The career of Frank Capra coincided with the golden age of Hollywood, and many of his films are recognized as classics. Still, most critics seem not to have noticed that Capra’s work reflects a profoundly Catholic vision of reality, a vision framed by the Sermon on the Mount. Because his cinema does not have an ethnic Italian flavor, like the Irishness of film director John Ford, this Catholicism is often perceived as an addendum to a body of work primarily concerned with a celebration of American life and its democratic ideals.
The youngest of seven surviving children, Frank Capra was born in rural Sicily in 1897. His family immigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled in Los Angeles. Struggling to overcome the limitations of the working-class immigrant, Capra worked his way through college as a chemical engineer.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In the mid-1920s, Capra got involved in cinema as a gag writer for silent comedy producer Hal Roach and his Our Gangseries and then for Mack Sennett, whose comedy shorts have become classics. Paired up with comedian Harry Langdon as a writer and later as a director of two features, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Capra helped develop Langdon’s comic persona — “the man-child whose only ally was God,” in Capra’s words.
When he joined Columbia Pictures in the late 1920s, it was a B-movie company headed by the savvy and autocratic Harry Cohn. The studio’s stock soon rose, and Capra began a twelve-year association that would catapult him to fame and fortune.
In 1941, war came. Before joining the fight, Capra teamed up with Robert Riskin to make the political comedy-dramaMeet John Doe (1941) as an independent production. Between 1942 and 1945, Capra produced the outstanding Why We Fight series, commissioned by General George Marshall to explain to the soldiers the reasons behind the U.S. involvement in the war. In 1946 Capra made his classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for Liberty Films, the company he had started after the war with directors William Wyler and George Stevens. After the flop of the political comedy State of the Union in 1948, Capra directed two Bing Crosby pictures for Paramount, Riding High (1950) and Here Comes the Groom (1951).
But by the mid-1950s — after a series of box-office failures — Capra had slid from his cinematic heights. Bell Telephone hired him to make four TV science specials, and his Hollywood comeback yielded only two minor works, A Hole in the Head, a 1959 vehicle for Frank Sinatra, and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) with Bette Davis.
Capra’s slow fade into obscurity was finally reversed in 1971 with the publication of his entertaining autobiography,The Name Above the Title. Besides keeping him busy on the lecture circuit, it marked a revival of interest in his cinema, considered too sentimental and patriotic in the turbulent Sixties when it was mockingly termed “Capracorn.”
The French auteur theory — according to which the director is the single creative force behind the collaborative effort of filmmaking — led to a reevaluation of Capra. No longer considered a ham-fisted sentimentalist, Capra was seen as an artist with a vision and style traceable through a body of work that spanned four decades and more than 40 films.
Capra’s Formula for Success
As a gag writer, Capra had a knack for the visual joke and the humorous angle. You can see this comic sense at work in the collection of endearing characters and hysterical romantic entanglements in his films. For example, It Happened One Night (1934), a taming-of-the-shrew road movie set on a bus and in three motels, stars Clark Gable as a wisecracking newspaperman paired up with a spoiled heiress, Claudette Colbert. There’s a running joke about the “walls of Jericho” — a blanket hanging from a rope to separate the beds — mischievously marking the progressive falling in love of the protagonists. This battle of the sexes became the blueprint for the Hollywood screwball comedy.
In this and other romantic comedies and melodramas of the early 1930s, Capra and Riskin experimented with a comic formula and plot structure film historian Richard Griffith described as a “fantasy of goodwill.” In Capra’s stories, “a messianic innocent, not unlike the classic simpletons of literature, pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His experience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls forth the goodwill of the ‘little people,’ and through their combined protest, he triumphs.”
