WEIRDLAND: January 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Postwar noir, Fatalism, Mob City, L.A. Noir

Although the movement was named by the French, film noir has always been an American genre. But as the 12th San Francisco Film Noir Festival shows, the bitterness of American crime films of the 1940s found some kindred spirits in Europe and in Asia - places that had been ravaged by World War II. "In many cases you are watching bleak, dark, cynical movies made by people working directly in the aftermath of the war," said Noir City director Eddie Muller. "If you think Hollywood noirs are about postwar cynicism and nihilism, wait till you see movies made by the countries that lost the war."

"It's eye-opening. You realize how fortunate America has been in that the war wasn't fought on our soil. When you look at 'Stray Dog' and 'Drunken Angel' (showing Sunday, filmed on the streets of Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa), you're looking at the losers of the war literally living in atomic fallout. Despite its foreign flavor - 16 of the 27 films are in a foreign language with English subtitles - there is an unmistakably American noir angst: gangsters (Britain's "Brighton Rock," starring Richard Attenborough, screening Wednesday), meticulously planned heists (France's "Rififi," Feb. 1), and even the deliciously titled "Never Open That Door" (next Thursday), a 1952 Argentine film based on the work of American crime author Cornell Woolrich ("Rear Window"). Source: www.sfgate.com

"Fatalism in American Film Noir," by University of Chicago professor and Hegel scholar Robert B. Pippin, constitutes (perhaps for the first time) a philosopher’s take on the genre. It centers in particular on agency, i.e., the extent to which all of us (and particularly film noir protagonists) are agents of their own actions. It’s hard to deny that noir protagonists exhibit a certain helplessness—as though their actions, or the motivation to act, are derived from outside themselves, whether the result of fate, obsession, or various socioeconomic factors.

Pippin cites Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross (1949) and The Killers (1946) as demonstrating this passive tendency, immobilized by his belief that he’s been dealt a hand over which he has little, if any, control. It is no coincidence that the question of agency, and film noir, came together at a particular moment in history. According to Pippin, these films show us “what it literally looks like, what it feels like, to live in a world where the experience of our own agency has begun to shift.” Pippin focuses on three works: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947); Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1948); and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945).

Pippin points that in Out of the Past, we are shown events and, through flashbacks and a voice-over, we are told about those events. Consequently, there’s a gap between what we see happening and what Jeff Bailey, as he narrates the story in order to explain himself to Ann, maintains is happening.

Jeff is unable to move out of the past (in this case his relationship with femme fatale Kathie) due to his belief that—here Pippin quotes Oedipus—”I suffered those deeds more than I acted them.” Of course, Jeff and fellows like him aren’t thinkers, but improvisers who move from one event to another, trying to create a space for themselves in which to act, only to be stymied by their past. Trapped by what he does and who he is, Jeff seeks to become the agent of his actions, only to meet his death. Any room for self-generated action is limited, though the heroic-existential position is to act despite everything. As Pippin notes: “He ends up an agent, however restricted and compromised, in the only way one can be. He acts like one.” And then he dies.

Analyzing Scarlet Street, Pippin notes how Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) seeks to break out of his own self-inscribed world, even relating it to the film’s final music, which morphs from a Christmas tune to Melancholy Baby—heard earlier when the needle becomes stuck (a metaphor for Chris’s life) to Jingle Bells. It’s as though Lang is counterposing the socioeconomic facts of Chris’s life with the Christian account of fate and redemption. Trapped by class and the limits of their self-understanding, these characters seem to embrace a narrowing of their future course of action.

“I had no choice” is the excuse they seek to employ. But these characters are neither free nor fated. They make choices, even if they are trapped by them. Says Pippin, “The danger of exaggerating our capacity for self-initiated action and so exaggerating both a burden of responsibility and a way of avoiding a good deal of blame is...as great as the danger of throwing up our hands and in a self-undermining way becoming the all-pervasive power of fate.”

