It’s been a few years since I’ve really sat down for a “cockle warmer”, a film that really warms you at the heart, leaving you all soft inside and happy. It takes a lot to beat that feeling, a feeling that for a period of time Frank Capra was able to achieve film after film. Working during the golden age of Hollywood, reaching the masses during the Great Depression. From It Happened One Night (1934) all the way through to his crowning achievement It’s A Wonderful Life (1947). More than a decade of warming an audiences hearts. I’ve not seen It’s A Wonderful Life since I wrote my film talk about it. My eyes were opened to the directors thinking, his position in film after his time away at war, in charge of propaganda for the US armed forces. The country was then in a far different state. A country brought to it’s knees by the effects of a broken economy, to the highs of winning a war, which itself came with a heavy cost both financial and emotional. His own industry had grown up, his fellow directors who were out in the field of battle would never produce the same work again, each deepened by what they saw.
Now lets back track a few years to the midst of the Depression and look at one of his earlier films – Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) his fourth big feature film and second large success. Even after all this time I could start to see the themes and ideas that run through his films. Most notably we have a number of recurring actors. Deeds was the first outing for both Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, it was Capra’s relationship with James Stewart, which would be the most successful. We can see that Capra was able to work with actors he saw as either the every-man who could easily be transported to an unfamiliar world, turning his life upside down. Whilst the women, usually Arthur who his femme fetale (not that he would use that term) who turned the men’s lives upside down. This even works when the men come from the upper class to explore the working class. That’s another clear theme the blurring of class boundaries that his protagonists are brought into. Here Deed’s inherits 20 million dollars, which when inflation is taken into account is a very tidy sum at $357,281,159.42. Even now that’s too much money to even think about. For poet Longfellow Deed’s is nearly blows his minds. Instead of letting it all go to his head he decides to see what it’s all about. Taking with him a healthy dose of reality and his down-to-earth nature which in turn keeps him grounded. We see the same a few years later in You Can’t Take it With You (1938) when Tony Kirby (Stewart) who comes from money can see past his own trapping of wealth to love his girlfriend Alice Sycamore (Arthur) and her struggling family (who only have their own eccentricities and music to see them through the worst of times). Both men are grounded emotionally and financially enough to see what is in front of them.
Cooper seems to a be a man who seems as if he can easily be duped. Taking on the fortune, trying to make the best of it. He naively starts going out with the only girl that talks to him, all the time she’s a journalist trying to get a big scoop on the new rich man in town. It’s Babe Bennett’s job to potentially bring him down, going as far as giving him the name Cinderella Man, whilst her own paparazzi hide in a taxi or the bushes. In a later film Cooper becomes the face of a fictional newspaper story lead by Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) in the less success Meet John Doe (1941) which ultimately pushes and pawn in the newspapers hands to the brink of suicide. An act we finally see in Capra’s masterpiece – It’s A Wonderful Life when the ultimate every-man has been pushed to the limits of life for so long that he finally cracks and nearly gives up.
Apart from Wonderful Life they are all grounded in reality (ignore Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)) they acknowledge the country they’re set in, whilst hoping for a better life. Capra celebrates the working man, this is where he could be the communist and socialist leanings could easily be found. Probably why the films are still celebrated, they focus on the hard-working man. Raising them above all the corruption of government, the protectors of the law, even the Newspaper man whose job is to reveal the corruption to the public. There are quite a few journalists in Capra’s world, from the “wise guy” Peter (Clark Gable) out for the story of his life all the way to critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) who are all pushed out to find the stories that are to make their careers. That also includes trying to believe that even your aunties are capable of mass-murder. The hardworking man are seen either en-mass or in microcosm, this is always for the extra emotional punch. Deed’s is a god-send to the poor who are piling into his house as he plans to give all his money away to anyone whose willing to work a farm for at least 3 years. Whilst George Bailey ensures the residents of Bedford Falls (small town America) have a decent crack at life. Not living under the shadow of Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the very epitome of capitalist America, the “communist Capra” fights back with Bailey ensuring that they can all own their own homes. Bailey’s the extension of Deeds intentions.
