There’s no denying that the year 2020 was a fallow period for my blogging efforts. A set of new routines brought on by both personal and global events made it difficult to sit down and write regularly (or, more aptly, made it easy to avoid writing). Completing another of my annual film retrospectives seemed like a great way to get back into the swing of things. These being unprecedented times, though, that plan hit a snag. Many of Frank Capra’s movies can be found either online or in libraries, but as of last fall there were a few exceptions that sent me to some specialty retailers on the internet. Nobody forced me to take this step. Instead of 44 movies, I could have settled for the nice round number of 40. But I got greedy, and it seemed to work out. Two movies were successfully shipped to me on DVD, and the other was sent as a link for a file download. That left only one movie, the now-infamous (to me) Submarine from 1928, which I ordered in mid-November and still has not arrived. Its tardiness forced me to delay the retrospective, first a week, then another month-and-a-half before I finally conceded defeat and skipped ahead to the post-Submarine movies. In the meantime, I ordered the elusive movie from two other sellers (I’ve been throwing around my Biden money like an absolute maniac). One of them actually delivered a DVD to me, but it included only an excerpt of the film along with some other submarine footage from the period. This was very cool, but not quite what I needed. I resigned myself to never seeing the movie in its entirety, but the saga came to an anticlimactic end when I found out a couple weeks ago that someone had recently put it on YouTube. So now I’ve seen it, and it was fine.
Pardon that digression, but I had to get something on the page after three full months of nothing here.
Seeing so many of Capra’s movies (mostly) in order was every bit the richly rewarding experience I’d hoped it would be. Only very rarely does he dip into the saccharine pedagogy of which he’s sometimes accused. His darkest movies have hope, and his lightest frolics have an edge. Even You Can’t Take It with You, which at this moment is my least favorite of his fiction films, has a resonant scene toward the end between Jimmy Stewart and Edward Arnold (playing his father), not to mention several quirky details that would later be borrowed for a movie I enjoy a lot more, Disney’s Mary Poppins. Fathers, some of whom have passed away (as Capra’s did when he was away in college), are crucial figures in many of the films, with the main characters working either to preserve and honor their legacies or to break free of their influence (and sometimes both). This relationship comes into play in Capra’s romances, pretty much all of which are between characters from different social classes and incomes: one of the romantic partners (usually the man) comes from wealth, but he’s a scion, not a magnate, so he’s open to exploring a different way of living. The Cinderella template is all over these movies, for that is the essence of the American Dream; namely, the dissolution of all classes, a new society in which the old rules needn’t apply, in which anyone can be anything. Capra is a champion of self-determination, but he doesn’t ignore the ways that American life can sometimes contradict these ideals. Politics is certainly an element in his filmography. The films have things to say about government, journalism, banking and business. But the personal stories are the heart of them. A running theme in both of Capra’s movies with Gary Cooper, and in American Madness with Walter Huston before them, is that the men at their center can withstand the opposition of seemingly the whole world with a smile on their faces, but they sink into despair when they learn that the women they love have lied to them. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a slight variation on the theme. The betrayal that breaks him is that of his surrogate father figure, Senator Paine (Claude Rains).
There’s much more to say. I’m currently reading and enjoying Ray Carney’s book, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, which helped me put into words some of the above paragraph. (Since I haven’t finished the book, please bear with me if I’m misapprehending some of his points.) But for now, a mere four months after I announced this retrospective, I am happy to present my top ten, half of which is filled with movies I’d never seen before the year 2021. Included are links to my Letterboxd reviews and a few additional thoughts. Also, here’s another video montage I made, having worked myself to exhaustion over the past week for your entertainment and edification (please clap).
I’ve also written about this one here on the blog. I haven’t turned on it yet, though I evidently have wanted to for some time!
On the other hand, this movie leapfrogged ahead of Arsenic a few days after I watched it. What made me come around is the realization that it’s a story with two protagonists, elevating it in my mind past being just another movie with Gary Cooper being stoic. The movie also opens with a newspaper being purchased by a media mogul who wants to control its content and has many of its employees fired. That might still be relevant today; I’m not sure.
As I wrote back in December, I held out hope that I’d find value in the Why We Fight series, but I got swept up in their narrative a lot more than I thought I would. The internal trilogy (The Battle of Britain, The Battle of Russia and The Battle of China) is easily the most compelling part: three beleaguered nations doing everything they can to survive a seemingly endless onslaught.
A prototypical Capra yarn of Principles vs. Profits, mob mentality, and grace under pressure. Gavin Gordon’s eyebrows are very strange, though. They look the same in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, so they’re not meant to make him look sinister. Just very strange.
It’s not quite Capra’s La Belle Noiseuse, but it’s still a great story about a painter and the subject of his artistic, and then personal, fascination. The climax makes my pulse race more than any other in Capra’s filmography, with the possible exception of the literal horse race in Broadway Bill.
Capra’s Pre-Code films did not disappoint. Seeing Barbara Stanwyck lash out at an unfeeling world in film after film was a true highlight of my experience. This one has surprise ventriloquism! (Not by her, though)
The top three was basically untouchable, as it turned out: the three Capra movies I saw first, long ago, still tower above the rest. This one is probably the most “perfect,” if also the least affecting for me personally. “You’re beautiful! All women are beautiful!”
There was a time when this was neck-and-neck with It’s a Wonderful Life for me. My first exposure to the hoarse, pitiable agony of its finale was a major moment. Thankfully, the rest of the movie holds up exceptionally well, too. Capra’s depictions of journalists aren’t always great, but having a group of smart aleck reporters be the ones to send Jefferson Smith on his hero’s journey makes up for a lot.