Pippin concludes with a brief look at Double Indemnity (1944), in which egoist/predator Phyllis Dietrichson conspires with easy-going nihilist Walter Neff. But Pippin notes that it’s Barton Keyes who, as arbiter, defines the boundaries separating accident, fate, and intentionality. As a Socratic figure, Keyes doesn’t condemn Neff, but recognizes that he’s trapped. Since it’s Keyes’ job to realize such things, he, according to Pippin, must bear the burden of the narrative. In the closing moments of Double Indemnity, Phyllis suffers her fate because she finally acts as a free agent, choosing not to shoot Neff a second time, which leads to her death. Despite the fact that noir is often couched in nihilistic terms, there’s actually something heartening in reading an author who suggests that shared knowledge might ultimately lead to self-knowledge, and that ethics matter whether we are free agents or not. —Woody Haut for 'Noir City' magazine vol. 8 No. 2 (Fall 2013)

Based in 1940s Los Angeles, where a battle is raging between the gangs and the police, the story centres on Jon Bernthal's detective Joe Teague. Bernthal fits the bill as the mysterious lead who keeps his cards so close to his chest, we're still not entirely sure where he sits in the crime divide. Noir-lovers will get a thrill from Mob City, but it currently feels like it's lacking ambition when compared to its contemporary rivals. Source: www.digitalspy.co.uk

Los Angeles was "Mob City" in the 1940s, as the title of a new TV miniseries puts it. The second pair of episodes of the TNT crime show air tonight, continuing to track the real-life era of Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, and a deeply corrupt LAPD. "Mob City" is based on the 2010 book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" by John Buntin. I reached Buntin in Nashville, where he lives with his family, and asked him to describe how organized crime and corruption came to dominate the City of Angels. Source: www.csmonitor.com

Siegel had never built a large establishment before, and it showed. The original budget for the new casino was $1.2 million. Siegel spent a million on plumbing alone. By the time the Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946, Siegel and his investors—who included the top leadership of the Syndicate—had plowed more than $5 million into the project. Rumors of outrageously expensive design changes started to spread. Some Syndicate chieftains became concerned that Bugsy’s new girlfriend, Mob moll Virginia Hill was stashing their money in Swiss bank accounts. Bugsy knew the boys could get tough. When he flew into Los Angeles early on the morning of June 20, 1947, violence was on his mind. After catching a few hours of sleep at the Beverly Hills mansion that Virginia Hill was renting (from Rudolph Valentino’s former manager), Bugsy headed over to associate Al Smiley’s apartment, where he met with Mickey Cohen.

On a typical workday, some 260,000 cars jammed downtown Los Angeles, making the intersection of Adams and Figueroa on the edge of downtown the busiest in the world, with more than double the traffic of its nearest rival, Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. Los Angeles also had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the country. Together, the intraurban Yellow and interurban Red lines provided service over more than a thousand miles of rail and transported an average of 520,000 people into the downtown area every day. Total number of passenger trips in 1924: 110,000,000. “All of the talk was ‘boom,’ ‘dollars,’ ‘greatest in the world,’ ‘sure to double in price,’” marveled the author Hamlin Garland, who visited L.A. in 1923. High in the Hollywood Hills, a giant sign, each letter fifty feet tall and covered with four thousand lightbulbs, promoted one of Harry Chandler’s new developments, “Hollywoodland!” The “-land” later fell over, and the sign became the new city’s most distinctive symbol. -"L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City" by John Buntin

Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Donna Reed!

Happy Anniversary, Donna Reed!!