We see a man at his very breaking point in Bedford Falls, a 2nd class angel comes to the rescue of the troubled man. His actions don’t lead to the threat of being institutionalised – showing how dark that Capra’s prepared to go. Stewart plays a more convincing man on the edge, it took an audience over a few more years to see Cooper brought to the brink. We have a classic court room finale that allows us to look back and question Deeds actions over the course of the film. The suggestion of Manic Depression is made by the his own lawyers, who are out for his fortune at any cost. The idea of bipolar disorder is treated lightly, the commonly known highs and lows, or the depressive and manic states are used to try and blind the court with psychobabble without having analysed the patient, it’s used as a blunt weapon in hopes of stupifying the judges and the public. We all know that Deeds is the clearly sane with his own unique eccentricities that define him. Whilst throughout Wonderful Life we see a build up of events that see dream after dream crush a man who tried so hard threaten to jump. Only to have some fairy dust sprinkled over by the director who could only go so far. In his defence we do have a clear image of Deeds uncle who drives of a bridge, directed to be a very intentional act. Had all that money driven him to the edge? Was he a Mr Potter who’d had enough? It comes down to a layman’s definition of insanity – Pixelation that saves him as nearly everybody is suffering from it.
I could literally be here for hours, write 1000s of words about what makes Capra’s films work. They of course tug at the heart strings, some more overtly than others. Expressing his own view of America, an immigrant who had to be politically careful of what he said. Almost confined to his films that whilst being very American we can see the Sicilian view of a country, all the goodness that the dream he had been living that could easily be taken from under his feet. You could argue he was naive to the world around him. The working man being essentially good, whilst those in positions of power are corrupt. Most foreign directors played with this idea to some degree, such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. A view that’s shared by the rest of the world even to this day, that’s why Capra’s still respected, his work still holds up and you return to his films time and time again – the very definition of a classic. Now I’ve seen Mr Deeds I can really see what’s going on in his work. Maybe it’s time to revisit his work again.
To mark just over a year ago since my chat/discussion/conversation with professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at Derby University, I feel I should share that conversation, to allow you all to understand more where I am coming from, my position on the Western, from my degree show piece and my fascination with the Western genre. I will link the conversation back to my writing on some of the films that we discussed
Q. Why did the Western genre lose popularity in the late 60’s?
A. The impact of television was clearly apart of that. The Television programs in that genre, was saturating the market. The genre was more accessible to viewers, here and in the U.S. Hollywood had to look to other styles or forms to gain their audiences. There was also the political climate, that of the civil rights movement that had reached a high, with riots and the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. Also the American people were beginning to question the conflict in Vietnam. This also questioned American values. In-turn the style of the Westerns didn’t tap into that at all. Being covered by the likes of John Wayne and John Ford, who were going into decline themselves. The Western doesn’t die it simply takes different forms. The classic formula was that a problem needs to be solved, the people can’t solve it, so a hero arrives. The film becomes action packed, solving the problem with violence. The classic John Ford’s fit the age anymore, being based on mythologies. Younger people are looking for something else. New directors like Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman who directed McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Arthur Pen who directed both Left Handed Gun (1958) and Little Big Man (1970). The genre is seen now as Post Western, films about the West in the 20th and 21st century, such as No Country for Old Men (2007), that alters and plays around with the genre. The idea of the hero is now too simplistic. People don’t want to question the myth, as it sacrilegious to do so; it’s the national narrative, best seen in the Western. Today people are more cynical and sophisticated. Open Range (2003) is a classic western but also modern, so it’s like a Ford, but the Ford Western can no longer be sustained. It survives in a new form, the Contemporary America, using Western elements. So the Western has to adapt to the times to survive. The classic Western genre will always have a place, as apart of the culture, but also seen as a product of it times that tried to adapt, but was lost in the idea of the hero. Too simplistic to really survive when political tensions increased around the world and at home concerning America. The WWII required escapism, to have heroic figures saving the day, and seeing America as a place for possibilities and progress, the American dream.
