box office flop; postwar audiences were in a mood better suited to the emergent film noir genre’s cynicism. Thus “It’s a Wonderful Life” (like “The Wizard of Oz”) achieved “classic” status only via later, endless TV broadcast.

Perhaps that failure left Capra dispirited. The next year’s Tracy-Hepburn hit “State of the Union” aside, his subsequent works seldom recaptured the old confidence or spark. A grudging “retirement” after 1961’s “Pocketful of Miracles” produced a boastful, bestselling 1971 autobiography and considerable personal carping at the industry that now considered him old-fashioned. He died in 1991.

Docu is hardly daring in style, mixing heavy feature-clip use and the occasional period still, newsreel or home movie with talking-head interviews that range from contemporaries (Fay Wray, Angela Lansbury, Andre de Toth) to oft-surprising latter-day admirers (Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Richard Dreyfuss, Oliver Stone, Amy Heckerling, Richard Schickel). But elements are always juggled with assured intelligence.

Result conveys an artist whose “brash, arrogant” manner nonetheless won the loyalty of several longtime writing and tech collaborators, whose works repped both “an enduring vision of what America aspired to believe” and one “complex, ambiguous, full of darkness” (an insight mouthed by aptly chosen narrator Ron Howard). The deftly selected clips here retain a remarkable emotional impact, while inducing fresh admiration for Capra’s seldom-celebrated flair for crowd and action sequences, editing innovation and moody visual nuance. Little credit is granted his ace scenarists, however.

Pic fast-forwards through Capra’s early and late filmography in favor of dwelling upon famous titles, a tactic that may frustrate cinephiles while satiating others with ample detail on such pics as “Mr. Smith” and “Wonderful Life.” Tech package is high-grade, with vintage clips looking pristine.

Frank Capra's American Dream


Production: A Columbia TriStar Television presentation in association with Frank Capra Prods., ZM Prods. and Sony Pictures High Definition Center. Produced by Charles A. Duncombe Jr. Directed, written by Kenneth Bowser.

Crew: Camera (B&W/color), Richard Pendleton; editor, Arnold Glassman; assistant editor, Claire Scanlon; music, John Hodian; art direction, Dan Butts; research, Richard Hutt; associate producer, Izabella Muchlinski. Reviewed at Castro Theatre, San Francisco, May 18, 1997. Running time: 108 min.

With: Narrator: Ron Howard.

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