The formula had been perfected by the time Capra made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Gary Cooper plays the mild-mannered Mr. Deeds, a small-town tuba player who confounds and outsmarts New York’s high society when he decides to use a $20 million inheritance to help farmers become landowners. A cynical newspaperwoman (Jean Arthur) deceives him to get an exclusive scoop on the “Cinderella man” but ends up falling in love with him instead. During the climactic (and very funny) insanity hearing, Mr. Deeds outwits his enemies, redeems the heroine, and is warmly supported by the crowd he has helped. Mr. Deeds is one of many Capra films that shows the power of goodness to effect change in the hearts of those willing to undergo an experience of conversion. When novelist Graham Greene reviewed the movie, he outlined the Capra formula in moral terms: “the theme of goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world.”
Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman retooled this same moral formula in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), adding a strong political twist. The film offered an explicit defense of America and its Christian values on the eve of World War II. The film won the widespread support of the public. Predictably, others — like Joseph Kennedy, ambassador to Great Britain — feared that even a fictional story about compromise and corruption in the U.S. Senate would demoralize allied nations.
In the film, Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic young senator who’s almost destroyed by the political machinery of a jaded senior senator (Claude Rains) and a shrewd political operator (Edward Arnold) — the prototypical Capra villain. A savvy woman (Jean Arthur again) at first dismisses as utopian Mr. Smith’s idea to create a national camp for Boy Rangers and then slowly falls for him. After her change of heart, she uses her insider’s knowledge to help Mr. Smith navigate a sea of sharks and defend the principles of liberty, truth, and democracy in a climactic filibuster scene. Reading from the Declaration of Independence and 1 Corinthians 13 — the hymn to charity — the exhausted Mr. Smith rouses the support of the people and uncovers the shadowy machinations of the powerful.
Meet John Doe is Capra’s darkest film — a political fable about a fascist newspaper tycoon (Edward Arnold) who fabricates a story about an ordinary man who decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve as a protest against the state of the world. John Doe is really Long John Willoughby, an unemployed baseball player portrayed by Gary Cooper. At first, Willoughby is happy to cooperate with the plot hatched by — who else? — an ambitious newspaperwoman (Barbara Stanwyck). But when he sees the success of the John Doe clubs of neighborly goodwill that his radio speeches have inspired, he has a change of heart and confesses the scam at a packed baseball stadium. This time, the opposition isn’t a group of corrupt politicians or greedy businessmen but an ominous underground movement to squash the country’s democratic institutions.
A Moralist for the People
Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe are often studied as a trilogy of progressive social comedies that dramatized American values and ideas with exceptional artistry and found a unique place with the public. As film historian Robert Sklar noted, the films “gave Americans a pleasing and convincing image of themselves.”
Because Capra’s vision of America coincided with that of the majority of his audience, his work was consistently popular until the war.
To this trilogy of films about the common man should be added the Capra-Riskin film version of You Can’t Take It With You (1938), made between Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith and based on the successful Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The Vanderhofs, a clan of happy eccentrics led by Lionel Barrymore, live like lilies of the field. Their pursuit of various vocations is a source of great comedy. This oasis is threatened by a powerful Wall Street banker (Edward Arnold) who has development plans for the neighborhood. The film depicts the clash between the communitarian/utopian values of common folks and the worst aspects of the WASP ethic as embodied in the greedy banker. The banker’s son (Jimmy Stewart) and Vanderhof’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) fall in love. As the film closes, Vanderhof and the banker reconcile with a harmonica duet. Capra commented that the film gave him “a golden opportunity to dramatize ‘Love Thy Neighbor’…. Christ’s spiritual law can be the most powerful sustaining force in anyone’s life.”
A Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life is a work of summation, whose undercurrent of angst can be interpreted in different ways. At the heart of the film lies the conflict between the desires of the heart and the needs of the common good. The hero of the story, George Bailey (played by Stewart), struggles throughout the picture with this irreconcilable conflict within himself. Even though his nemesis, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), typifies the classic Capra villain, he’s really more an external manifestation of one side of George’s divided spirit than an autonomous character.