Donna Reed and James Stewart in "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) directed by Frank Capra

Capra told friends that Lu had convinced him to retire, but though his concern for her health was genuine, that was just another excuse. "I want to work! What do you think I'm dying for? I'm in great shape except that nobody wants me for a job. I want to direct —if people would let me alone to do my own picture." In those rare instances when anyone approached him with a "go" project in his later years, Capra would go away. Perhaps he could not be criticized for rejecting such a motley bunch of offers as a 1972 documentary on Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, an elderly resident of Southern California's Lion Country Safari who was renowned for his sexual exploits; a 1975 television special starring Lucille Ball, who had played a bit part in Broadway Bill; Mr. Kruegers Christmas (1980), a sentimental, mildly religious half-hour TV drama with James Stewart and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Capra was uncomfortable because the Mormons were the producers);

and It's Still a Wonderful Life, a later-abandoned TV sequel project with Stewart and Donna Reed playing their characters in later years, originally proposed by Reed to the author of this book and offered by Universal in 1982 to Capra, who responded, "That's the kind of goddamn thing a producer would suggest. They can go fuck themselves."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Frank Capra and Robert Riskin "Magic Towns"

James Stewart confirmed that Robert Riskin did not direct any part of the film "Magic Town" (1947), and William Wellman told John F. Mariani in 1975, "Frank's just being kind about it. I was in on that thing from the beginning, and I wish I never started it. It stunk! Frank and Bob had a big argument about the picture and Riskin asked me to do it. I told him this is the kind of picture only Capra could do. It's not my kind of film. In my book Capra's the greatest, and I thought of giving Magic Town the Capra touch while shooting."

-Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman): The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men.

-Lawrence 'Rip' Smith (James Stewart): "I've been searching for a town like this for years. You know, when I got off that train this morning, I said to myself 'This is it.' I've just walked through your town, folks, with its shade trees and its lovely parks. I stood before your impressive buildings mellowed with age, and I said to myself 'Here is a sturdy challenge to the evils of the modern era.' I watched your people on the street, and I felt their vitality and their sense of security. Your children are happy. They're happy. You can see it in their dear little faces, and hear it in their wholesome talk. There's beauty here. It's almost indescribable. You're used to it, you're all a part of it, you take it for granted. But to me, it's a hope and a dream of a lifetime. I too want to become a part of it. Please don't change it."

With Riskin unavailable for Liberty Films, Capra went to Leo McCarey, the producer-director whose 'Going My Way' had won the Oscar as best picture of 1944 and whose Rainbow Productions was making a sequel for RKO, The Bells of St. Mary's. McCarey was formally offered a Liberty partnership on May 7, 1945.

When he explained in a 1968 public appearance why he did not want to film the first script RKO had commissioned for The Greatest Gift —the one by Dalton Trumbo— Capra gave a simple reason that spoke volumes: Trumbo's script "was about politics." Already by 1946, politics for Capra had become a dirty word. Trumbo's George is a politician who rises from an idealistic state assemblyman to a cynical congressman contemptuous of the people he represents. He goes to the bridge to attempt suicide after losing a race for governor. The angel shows him Bedford Falls as it would have been not if he had never been born but as it would have been if he had gone into business instead of politics. Bedford Falls in Trumbo's nightmare sequence has changed from an idealized small town to a foul, polluted, overindustrialized modern city: there is no Potter to serve as George's nemesis, for George, in effect, serves as his own Potter—a ruthless modern businessman who carelessly spoils the town for his own profit.

Capra's postwar regression was manifested in his depiction of sexual politics in Bedford Falls. The fact that Donna Reed's Mary Bailey is a housewife and mother, unlike the Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck single professional women in the Capra-Riskin films, reflects the prevailing mood of postwar America, in which women were being pressured to give their jobs back to returning servicemen and stay home raising children.

Yet in Wonderful Life, Mary's yearning for marriage, home, and family is portrayed with considerable ambivalence by Capra in the deeply moving telephone scene with Mary, (which Capra considered "one of the best scenes I've ever put on the screen"). George blames his wife and children for their role in keeping him in Bedford Falls and curbing his ambitions to be an architect and city planner; what finally drives him to attempt suicide is Mary's turning on him after his frightening outburst in the living room in which he smashes his models of a bridge and skyscraper. Capra's reaffirmation of family and small-town values at the end is accomplished, as critic Robin Wood put it, "with full acknowledgment of the suppressions on which it depends and consequently, of its precariousness."