Q. How has the depiction of the Native Americans effected their identity, their political position and racially?
A. In the classic western the Native Americans were seen as inferior, they had secondary importance. This produced a stereotype. They were seen amongst other obstacles to be overcome in order to progress. They were treated as just material. There was slow recognition to see them as human, not wanted to be seen on the same level as white people. Their importance really increased around the time of the civil rights movements. Hollywood had to acknowledge this. At the time of films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) they didn’t have the vote. John Ford tried to explore this through his films Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The minorities gradually become more human and less stereotyped. However things don’t really change until the Native Americans start to make their own films, in Post Westerns, but not in the Western style, such as Smoke Signals (1998) by director Chris Eyre, being set in a contemporary reservation. The film acknowledges the stereotypes are now apart of their identity, but seen critically and ironically, drawing stupidity out, they can laugh at it. Films such as Little Big Man (1970) is a civil rights film about the Native Americans, with lines such as “Sometimes it’s a good day to die”. Dances with Wolves (1990) however Campbell sees it as actually quite limited . Sadly there are not many Native American films being made, as they can’t get access to funding.
Q. How has the depiction of Early America been distorted by film?
A. It’s all about the myth; the first movies that were made during the silent era were about the West. At that time, the frontier was still out there. The Indian wars were still going on. There was a gap between the frontier and the Western expansion; these two grew up together. They had a ready-made landscape which could be mythicized. Dime novels that were being published created heroes out of gunfighter’s, for instance Jesse James who has recently been portrayed by Brad Pitt (in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Beachamp follows up the idea of the Duke of Death in Unforgiven (1992). The dime novels mythicized the West. This was symbiotic in radio and film and the myth takes over. People don’t care for the real West, they are more persuaded by the myth where the hero walks away and we forget the violence. The real record of the West is by the photographers such as Muybridge in landscapes that he took, the photographs are slightly more honest, but get sucked away. Ansell Adams photographs are more empty, there is no community, how America was. Films such as Heavens Gate (1980) and The Deer Hunter (1978) by director Michael Cimino depict the West more honestly regarding immigration, when people just arrived off the boats. John Ford being an Irishman, depicted immigrants but using broken English, at a time in reality when there were all sorts of languages in the country. This is explored more in Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2. By 1945, things changed dramatically when WWII ended. The Neo-Western was coming into being. Ford represented the old style of Western. Directors such as Altman and Peckinpah were directors of the changing genre. The genre had to find a new form; life was no longer simple. They can’t go back to the American dream, or maybe not so, with films such as No Country for Old Men (2007). Also films such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) by John Sturges, which was so different with slow ponderings, looking at the internal space and the landscape, looking at war and racism. The Misfits (1961) set in the Nevada open desert starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The film was based on a book by Arthur Miller directed by John Huston. The film Lone Star (1996) starring Kris Kristofferson set in the modern West, with classic elements but certainly looks at new ideas.
Q. Do you believe the majority of our knowledge of the West now comes from films?
A. In short, yes in Europe and America, only through the images, T.V. adverts and art etc, which take aspects of the mythologies. There are lots of examples of distortion, which come from 19th century American Art. I’m recommended to look at West is America, an art collection that was held in the 1990’s. The paintings are mythical, by the likes of Russel, Remington and Beerstat, from which the film-makers borrow from their art. Where as the work of Adams is not original, borrowings from paintings, and film borrows from photographs.
Q. Do you think that the Native Americans have fair representation in film and politically?
A. Yes, generally, but it depends on the voices being heard, more so now through the news, painting and films. However there are problems that still exist, people’s perceptions are broadly better and fairer, but still thought to always have feathers. There’s a film called The Exiles (1961) about a group of Native Americans who move to Los Angeles from a reservation, after being encouraged by the government. They found difficulties with alcohol, poverty and employment. However they are not shown as victims. The Urban world is so different from where they came from. Lastly the films of Sergio Leone lean towards the New Western genre.
In what was to be the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe sees them acting their socks off in The Misfits (1961) as if they were fresh out of stage-school. Giving all they had to these two raw parts. Along with Montgomery Clift as he was nearing the end of his career and tragic life.
