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.
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 Capra’s 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.
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.
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.
- Meet John Doe (1941): Frank Capra Takes On Facism (classicmoviesdigest.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) – Film Locations (dearoldhollywood.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Nazis and ‘the People’ in Capra and Riskin’s Meet John Doe (ayearinthedark.wordpress.com)
- Meet John Doe (rheaven.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Notes on two films by Frank Capra: Meet John Doe (1941) and It´s a Wonderful Life (1946) (shomingekiblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (and-scene.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meet John Doe (1941) (nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.co.uk)