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"Tear Down the Fences": Watching Capra in the Age of Trump

Revisiting the cinema of an all-American auteur whose championing of the little guy feels more necessary now than ever.
The retrospective Frank Capra, The American Dreamer is showing April 10 - May 31, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
Frank Capra
Frank Capra has fallen badly out of fashion in recent decades. While still well-known for the extraordinary Depression-era purple patch that produced It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the critics have rarely been kind. His work is routinely derided as “Capra-corn” for its perceived sentimentality and “fairy tale” idealism while the man himself is written off in favour of contemporaries Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch.
Elliot Stein, writing in Sight & Sound in 1972, attacked Capra’s “fantasies of good will, which at no point conflict with middle-class American status quo values”, arguing that his “shrewdly commercial manipulative tracts” consist of little more than “philistine-populist notions and greeting-card sentiments”. Pauline Kael found him “softheaded,” Derek Malcolm a huckster hawking “cosily absurd fables.”
To an extent, this is all rather understandable. A filmmaker arguing for the fundamental rightness of the system and the inherent goodness in people and the American Way might well seem preposterously naïve to a critical establishment looking back from the other side of McCarthyism, the Kennedy assassinations, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Vietnam, Charles Manson and Watergate. The New Hollywood had little cause and no interest in celebrating the federal government and generations of critics and audiences since have inherited the cynicism of that time, with one political scandal after another arriving like clockwork to confirm our most pessimistic suspicions.
Frank Capra hasn’t helped his own case much either. A lifelong hard-line Republican — a bad start when dealing with a broadly liberal-dominated commentariat — the director published The Name Above the Title in 1971, an autobiography in which he lamented the passing of the studio system by complaining of Hollywood’s takeover by, “The hedonists, the homosexuals, the haemophiliac bleeding hearts, the God-haters, the quick-buck artists who substituted shock for talent” who had sought to “emancipate our films from morality” and whose motto was, “To hell with the good in man, dredge up his evil.”
Hardly endearing, but an embittered old man’s alienation and anger at a fast-changing culture he no longer understood shouldn’t tarnish our appreciation of the masterpieces he made 35 years before, which have a life and legacy quite independent of their creator. The most enduring of all, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), perhaps points to another possible explanation for Capra’s provoking such hostility: over-familiarity breeding contempt. A Christmas staple for more than half a century, the film’s ubiquity seems to make it a target for contrarian detractors, much as Citizen Kane draws fire. But any snow-blindness to its worth is our failing, not Capra’s.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Revisiting his back catalogue today in the blundering early months of the Trump presidency, Capra’s films seem utterly revitalised, shockingly so, the new light cast on them by the screwball times we’re living in bringing out details and resonances one could hardly have anticipated.
Take The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1934), an utterly atypical example of his output, a slice of Oriental exotica that has more in common with Josef von Sternberg than it does with the David-and-Goliath allegories for which he is typecast. Starring Barbara Stanwyck as an American missionary in civil war China who is kidnapped by the titular warlord after he falls in love with her, Columbia boss Harry Cohn laughed it off as “the sort of arty junk that wins Oscars”.
Bitter Tea features some wild pre-Code violence — Stanwyck is knocked out with a rifle butt, soldiers are brutally bayoneted — but stands as an unusually thoughtful romantic melodrama. General Yen himself may be the same old poetic/wise/cruel Asian mastermind of stereotype but, despite being played by a Swede (Nils Asther), he is well realised and his sparring with Stanwyck’s Megan Davis, increasingly stricken with Stockholm Syndrome (there’s a joke in there somewhere), offers an enlightened portrait of two foreign cultures coming to understand one another.
Bitter Tea remains fascinating at a time when U.S.-Sino relations are as strained as ever. President Trump appears both to admire and fear China as an authoritarian economic powerhouse but has nevertheless already caused offence over Taiwan and the South China Sea. He ought to sit down with Bitter Tea and heed the words of Walter Connolly’s American adventurer Jones: “Why, changing a leopard's spots is duck soup compared to changing China.”
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the film that first established what’s popularly taken to be the Capra formula. Gary Cooper plays small-town poet and tuba player Longfellow Deeds, who unexpectedly inherits a fortune and is reluctantly whisked away from his beloved Mandrake Falls, Vermont, to New York, where he is appalled by the avarice of Big City “moochers.” When he tries to give his unwanted windfall away to farmers hard-hit by the Crash, the American yokel finds himself on trial facing a sanity hearing, so disgusted with a world that equates philanthropy with madness he can no longer speak.
Capra’s regular screenwriter, the unsung Robert Riskin — a New Deal Democrat responsible for much of the political substance in their collaborations —  feeds Cooper lines that will ring childish to some ears but are nonetheless good observations that we still don’t have answers for, notably: “Why do people take pleasure in hurting each other? Why don’t they try liking one another for a change?” Why indeed. The compassion Capra expressed here for a public queueing for bread may be out of style but we applauded it when we saw it again last year in Ken Loach’s impassioned I, Daniel Blake, which featured a particularly harrowing episode at a food bank.
Another modern preoccupation alive in Deeds is the theme of media mendacity, a subject Capra would return to in both Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe (1941), his darkest satire, again putting Cooper through the wringer. Like Donald J. Trump, Deeds is a man who comes to feel persecuted by the press. Jean Arthur’s dubbing him “the Cinderella Man” is one headline that particularly sticks in his craw. You can almost imagine him decrying their tall-tales about his feeding doughnuts to horses as “FAKE NEWS.” Capra’s attacks on the venality of the newspaper game are among his most enduring and pointed ideas and perhaps best encapsulated by Walter Brennan’s misanthropic hobo in John Doe: “I don't read the papers. I already know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber."