The wild that is America has been tamed, the cowboy is a dying breed in the form of Gay Langland (Gable), his buddies Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) and Guido (Eli Wallach) as they fight against the inevitable change that modern life has brought. They have become relics of an old way of life and genre that has become dated. Not wanting to become part of the rat race that draws a wage of salary, tied down to a certain way of life that tears them away from being in the open. It’s a sad state of circumstance for these men.
When newly divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe) who herself is adapting to a life of freedom after a waste of a marriage that saw only two years of life. A woman who is so pure that is really unaware of modern life around her, unlike her male friends who have watched it changed over time. A vulnerable woman who lets life take her from place to place, a free spirit. Probably the only film that allowed her to show her full potential as an actress in her short and tragic career. John Huston still used her as an attractive young woman, which was more subtle, and at time reinforced and corrected. Even the pretty have their problems and should be depicted that way.
The Misfits (1961) has all the trappings of a western in a modern context, with a realization that the genre in its present form may longer have no more steam. It has to change, as the characters in this film are all forced to do so. Made fully aware as they round-up 6 stallions in a gruesome collection of sequences that see them each having to reconsider the directions their lives are headed. They fight themselves to decide what they all want out of life.
Full of rich conversation that comments of the changing world. Nevada being a barren landscape that allows you to run free, whilst at the same time be used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Americas backyard in essence. With little life in the state is a reminder of the vast open spaces that have been lost to change.
Clift gives us another sensitive man to enjoy, who pushes the limits of what he can do to feel alive and forget his problems. With the catalyst of Monroe’s Taber who makes him realize what is going on. With a passion for life and animal rights that are coming through. Even protesting to Langland who wants to shoot a rabbit, which a decade before would be unquestioned as part of pest control and farming techniques that were essential during the pioneer days.
I cannot comment on the supporting cast of Thelma Ritter‘s Isabelle Steers being much older than her female friend has seen all these changes happen, accepting them as a fact of life. Whilst the veteran pilot Guido is trapped in the past with his friends, knowing he has killed countless people without seeing one of them. A victim of warfare that has not fully adjusted to civilian life.
Returning last but not least to the performance of his career put in by Gable a man who stuck in his ways, the ways of the past, who has been at the for front on the changes to farming. Falling for Monroe which for a time seems creepy, but I learnt to accept the relationship as two lost souls who love different aspects of each other. Monroe is not willing to really understand his life, which for him is too late to change.
- New data show how closely FBI monitored Marilyn Monroe (cbsnews.com)
Every time I think about Of Human Bondage (1934) I find that I am drawing comparisons between the one sided relationship between Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). However it takes Clark Gable‘s character the duration of the film to come to his senses. Unlike in here as the medical student Leslie Howard not half as long. And having more demons to overcome than to simply win the heart of the waitress Mildred (Bette Davis). A stronger man who has the ability to move on from his mistaken romance that nearly caused his future career as a doctor.
What could be mistaken for a British film Of Human Bondage (1934) has an almost completely british cast, with Davis putting on a convincing cockney accent as she takes on one of her first tpyical roles as the bitchy woman who fights back. Here the cold hearted waitress takes all she can get from her men who treat her better than she has been before. And she is slow to realise what she really has until its too late. Also in her first Oscar nominated role too, taking this film from being routine to a whole new level of performance, every time she appears on screen she owns the camera.
Whilst Howard takes on a more passive role that grows over the length of the film to realise what he really wants and has as he moves on from his lusting and dreaming to a more grounded relationship with a rivals daughter Sally (Frances Dee) who at times can see right through him.
Whilst the old flame of the waitress takes a downhill turn towards her dramatic demise from lung cancer. Life goes on for Philip (Leslie Howard) who overcomes his clubfoot to live a happier life. Even though he could lead a perfectly normal life with it, he feels dragged down by his ailment. Philip grows the most even though he really doesn’t show it, able to shake off and learn from his mistakes during his time at medical school to have a woman who loves him for who he is and not what he can do and give.
- “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” (wonderfulladventures.wordpress.com)
- The Amazing people who Made Gone With the Wind (starhistorian.com)
- Of Human Bondage (1934) (patdanbow.wordpress.com)
- Of Human Bondage. (teenytweenyandi.wordpress.com)
- Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (lnatal.wordpress.com)