Posts tagged “Frank Capra

Film Talk – George Bailey’s Nightmare


On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.

Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capras Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.

Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.

With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves

It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.

You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.

All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about

‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”

Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20

What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?

“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”

Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20

His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.

“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10

A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.

I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.

The Haunted Past –

“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15

For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.

The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15

You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.

These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.

The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.

Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16

If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.

Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.

I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.

Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.

  Looking at George reaction to the world around him as he begins to realise that this is not his world, the consequences of his not existing has on the world.

I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.

Whilst the third and final fall, is an accidental heroic act that replicates the first time that was for Harry, this time for a stranger, the angel – second-class, Clarence.

 

 

 

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Shane (1953) Revisited


Shane (1953)I already knew that Shane (1953) was a great and classic, but had forgotten why really, a reminder was needed to stir up the emotions and memories that are captured in this gunfighter film. From the beginning we see a lone rider Shane (Alan Ladd) make his way through the field of bushes, in no rush to get anywhere, he’s very much his own man, independent of the laws of the land. Reach the homesteading Starrett family who we soon learn are under threat from Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to run off this and other homesteaders. All innocent people wanting to make their mark on the country. A real conflict of interests is at the heart of this feud. One group wanting to push out another. It’s a tried and tested formula as we see the stronger force try to drive out the weaker.

Much like in The Westerner (1940), but not hiding behind a supposed law created by Judge Roy Bean. Here it’s about the strength of the man to stand up to another. However strong they feel they are still cowards in the face of Ryker and his men who don’t even draw their guns. Theres a strong code between both sides that is tangible, violence without pulling the trigger, relying more on the inner strength of the man to stand up. Something that we know, just looking at Shane even as he sits on the sidelines will have to step in and save the day. The small (annoying) boy Joey (Brandon De Wilde) who is in awe of the stranger who has become his role model, knows there is something inside him that is waiting to come out.

As much as Shane wants to change his ways, taking on a job with the Starrett’s is not enough to change his very nature. Finally giving in to teach Joey how to handle a gun, in such away that he may one day use it as a tool not a weapon. Shane very much is standing in the shadows of these homesteaders, all decent hardworking men who want to stand up and be respected, not walked all over. Personified by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) who is the strongest of the group and the weakest, all talk and very little walk, hampered by his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) who wants him to stay safe, not going out to potentially lose his life. She is the very reason he has to; to be seen as a man in front of her and his son whose eyes are open in unto the world around him.

Enter the hired gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) who in his few scenes he has steals them all, the “low down Yankee liar” is all bad, the personification of a gunfighter who takes pleasure in pulling the gun from its holster to take another life, to prove his is stronger, better and will live to see another day. That’s until he enters this small Alabama town that could easily be anywhere in America personifying the West for a generation, the open country, the American dream that is still being fought over. A moment in history that could have been repeated anywhere in the United States, a fable you could say of good overcoming evil.

Shane is a classic in every sense of the word, the hero, the villain, the lush green landscape with all its rich dirt and mountains that surround these people in the middle of nowhere. Two of the leads are take from very different genres, Alan Ladd a regular of film noir, and Jean Arthur whose career was all but over, most remembered for her Capra films, both could easily have been out of their depth, which works in their favour, the energy of the modern dark streets and an innocence and need to feel safe in the world.

At the core of this is a need to remain true to yourself, the gunfighter with all their on-screen glory can never settle down with the homesteaders, as strong as that need maybe, it’s a dangerous life to live as we find out for two of them. This is a prime example of the classic western, stranger enters, shakes things up and leaves alone again, never to return leaving the town for the better or worse. Leaving the audience in awe of the dangerous spectacles we have seen in the film. It’s over in a flash, just what we have been waiting for all along satisfying not just the audience by Joey who has been waiting longer than anyone to see his newest role-model come to life after building him up in his mind.

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It’s a Wonderful Nightmare


full_17652_168035Last night I was looking to see what news was happening in the film world, nothing much to interest me usually, until I came across one of the worst ideas since a sequel to Casablanca (1942) was reported. I believe once again that died a quick death.

Hollywood has now turned it’s attention to the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it has been has been revealed that the plot will take up with the Bailey children, now probably in their 80s and 90’s, focusing on the youngest Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) returning “as an angel who shows Bailey’s unlikeable grandson (also named George Bailey) how much better off the world would have been had he never been born.” The very idea of this is quite shocking for a sequel at the very least. When in the original it was George Bailey (James Stewart) who himself wished he hadn’t been born because of a series of events that saw him become a broken man.

