Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Frank Capra would have had a birthday last week if he hadn’t died in 1991 at age 94. Some saw his feel-good movies as Capra-corn. His first big hit was the 1934 film, It Happened One Night, which walked away with five Oscars. He is probably best-known today for his box office failure in 1947, It’s A Wonderful Life. I was a mere slip of a tot when his most telling movies came out from 1936-1941. The films are, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. All deal with a nobody becoming a somebody, however briefly. They are stories of honest Everyman confronting the corrupt and devious engines of Power, particularly banks, media and political office.

In each of these films the people, the collective, are a central character. They vacillate from hard-working, honest and ultimately wise to a mindless mob. Capra was something of a closet preacher with his populist exhortations, delivered perfectly by a gulping, stumbling, bumbling Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. At issue was democracy, itself.

Director/actor John Cassavetes (of all people) praised him with these words, Maybe there really wasn’t an America, it was only Frank Capra. He created an idealized myth of small town America, so persuasive that even city dwellers adapted that vision as their own. Tragedy would be no more than a temporary state in this fabulist narrative.

Puncturing the Capra model is too easy but looking back at these movie themes I’m struck by how they speak of those times when we as a nation confronted the near-wreckage of Capitalism and the threat of Fascism. Capra took on these forces, albeit simplistically and sentimentally, but he caught the Zeitgeist.

The pulse of the people has always been the great enigma of our political system. Political party operatives have tried to manipulate it, pander to it, capture people's fears and tap into their aspirations. What were the masses in Capra’s day (132 million) are now the uber-masses (311 million), a polyglot of races with gaps in generations and religions, not to mention class divisions and technological wizardry offering challenges never before encountered.

The greater the connectivity the more pronounced are the centrifugal forces pulling us apart. It would be hard to imagine a John Doe today speaking for everybody but I miss Capra with his vision of our better selves. He thought in terms of a national character that we may have thrown out with the bathwater.

The latest creation of Karl Rove is a Romney commercial that lies in every syllable of every sentence. It is a masterpiece of mendacity which might have found a place in a Capra film with Edward Arnold playing Rove. Through words and images it suggests that Obama is responsible for outrageous spending, foreclosures, high taxes, unprecedented student loans and appeasement abroad. The opposite is true. He might just as well have thrown in undercooked spaghetti and overdue library books.

The Populist movement in our history has ranged from a farmer-labor coalition to antiwar students to state-rights bigots to the current tea-partiers whose distrust of government has been tapped and incited even when that is the very institution whose benefits are the one thing they can depend upon; a classic example of the demotic underside where anger has been subverted through repetitive deceit. If this were a Capra movie they’d wake up in the last reel. Where is Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck to rouse them and Cooper or Stewart to stop them from shooting themselves in the foot til they haven't a leg to stand on?

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