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The Art of Frank Capra in Today's World

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 20, 2018 09:06

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One of my early influences was watching old movies on television. Through those experiences, I learned about the art of Frank Capra. His films are more relevant than ever.

When I was growing up, we had one television, three channels, no remote and it was black and white. Old movies captivated me for some reason and when I mentioned to someone that my favorites were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, he casually said that they were all made by Frank Capra.

That interested me, so I continued to ask him questions and drew the conclusion that the director played the key role in making a film. I have made film study a life-long hobby and of course broadened out to various director’s works such as Hitchcock, Ford, Wilder, and Scorsese, but I have always come back to Capra as a timeless influence on the way I think of film and its place in my worldview.

The best of Frank Capra’s work followed a uniquely “Capraesque” pattern, the struggle of ordinary people against the “big guy” establishment. His films had a distinct distrust of large entities of any kind, as they would manipulate information to create mob-rule situations to keep corrupt power structures intact. Although these films were from the thirties and forties, this core outlook of Capra’s work sounds familiar in today’s world.

One essential Capra film is Meet John Doe. Capra utilized the talents of all-Americans Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck to warn against the dangers of home-grown fascism in America. Again, an old movie with a very relevant story to today’s world complete with a fake-news driven plotline to manipulate perceptions and expand authoritarian power.

Capra’s crowning achievement is It’s A Wonderful Life. Never intended to be simply a Christmas movie, it is actually a dark look at how fragile the line is between the Rockwell idealistic portrait of American life and the hard reality experienced by so many coming out of two World Wars and the Great Depression. In the film, every-man James Stewart plays a good guy that needlessly loses faith in his fellow citizens, leading to near disaster that requires divine intervention to fix.

Therein lies the prototypical situation in Capra’s films that most critics point to when they dismiss his work as corny and sappy. His films require an individual to make a herculean effort to either save the day or be saved, as was sometimes the case, which just doesn’t happen in the real world of critic’s tastes anyway. I will argue, however, that these critics completely miss the fact that Capra was very realistic about the world. Look at Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for example. This is 1939, and Capra paints a spot-on portrait of Washington corruption and greed.

The beauty of Capra’s work is that he acknowledges how bad the world can be, particularly when it comes to large concentrations of power, but he makes a continued passionate plea to not overlook the power of the individual to make a positive difference. If that’s not worthy of artistic merit than what is?

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 20, 2018 09:06

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1991: Film director Frank Capra, best

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