There is also talk to cast once more “Jimmy Hawkins, who portrayed Tommy Bailey, and Carol Coombs,who played Janie Bailey, to reprise their roles as well.” The release date for this poor thought through sequel in December (2015). It’s a new low for Hollywood as the scrape the barrel looking for a money spinner, which this time may and should backfire big-time. A classic such as this should be held in high-esteem to not be touched or altered. It has an audience who love and appreciate the film worldwide.

Hollywood has no real respect for the classic, instead of re-releases that would produce decent returns, they have to see what more can be made. I will not be seeing this film, out of respect and love for a true classic that tied up all the loose ends when everyone donated to the Bailey family on Christmas day. That is where it should and be left. Also out of respect for both Frank Capra and James Stewart who held this film in high regard. Hopefully the search for a director will prove so hard they give up the idea. Then again they’re maybe one so desperate to make a name for themselves they’ll make this awful film a reality.

 


Meet John Doe (1941)


Meet John Doe (1941)It’s been a while since I’ve seen a cockle warmer by Frank Capra and to be honest I could have waited a lot longer after seeing Meet John Doe (1941) which sees Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the first time. I think all of Capra’s work will always be held up to his most successful picture It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), of course it was It Happened One Night (1934) which won all the Oscars, but it’s the James Stewart classic which sums up Capra as great director which every-time brings so much warmth into your heart it hurts when you cry just that little at the end.

Yet going over the films of his I have seen, comparing them full of warmth and values of a period in time and film history. I feel by the time of John Doe‘s release Europe is very much at war and America is watching from a safe distance, and the public is wondering when they will be drawn into the bloodshed that was WWII.

The set-up of journalist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) who will types out her last piece for a newspaper that has made her redundant, sparks a national outcry when a fictional letter of a man on the edge of life, fed up with the state of America and life declares that he was going to commit suicide on Christmas eve. This single letter sparks a reaction in the nation that wants this life to be saved, to speak out for  the values that are in decline. Most importantly to raise circulation for the paper. Ensuring Mitchell’s job security and that of another man to become the face of this campaign. They pick John Willoughby, now known as John Doe (Cooper) who is accompanied with the suspicious ‘Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) who always brings Willoughby to account, to remind him of his hobo roots, to understand what money can do to a man if he lets it go to his head.

It takes a while for the campaign of John Doe to really settle in the mind of a would be pro baseball player, now giving his all to a cause that encourages the average joe of America to reach out and help their neighbour. These are very Christian values that underpin the film. Whilst in the background the owner D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) of the paper is using the campaign to engineer a third political party to go against those in Washington.

There are moments of schmaltz that are synonymous with Capra which are immediately forgive, yet the tone of the film is too political, even in the wake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). When the power of the downtrodden man is brought across. However they are not half as emotive as past efforts such as You Can’t Take it With You (1938) where everything about those scenes is just right. I feel by the time of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) everything that made a Capra film came together and sparkled, once more with his best leading man, began to crumble with his next film State of the Union (1948) which was extremely political and sadly outdated, even with one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen partnerships.

For me all of those thoughts and ideas overlook heavily what could be a much greater film, there are moments but very few that see both Cooper and Stanwyck sparkle on screen in films to follow. John Doe will never harm Capra’s legacy which will be one of happy feel good films that touch the audience in a special place and speak of traditional values from a bygone era that to today’s audiences is a gateway to another time.


Artist Statement


Neath is a lone artist riding his horse through the wilderness of the myth of conquest; the Western. Strolling into empty spaces where he finds clichés to explore, building cardboard and balsa model miniature towns, devoid of life, ever changing in form as the models disintegrate, new ones taking their place acting as film sets to be photographed and filmed.

Wandering off his path into other world constructed by film, struck by the ideas and imagery that he finds within them. Exploring the high angles of Brief Encounter (1945) dir. Lean to the single beds in Mrs Miniver (1942) dir. Wyler. Nodding his hat in the direction of artists such the Thomas Demand and Slinkachu, the empty spaces and unseen worlds are the themes they share.

When the boots are off he investigates the fabric and conventions of film, what makes it tick, pulling it apart using video and digital image and manipulate film. With the notion of handmade at centre of his practice he’s work is never far away from his hands that touch all he makes.

Professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at the University of Derby explains that the decline of the genre came about with an increasingly sophisticated audience wanting more than a hero coming into town and gunning down the villains to only leave at the end. Films of the time were competing with real images of the Vietnam War and of the Civil Rights movement.

He will always look and ride on in the search of what the Myth of conquest is about, its form and language from its rise through to the golden age and decline before being reborn in its various forms. Looking on with a sense of wonder and yearning to understand what makes it so rich and masculine for the artist who plays cardboard

 revised 21/6/15