Most of the film is an extended flashback, in which an apprentice guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) reviews George’s life as the head of a small-town building and loan. Believing he has failed as a husband, father, and businessman, George is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. With Clarence, we see key moments in George’s life, moments when he had to make important choices about family, friends, and career. In spite of his desire to escape Bedford Falls, George has chosen to stay so that he can run the lending institution founded by his father for the “garlic-eaters” (Potter’s word) who can’t afford Potter’s bank loans.
His dreams of college, travel, and a professional life in the big city fall by the wayside. George marries and starts a family. Now, on the day before Christmas, a careless mistake on the part of his absentminded uncle threatens to wipe out the Building and Loan and give Potter complete control of the town. George is on the brink of total despair.
Enter Clarence. God sends the angel to prevent George from jumping off a bridge. By making George see what Bedford Falls would be like without him, Clarence leads him to an experience of conversion. This “unborn” sequence is shot in stark visual contrast with that of the extended flashback, using film noir techniques. It shows how the absence of George’s goodness would have left the town to be devoured by evil:
Bedford Falls, renamed Pottersville, becomes an urban hell of mean little people, beginning with George’s embittered mother and the wife he never married (Donna Reed). Awakened by this desolate vision, George turns away from the bridge’s parapet to return home, where he’s surrounded by the warmth and affection of family and friends, who will together save the Building and Loan from insolvency. The hero’s wry smile at the close is a wink to the audience; he has seen, understood, and accepted life in all its glory and imperfection.
Surprisingly enough, this embrace of life was a box-office disappointment. Capra called It’s a Wonderful Life the greatest film he had ever made: “A film to tell the wary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure! To show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man’s life touches so many other lives. And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.”
A Vision of the Cross
Capra’s biographers and critics agree that the power and consistency of the filmmaker’s moral vision are rooted in his own experiences. While his autobiography should be read critically (he had a tendency toward self-aggrandizement), it still provides a good point of departure for examining the way this moral vision was shaped by Capra’s Catholic faith.
An individualist by temperament, Capra initially rejected his religious heritage, only gradually growing into it. He wrote that in his early adulthood he was a “Christmas Catholic.” But in the mid-1930s, the astonishing success of It Happened One Night triggered an artistic crisis, which resulted in a conversion experience, not unlike the one faced by many of his characters. It was the scolding given him by an anonymous man that pushed him into action: “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with, you are an offense to God — and to humanity.” Capra later developed this theme in It’s a Wonderful Life.
In later years, through the influence of his wife, Lucille Reyburn, Capra returned to the Church. He described himself as “a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots, and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross.”
If his films are to be seen as a form of submerged autobiography, then one can understand why so many of them show the clash between a Catholic moral view — represented by the idealist — and the materialistic worldview of his memorable villains, a view that Capra sometimes felt drawn to because of his desire to be a successful Hollywood director.
In Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America, Lee Lourdeaux’s 1990 study of John Ford, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, the author argues that the Catholic identity of these directors can be probed by examining how the Catholic notions of communion, mediation, and sacramentality are rendered cinematically. Of course, one should be careful about automatically assigning Catholic values to art on the basis of the artist’s cultural background or ethnicity. Nevertheless, these three concepts provide us with a good context for understanding Capra’s cinema.
Among other things, communion means that our relationship with God does not excuse us from our responsibility toward our neighbor. A joyful sense of community, of belonging to something larger than oneself, is at the heart of Capra’s mature works-roughly the ten years from Mr. Deeds to It’s a Wonderful Life. But it’s also present in earlier films like American Madness, the 1932 social melodrama about a quixotic banker whose business philosophy is to lend on character, not collateral, and who is handsomely repaid by hundreds of small customers when bankruptcy seems imminent. The following year, the comedy Lady for a Day operated on a similar principle: Apple Annie is helped by her beggar friends, a racketeer and his associates, and the New York social elite to impersonate a lady of distinction so that her daughter will be able to marry a Spanish aristocrat. Lost Horizon (1937) is about the utopian Shangri-La, a mysterious community in the Himalayas whose members follow closely the teachings of their lama, a 200-year-old French missionary.