Capra's unborn sequence is a powerful vision of despair—though labeled a "fantasy," the sequence was shot in the fashionable film noir style, and it much more closely resembles the reality of 1946 than the rest of the film—but politically it is Capra's ultimate cop-out, his way of washing his hands of the modern world and the clearest expression of how much his social optimism depended on Riskin (whose absence is felt in the unborn sequence just as strongly as George Bailey's) and how utterly distrustful Capra had become of the American public. William S. Pechter noted that the supernatural resolution of Wonderful Life exposes the "fatal weakness" of Capra's work, his tendency to resolve impossible social dilemmas with "strangely perfunctory" happy endings that are imposed "deforce majeure... Yet, for those who can accept the realities of George Bailey's situation and do not believe in angels the film ends, in effect, with the hero's suicide. Capra's desperation is his final honesty. It ruthlessly exposes his own affirmation as pretense."

Jean Arthur explained in 1987: "I am awfully angry when he always says that [It's a Wonderful Life] his favorite picture. I think Stewart did a great job, it was a great part, but I wouldn't have liked to have been that girl, I didn't think she had anything to do. It was colorless. You didn't have a chance to be anything." Capra's thoughts went to his old flame, Ginger Rogers, but she also turned down the film because "the woman's role was such a bland character." He thought of Olivia de Havilland, Martha Scott, and Ann Dvorak.

Then he saw Donna Reed in an MGM film. It probably was They Were Expendable; Reed gave a strong and luminous performance as a Navy nurse. She was only twenty-four when she made It's A Wonderful Life, but her fresh Iowa beauty made her an ideal match with Stewart.

Capra was fed up with independence. "It was the most gentlemanly way of going broke, and the fastest way, anybody ever thought of," he told Richard Schickel in 1971. "We didn't have enough capital, so we decided to sell Liberty Films, which was a very, very hopeless thing to do. My partners did not want to sell. But I got cold feet, and I'm the one who insisted that we sell. And I think that probably affected my picture-making forever afterward." By the spring of 1950, after almost a year of forced inactivity, he was beginning to despair of feature filmmaking altogether, telling the press that he was "gloomy about his future projects" and that he didn't know "where ideas are coming from that will seem worthwhile to him and safe to the studio."

During the shooting of "Here Comes the Groom," he told Alexis Smith, whose playing of Wilbur's spinster cousin Winifred is one of its few delights, that he did not want to make any more movies because "It isn't fun anymore." "I was shocked," she remembered. "I thought he was kidding at first, he seemed to be enjoying himself so much on the set, but he said, 'No, I'm serious. I don't mean it isn't fun here, I mean the pressures that come from the schedule and from money.' That drove him crazy. He said he wasn't used to the banks moving into a position of creative control. This was before the drastic changes in the industry became apparent, and he was probably ahead of a lot of people in realizing what was happening. But I remember being very disturbed by it, because I didn't think Frank Capra should just walk away from it."

The fact that "a large part" of the public "seem[ed] to have more or less forgotten" Capra and Stewart during the war (as Variety observed after Wonderful Life opened weakly) should have been only a temporary setback for Capra. Not only Stewart but also Capra's fellow directors who had spent the war in uniform—Ford, Huston, Wyler, Stevens—were, in time, able to regain their former prominence in the industry. Hollywood's lack of enthusiasm for Capra on his return from service stemmed from an accumulation of factors unique to Capra: it was a reflection on his faltering box-office track record and his reputation for extravagance; a delayed backlash against his rebellious posture toward studio control before the war, both in his own career and on behalf of the Screen Directors Guild; and, perhaps, a resentment of his arrogance toward Hollywood during his Army years, such as his blast from London at Hollywood for "embarrassing" the troops with "flag-waving" war movies. Capra continued to talk poor mouth to the press, telling The Washington Post in 1972, "I wasn't really wise financially — I'm the poorest director you ever saw."