You Can't Take It With You
Both Deeds and John Doe tackle wealth and personal responsibility but arguably Capra and Riskin’s most open assault on voracious capitalism comes in You Can’t Take It with You (1938). Based on a Pulitzer-winning stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the villain is Capra mainstay Edward Arnold, here playing Wall Street titan Anthony Kirby, who is frustrated in his attempts to buy up a New York neighbourhood for redevelopment by a lone hold-out. That man is Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) who prefers to keep his crumbling brownstone, which serves as an unofficial bohemian colony populated by a gaggle of madcap eccentrics, from ballerinas and toymakers to firework enthusiasts and Russian dancing masters. A melting pot of influences, in other words. Isn’t that what really made America great?
Real estate landgrabs in the heart of the Big Apple are of course the source of the Trump billions and The Donald would be well advised to sit through this Scrooge story too. Aside from its miser’s remorse moral (Kirby is a relative of Barrymore’s wicked Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), there’s an astonishing scene in Central Park in which Jimmy Stewart tells Jean Arthur of his dream of inventing a technology that could capture the sun’s rays for conversion into clean energy, essentially foreseeing solar power. With climate change sceptic Scott Pruitt now running the Environmental Protection Agency and hawkish industrialists padding out the rest of Trump’s Cabinet, this young man’s hopes for a better future seem more in jeopardy now than ever. Trump might even find some kinship with Grandpa Vanderhof: he doesn’t believe in paying his income taxes either.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
And then of course there’s Mr. Smith, a movie about laissez-fare corruption at the heart of Washington, conflicts of interest, violated oaths of office, promises unmet, ingrained hypocrisy, graft, crocodile tears, smear tactics and the inappropriate political influence wielded by unelected advisers. Sorry, perhaps I’m missing something. Tell me again why you don’t think Frank Capra is worth bothering with.
Like Steve Bannon, Jim Taylor (Arnold again) is a shadowy right-wing kingmaker with a leash on the media. He treats Senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains) as his own personal representative, using him to push through bills convenient to his investments. For all the fat cat laughter at “overgrown boy scout” Jefferson Smith (Stewart again), it’s Paine who’s the real patsy. These days, Taylor’s pet project for Willet Creek might be a golf resort rather than a dam. We’d no doubt find him dishing out bangles at the Kuwaiti embassy ball, unexpectedly relocated to the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue for, oh, no reason. “Silver knight” Joe Paine even goes so far as to attempt to use his attractive daughter as bait to ensure Smith stays on-message at Taylor’s behest. Imagine!
The Washington machine actually fought against Mr. Smith’s production, with Joseph P. Kennedy writing to Harry Cohn in 1939 to warn against releasing a motion picture that might damage America’s prestige in Europe at a time when the clouds of war were gathering. Years later, screenwriter Sidney Buchman was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for membership of the Communist Party and refusing to name names, one more vindictive act by a rogue senator that, if nothing else, at least demonstrates the depth of feeling the film aroused.
Much of the objection to Frank Capra appears to stem from his happy endings, the cynics sneering when Cooper or Stewart wins the debate and gets the girl. You might as well complain that Jane Austen is unreadable fluff because her novels all end happily ever after with a round of weddings.
This attitude is both emblematic of exactly the sort of lazy mean-spiritedness Capra so quixotically tilted at and just plain wrong in that it ignores the very real social ills the man has been painstakingly sketching in with thick black charcoal for the preceding 100 minutes. George Bailey’s realization that no man is poor who has friends wouldn’t have any weight to it without the long dark night of the soul he has endured to get there. We simply wouldn’t care about Capra’s polemics of hope if the triumphs of Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith and John Doe weren’t so hard-won. We’re too quick to smirk at Joe Paine howling that he’s not fit to be a senator and too slow to remember Jeff’s heartbroken, Christ-like tears at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial decrying “the whole rotten show.”
We could all surely do with a little more of Smith’s “gee whiz” sense of wonder today. His late father’s advice to “always try and see life as though you’ve just come out of a dark tunnel” is sound as a bell. Compare that with the easy corruption Paine complacently advocates when he tells Jeff, “It’s a man’s world and you have to check your ideals at the door.” We may prefer our political drama served with the cape-twirling villainy of a House of Cards in the 21st century but we are the poorer for our refusal to take seriously the sort of back-to-basics idealism Capra endorsed. And make no mistake, the man was sincere. His simple, clear appeals for honesty and decency and faith in democracy and the founding principles of the United States are the cherished notions of a boy who emigrated from Sicily in 1903 and found the American Dream to be entirely as advertised.
In Meet John Doe, Edward Arnold is once again the Big Bad Wolf, a fascist who seizes on a grassroots populist movement and seeks to mobilize it for alt-right political ends. “America needs to be ruled with an iron fist”, he says. His attempt to bastardize the John Doe message — itself the fabrication of a desperate newsroom — fails and Doe’s “good neighbor” philosophy narrowly survives being tainted by his grubby hands. It is fortunate that it does, as Doe’s speeches contain a sentiment so timely it stings: “Tear down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you'll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices. Tear down all the fences in the country and you'll really have teamwork.”
In a moment when the Leader of the Free World is counting out pennies and defunding outreach programs to pay for a wall to keep people apart, we need Frank Capra’s “fantasies of good will” like a cool drink of water in a desert.


Frank CapraLong Reads
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