Capra’s films celebrate the values associated with life in a community — solidarity and selflessness in particular — but without the close connection to ethnic identity that is so important to the second-generation Italian-Americans represented by Coppola, Scorsese, and Michael Cimino. Lourdeaux notes that Capra’s somewhat idealized communities are a blueprint for the principle of subsidiarity, which is so fundamental to the social vision of the Church: Families, neighborhoods, and small organizations provide protection against both anarchy and despotism.
Closely associated with communion is the idea of mediation. Christ is the mediator par excellence. In Capra’s narrative pattern, the hero functions as a mediator between the needs of the community and the entrenched forces of greed: Thomas Dickson (the hero in American Madness), Mr. Deeds, Grandpa Vanderhof, Mr. Smith, John Doe, and George Bailey all play that role. In the most Christ-like of these figures — Mr. Smith and John Doe — there are concrete allusions to their “crucifixion” at the hands of the powerful. Their stories reflect the trajectory of the archetypal messianic innocent: through passion and death to resurrection.
Music not only mediates between opposites — as in the harmonica duet in You Can’t Take It With You — but also contributes to the creation or reaffirmation of a communal spirit: the impromptu singing of “The Man in the Flying Trapeze” on the bus in It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds playing the tuba in Mandrake Falls, and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Capra uses other recurrent mediators as well: benevolent fathers and father figures, who steer the heroes and heroines toward the common good-to cite just one example, the dead father in The Miracle Woman (1931), whose Christian principles defeat the religious scam cooked up by his vengeful daughter, played by Barbara Stanwyck.
The Dignity of the Underdog
A distinctively Catholic idea, sacramentality is the capacity of things — people, objects, places, the whole cosmos — to carry the presence of God. It invites us to see God in and through His creation. One way this is reflected in Capra’s vision is in his portrayal of “little” people and their inherent dignity. While it’s true they have the potential to become a mob — as we see in the dark Meet John Doe — it’s even truer that the common men are among the meek of the gospel. “The meek can inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors,” John Doe says at the end of his first radio broadcast. Capra said on several occasions that the underlying idea of his movies was actually the Sermon on the Mount.
Although Capra’s spiritual vision gets its focus from the Catholic faith, this isn’t immediately apparent to most viewers. This is partly because his films contain very little obvious religious imagery.
Capra’s Catholic imagination must be traced through his characters and plot structures. Perhaps the single most important theme in Capra’s work — from his very first film to his last — is the power of goodness to transform sinful human nature. In many instances, and especially in his early work, goodness manifests itself as a romantic love that thoroughly metamorphoses the people-a contemptuous Broadway actor in The Matinee Idol (1928), a cynical gold digger in Ladies of Leisure (1930), and the unfaithful husband in State of the Union.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) presents a funny variant: The misguided love of two eccentric old ladies makes them poison twelve lonely gentlemen to end their misery.
Like the gospel parables, Capra’s films show us how love, a gift freely given, comes to ordinary reality and changes it in extraordinary ways-in other words, how the transcendent disrupts the course of human events.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, a work of theological optimism, a representative of the divine comes to earth to offer salvation to a soul in despair. The hero arrives at his salvation only after undergoing an experience of powerlessness. His prayer of desolation — “Lord, I’m at the end of my rope” — recalls the loneliness of our Lord’s cry in Gethsemane. The pattern is completed with George’s resurrection, when he realizes that in spite of its imperfections, life is still wonderful. His love — an analogy for Christ’s love — has created a spiritual community, a tangible manifestation of the kingdom of God.Capra’s cinema reminds us that this imperfect world can be redeemed, that the reward is worth the fight, and that life is a gift to be treasured.
This article first appeared in the February 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.