Monday, January 20, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Patricia Neal!

(20 January 1926 , Packard, Kentucky, USA - 8 August 2010 , Edgartown, Massachusetts, USA)
Birth Name: Patricia Louise Neal

Studio head Jack Warner had considered Jennifer Jones, Gene Tierney, Ida Lupino, and Eleanor Parker for the part of Dominique Francon, the female lead in The Fountainhead. In September 1945, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Warners wanted to borrow Alan Ladd from Paramount to star him opposite Lauren Bacall. The role of Howard Roark was eventually offered to Gary Cooper, whose wife, Rocky, had read the book. He was rightfully hesitant to take the part. Cooper’s own attorney, I. H. Prinzmetal, had declined the offer, stating, “Cooper’s audience was not intellectual, and if they heard him say such selfish things they’d hold it against him. It might change his reputation and career!” Though she never interfered with Gary’s decisions in choosing roles, this time Rocky strongly advised him to override his attorney’s advice and accept the part. Said Rand about Cooper, “He is my choice for ‘Roark.’ His physical appearance is exactly right.”


In a 2002 essay on The Fountainhead, Merrill Schleier says about Dominique’s character, “She is passionate and repressed, but possesses too many masculine traits to be considered female. Rand renders her as a masochist and a defeatist, capable only of destructive acts, in contrast to Roark, who creates... She is unable to respond sexually to men until she meets Roark, whose masculine creative agency ignites her passion, thereby completing her. Rand herself called Francon a masochist, ‘like most women.’ In the film, Francon’s sexual dysfunction and gender confusion are demonstrated by her numerous changes in costumes, from masculine riding attire to lacy negligee... (Her) mannish costumes were erotic, drawing attention to the femininity of the bodies they cloted, and a provocation, an example of gender ambiguity. Like other such female characters, Francon later casts aside her masculine attire to claim her true heterosexuality.”

Will you marry me? I want to stay with you. We’ll take a house in some small town, and I’ll keep it for you. Don’t laugh, I can. I’ll cook, I’ll wash your clothes, I’ll scrub the floors.” —Dominique, The Fountainhead (1949) Following a beautifully tender scene in which Roark professes his love for Dominique, he picks her up in his arms and asks, “You won’t leave me, will you?” He kisses her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids, and her hair. Dominique confesses her love for Roark, kneeling before him in a gentle and ironically sensitive moment—a symbolic reversal of roles. This one scene alone solidified the actual and very real moment when Patricia knew that she and Gary Cooper were in love. -"Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life" by Stephen Michael Shearer.

-"I loved Gary Cooper, for years and years and years. And I still love him. Of course, Becky (Cooper's wife, Veronica Balfe, (Sandra Shaw) was not very happy with me. And I don't blame her. Nor was her little daughter, Maria Cooper, who I guess was about 11 when we started... And I was very sorry. But Gary...I just loved Gary very much." - Patricia Neal, in a 2008 interview.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It's A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's Life

Emerging as an annual cinephile tradition, The Criterion Collection has once again kicked off the New Year with an illustrated clue hinting at what fans of the boutique label can expect over the next 12 months. And if these hints pan out, it's going to be another strong slate of releases in 2014. So what is Criterion teasing? Well, the clues seem to be pointing toward: Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter"; Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (previously issued by Criterion on laserdisc); Howard Hawks' classic "Red River"; the landmark documentary "Jazz On A Summer's Day" (recently re-issued in a theatrical run); Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" and more. Source: blogs.indiewire.com

“No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way [Frank] Capra can - but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” —Pauline Kael

“I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” —Frank Capra

"The most important person in my life" (as Capra later described her) had come to the location to visit her best friend from college, Alyce Coleman, the wife of his assistant director, C. C. (Buddy) Coleman. "What a lovely voice!" he thought when Lu finally spoke to him. She had been sitting at his crowded dinner table for several nights without catching his eye. The Colemans maneuvered her closer to Capra one night after rushes, and he drove her back from San Diego to the hotel along the Silver Strand, a peninsula favored for nocturnal romantic occasions. As he recalled the moment in his book, at the door of her room, "I kissed her. I knew. She knew." Lucille Florence Warner was a bright enough young woman, though in the end her personal ambition went no further than a good marriage. She'd worked as a stenographer, as a clerk for UCLA, and as a secretary for a real estate man. Capra denied that Lu ever worked before he met her. "When I met her," he said, "she wasn't anything."

