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Frank Capra: No Man Is A Failure Who Has Friends
by Amanda Knoss

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A memorable film reminding us of the value of family at Christmas.

A memorable film reminding us of the value of family at Christmas.
It was a time of political unease. Of an onslaught of Depression, of poverty and of swing. Of accusations of isolationism, and of unity. The world's eye was on everyone, and all eyes were on the world.

The thirties and forties were a revolutionary era. It birthed a global awareness in those who were, up until that time, unknowledgeable in the affairs of other countries. Between the Depression and World War II, the times were hard on nearly everyone.

But you would never know it while watching the majority of popular films from the day. The indulgence of Hollywood and its productions was an excellent way for people to escape their own troubles.

And if there were one man who epitomized this type of recluse in that era, it would be Frank Capra.

Esteemed director, writer, and producer, Capra easily became a familiar face to the American public and was well-known for bringing a warm light to the big screen when a dark nation needed it the most.

Born in 1897 in Sicily, Italy, he moved to America with his family in 1903. He became interested in theatre in high school, and then in writing while attending the California Institute of Technology (then called the Throop College of Technology.) During World War I he enlisted in the army, something that no doubt also influenced his future career.

Capra's films ranged from humorous and light-hearted, to deeply emotional and heart-warming. When he wanted funny and a swift dialogue to get across, he was the person to pull it off. But when he wanted to push American ideals, he could
Homer and Mel rewrote an almost preferable ending to MR. SMITH.

Homer and Mel rewrote an almost preferable ending to MR. SMITH.
pull at heart-strings like no other.

Slapstick comedy was quite popular at the time. There was nothing like walking into a theatre and leaving with a big smile on your face. Films with a fast pace, fun adventure and quick wit were a great way to forget one's woes. Some of Capra's movies were no exception to this rule.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was released in 1934, right in the thick of tough times. It starred a pre-GONE WITH THE WIND Clark Gable, who was surprisingly funny when compared to the gambling Rhett Butler. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is a delightful film about Ellie Andrews, the runaway daughter of a wealthy socialite and her encounter – at first coincidental, and then romantic – with journalist Peter Warne. The pair flee recognition while attempting to succeed in separate goals—Andrews to marry a man her father disapproves of, and Warne to follow her on the story of a lifetime. In the end, their experiences cause them to fall in love with each other.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is probably one of my favorite films of all times. Based on the play by Joseph Kesselring, this hilarious and morbid tale centers around Cary Grant's portrayal of unlucky Mortimer Brewster, his newlywed wife, his murderous kindly old aunts, his nutty cousin who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, his long-lost serial-killing brother (don't tell him he looks like Boris Karloff,) and a plot to keep the cops out of the loop and somehow save the day. It's a wonderful combination of thrills and comedy, and a highly recommended watch.

During the era before and during

World War Two, Capra's films also promoted unity with one's fellow man, kindness towards others, and of course, living life to the fullest. A recurring theme in his movies was simplicity versus the chaotic, or the little guy versus the big bad world. Several films come to mind when discussing this sort of feel.

One of Capra's first films to display this flavour was MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. In this tale we meet Longfellow Deeds, a fun-loving, simple man from a small town, played by Gary Cooper. Deeds inherits a large fortune and is pitted against the greed and ruthlessness of some big city dwellers. In the end, he manages to keep his happy innocence and even get the girl. This film, of course, was remade into the version that we all know today, with Adam Sandler playing Deeds.

In MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, we meet another fellow of this sort—the naďve and lovable Smith played by James Stewart, who is also from a small town and is ignorant to the cruelties that await him in big city life. Smith takes on the politically corrupt when voted in as a governor to be the patsy of others. Stewart's charm proves to provide a brilliant forefront to the heartwarming ideals that his character, and Capra, presented.

Then came along MEET JOHN DOE. In this story, a desperate Gary Cooper takes on the role of fictitious John Doe, a man created by reporter Ann Mitchell in her attempt at contempt upon losing her job thanks to corporate-run society. The facade, originally to sell newspapers, ends up uniting communities and bringing strangers
One of the world's greatest directors.

One of the world's greatest directors.
together. It taught the value of kindness in the face of adversity.

If you've heard of or seen any Capra movie, it would probably have been 1946's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It was based on the short story "The Greatest Gift," by Philip Van Doren Stern. This classic Christmas movie brought good will, warm feelings and the importance of community to the forefront, and is still seasonally enjoyed by families in front of the television to this day. Starring the enigmatic James Stewart, the film tells the story of a man who dedicates his all to helping others, only to have his life fall apart in a single day. WONDERFUL LIFE was also co-written by Capra.

During the World War II, Capra was faced with a daunting political challenge of his own. He was commissioned to direct a series of propaganda films to promote enlistment, explain government policy on the war overseas, and generate general patriotism. The series was called WHY WE FIGHT, and Capra directed seven of these movies. He was a major in the US Army Signal Corps at the time.

It is no doubt that Frank Capra made a huge impact on Hollywood in the thirties and forties. His films often starred favorite names and brought a charming presence to the screen. He seemed to believe in strength over adversity, as seen through his dramas, his propaganda, and even his comedies. He held high ideals for his country and community, and whether his goal was to make you laugh or to bring a tear to your eye, his ultimate end game was to tell a great tale.

Frank Capra, in fact, told some of the best tales around.

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Mar 24, 2009 5:36 PM
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ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is one of my favorite movies, too!
May 12, 2009 11:27 AM
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I just missed it in live theater here last year and was SO disappointed. I'd kill to see it live!

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Other columns by Amanda Knoss:

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Amanda Knoss
If there's something Amanda can't commit to, it's a single taste in films. She believes that Walmart, Starbucks and a certain super-power government are going to clan together to take over the world. Either that, or she's over-caffeinated again.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Amanda Knoss by clicking here.

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