Capra expressed in "Forbidden" (1932) some aspects of his convoluted emotional life in the characters of a newspaperman (Ralph Bellamy) who wastes his life in devotion to Lulu and of the politician's crippled wife (Dorothy Peterson), whose name is Helen (a reference to Capra's first wife Helen Howell). 'Forbidden' was set to start filming in April 1931, shortly after the completion of 'The Miracle Woman.' Though Capra was in no way to blame for Stanwyck's accident during the filming, it cast a retrospective shadow for him, one of the reasons he disparaged 'Forbidden' in his book. He may have linked her accident in his mind, whether irrationally or not, with Stanwyck's final rejection of his marriage proposal.

Capra and Stanwyck were discreet about their affair, and they were never linked romantically in the increasingly frequent press reports of her marital problems. Capra wrote in his book 'The Name Above The Title': "I fell in love with Stanwyck, and had I not been more in love with Lucille Reyburn I would have asked Barbara to marry me after she called it quits with Frank Fay." But it was Stanwyck who rejected him. Stanwyck must have been shrewd enough to realize, even if Capra did not, that despite their satisfying working relationship, they would not have been compatible in marriage. She must have known that Capra needed a more placid woman, a woman who would stay home and raise children, a woman whose life would revolve around him —not a career woman. Lu knew nothing about his proposal to Stanwyck or Stanwyck's rejection. Capra married Lu on 25 November 1932. "I wasn't after dames. I wanted to make good pictures. That was the good thing about my wife: She helped me."

The Capras were one of the rare married couples in Hollywood about whom there never was any scandal. John Huston, who lived with Capra in London bachelor quarters during World War II, marveled that he was "the most devoted husband I've ever known. He adored Lu."

'Platinum Blonde' (1931) firmly established Jean Harlow's stardom, bringing out qualities of humor and relaxed sexiness that had not been evident in her previous appearances. Los Angeles Express noted that "Jean Harlow shows a marked improvement as an actress. Credit for this, I believe, should go to Director Frank Capra, who again proves his right to be named with the ten best megaphonists." The brilliance of Riskin's contribution and of Capra's direction elevated 'Platinum Blonde' from a formulaic comedy into a first-rate film, probably the most underrated of Capra's career. "Someone is going to evolve a great film out of the Depression," Capra told Variety's Ruth Morris in an interview on February 2, 1932, three months after the release of 'Platinum Blonde.' "Satirical treatment of a plutocrat, insanely trying to conserve wealth and rinding happiness only when he is reduced to a breadline, will strike a responsive note in the mass mind. When that picture is made, it will inaugurate the cycle that follows in the wake of any successful film." Capra also observed that (as Variety paraphrased it) such films were just waiting for a director "cagey enough to capitalize on the present state of public mind."

Some critics recognized that there were political ambiguities in Capra's films, that they were considerably more complex politically than just sentimental paeans to the "little guy." But even the most perceptive critics seemed to have a great deal of trouble coming to terms with his films' political implications. Donald Willis summarized the dizzying variety of critical viewpoints: "Depending on what Capra films one is talking about, Frank Capra is an advocate of Communism, fascism, Marxism, populism, conservatism, McCarthyism, New-Dealism, anti-Hooverism, jingoism, socialism, capitalism, middle-of-the-road-ism, democracy, or individualism." Willis simply threw up his hands: "It's no accident that there are so many interpretations of his films: the composite Capra that emerges from those films is almost impossible to pin down politically. I myself think that Capra's films were basically not political." "If you're a real artist, forget the politics," Capra urged young filmmakers at a Directors Guild seminar in 1981.

The enthusiasm and sincerity Capra brought to his direction of 'American Madness' (1932) tapped into unconscious reserves of goodwill that Capra could not allow himself to express in his off-screen politics and which reflected his belated, reluctant, but nevertheless strongly felt awareness that the country's economic system needed overhauling if the American Dream was to survive. It was a time when, in the words of the historian Arnold Toynbee, "men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of society might break down and cease to work."

Frank Capra, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable during the filming of "It Happened One Night" (1934)

Gable's Peter is exasperated by the snobbery of Colbert's Ellen Andrews and too intimidated by class barriers to make anything more than a tentative romantic move until her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) gives his approval. Burned before by his romantic view of women, he tries to protect himself emotionally by thinking of Ellie as "just a headline," a ticket back to his old job in New York. He spends most of the film criticizing her for her wealth and privilege (teaching her how to dunk doughnuts), but he also is criticizing himself for being attracted to someone from her class. And he is blind to the rebellious Ellie's true personality, which is closer to his feminine ideal ("somebody that's real —somebody that's alive") than he wants to admit. Capra saw Colbert's character as the personification of all the rich, "classy," stuck-up women who ever gave him the brush-off. "She wasn't looking for any man, she wasn't looking for any romance," said Capra, who renamed the character after one of the girls he knew when he was trying to crash Pasadena society, Ellen Andrews (in the story the character's name is Elspeth Andrews).

In 1934 Capra faced the prospect of a social message with great trepidation, for, as he told Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times shortly after he made 'Broadway Bill,' "People don't want to think." He worried that he would lose his audience, his money, and his newly achieved social status if he said too much in his films or if he said things the audience did not want to hear.

When Capra told Harry Cohn he wanted Jean Arthur for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), Cohn, according to both Capra and Arthur, scoffed that Arthur was a has-been. But, as Stanwyck had before, Arthur bloomed under Capra's firm but quiet authority, becoming a major star as she released previously untapped qualities in her personality, qualities best described by the other of her two favorite directors, George Stevens ('The More the Merrier' and 'Shane'):

"Jean Arthur was terribly vulnerable and exposed even under the most ordinary of circumstances, even if she had to stick her hand out into traffic to make a left-hand turn." She became Capra's quintessential leading lady, appearing in three of his last four Columbia films, 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'You Can't Take It With You,' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'

"Kick her in the ass!" Capra laughed when asked how to direct Jean Arthur. "She's a funny combination of things. You can't get her out of the dressing room without using force. You can't get her in front of the camera without her crying, whining, vomiting, all that shit she does. But then when she does get in front of a camera, and you turn on the lights — wow! All of that disappears and out comes a strong-minded woman. Then when she finishes the scene, she runs back to the dressing room and hides."

"Meet John Doe" (1941) finds Capra critically examining his own role as a manipulator of the mass audience and the interplay between sincerity and cynicism in his own feelings toward the public. As Charles J. Maland observed, "Doe's picture appears on the cover of Time, just as Capra's had in 1938. Both were getting recognition, and both wondered if they deserved it. When Doe tells Ann in the airport waiting room that he's beginning to see the true meaning of the platitudes he had heard for years and been spouting for weeks, one senses that Capra is also speaking. Yet Capra, like Doe, seems to be torn: who is he (the Sicilian immigrant, the ex-ballplayer) to be a national spokesman of values, communicating to millions through the media?" Underlying those doubts was Capra's fear that he was an "impostor," as the voice of an anonymous member of the public calls John Doe, and the fear that he would be exposed before his audience and vilified by them, as happens to John Doe in the rain-drenched convention sequence, one of Capra's most powerful visions of American madness. No other sequence in Capra's work more clearly reveals his latent fear of the "common man" and his awareness of how easily the public can be manipulated by the media, including the cinema itself.

"I never cease to thrill at an audience seeing a picture," Capra told Geoffrey Hellman shortly before making 'Meet John Doe.' "For two hours you've got 'em. Hitler can't keep 'em that long. You eventually reach even more people than Roosevelt does on the radio. Imagine what Shakespeare would have given for an audience like that!" It is Capra's awareness of the fragility of his hold over his audience, and his doubts about his own worthiness for such an important role, that give the convention scene its extraordinary tension.

The temptation to suicide is a major theme of Capra's work. The heroes of two of his most personal (and least commercially successful) films before 'Meet John Doe'—'The Way of the Strong' and 'The Bitter Tea of General Yen' —actually do commit suicide. Failed suicide attempts figure in several other Capra films, and almost every Capra film takes its central character on violent mood swings between elation and despair before reaching its fragile happy ending. At his best, as Fran├žois Truffaut put it, Capra was "a navigator who knew how to steer his characters into the deepest dimensions of desperate human situations (I have often wept during the tragic moments of Capra's comedies) before he reestablished a balance and brought off the miracle that let us leave the theater with a renewed confidence in life." Capra's supposed optimism was a cover for his more fundamental pessimism, and his happy endings which seem tacked on, as in 'Meet John Doe,' represent an inability to reestablish the emotional balance.

In later years, Capra flip-flopped between defending and regretting his choice of endings. Commercial considerations undoubtedly contributed as much as religious scruples to his ambivalence about the suicide in 1941, particularly since the film was his first independent production and his own money was on the line for the first time. Even though he claimed that his primary motive for choosing the story was "to convince important critics that not every Capra film was written by Pollyanna," he ultimately backed away from the darker implications of his chosen theme, laying off much of the blame on his public. "The audience told us" that they didn't like the suicide. "You can't kill Gary Cooper," Capra rationalized.

Capra never was attacked by name in those [HUAC] hearings. In fact, it was remarkable how rarely his name was mentioned, since such criticism could have been construed as referring to his prewar films and since even "It's a Wonderful Life" came under suspicion in that atmosphere. "Frank Capra—Is He Un-American?" asked the British Communist paper the Daily Worker on April 5 in the headline over its favorable review of Wonderful Life. Calling it "one of those thought-timulating films which Hollywood produces so rarely these days," John Ross wrote that "the hunt for dollars is again the target of Capra's attack. . . The un-American Committee of the House of Representatives will probably denounce it as Bolshevik propaganda.

The extent of Capra's identification with George Bailey would have astonished those who knew him only through his successful public image and did not know that as he prepared his postwar comeback film he felt "a loneliness that was laced by the fear of failure." In lines he wrote for the film but did not use, Capra had George say after jumping into the river, "I was a 4-F. In my case it didn't stand for Four Freedoms, it meant Four Failures. Failure as a husband, father, businessman—failure as a human being." The fundamental pessimism that counterbalanced the superficial optimism of his prewar films had been brought dangerously to the surface during the war years, triggering Capra's awareness of the fragility of his art and the hollowness of his personal beliefs. Like his surrogate on screen, George Bailey, he was undergoing a secret metaphysical crisis, wondering whether he "had put too much faith in the human race."
Capra and George Bailey share some profound biographical characteristics—their equation of lack of money with desperation and shame, their conflict between a yearning for financial comfort and a desire to serve the community, their thwarted technological ambitions, the fateful roles of their fathers' deaths in deciding their careers, the calming and conservative influences of their wives, their frustration over having to stay in their hometowns during World War II, their terror of anonymity, and, underlying everything, their doubting of their own worth and their temptation to suicide. As critic Stephen Handzo wrote, "One can find the wild oscillations of euphoria and despair of Capra's films in his own life. . . Violent shifts of mood give his films the sense of life being lived." Never was that truth more evident than in "It's A Wonderful Life." -"Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success" (2011) by Joseph McBride