Frank Capra

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success is sure to disturb the Capra cult that chooses to valorize Capra as the embodiment of the American success story, an immigrant artist who surely must have shared the innocence, goodness, and humane virtues of the screen heroes who populate his best films, a man who symbolized the best qualities that American culture produced during the twentieth century. The book begins with a bitter and negative account of Capra’s return visit to his birthplace in Sicily in 1977, to a town he no longer remembered, to see relatives for whom he had no feelings, nearly declining an invitation to a dinner in his honor organized by his nephew, and finally spending only an hour in the company of kinsmen who had looked forward to his arrival.

This book is iconoclastic in the truest sense of the word. It fractures and attempts to demolish the image of Frank Capra that the director had so carefully cultivated during the years following a long and productive Hollywood career as not only a great director, whose films seemed to capture the best values that American society had to offer, but also as a “great guy.” The autobiography (described by one reviewer as “autohagiography”) Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title, published by Macmillan in 1971, was the stuff of legends. In fabricating the Capra myth, the director tended to slight the contributions of the many collaborators who had worked with him, according to McBride, who went out of his way to interview as many of those collaborators as possible. On the other hand, Capra’s book (written with Eugene Vale, whose contribution the director also slighted after the book was published) helped to remind readers of a wonderful body of cinema that had been neglected during the period of Capra’s decline after World War II, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which was not a box-office success, later came to be considered “the quintessential Christmas movie,” though McBride calls it “essentially reactionary” and suggests that it later became popular because it was “the perfect film for the Reagan era.”

McBride’s book weighs in at 768 pages, answering Capra’s book, which ran to 513 pages. McBride contends that Capra’s book was more mythic than factual. It was produced with the help of others who were allowed to share neither the credit nor the glory. Chet Stricht retyped and corrected the manuscript, for example, but within three years of the book’s publication, Stricht was let go “on six weeks notice after thirty-nine years of loyal service.” Capra’s book was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, read by thousands and generally taken as factual. McBride’s unauthorized biography tells a truer story, based in fact and unadorned by mythic embellishment. Only a fraction of those who read Capra’s book will read McBride’s, good as it is, so the legend is likely to survive.

Joseph McBride is a working journalist and film critic who has written substantially on several of America’s greatest film directors, including books on Orson Welles, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. As a reporter for Daily Variety, he has covered Los Angeles as an industry insider for twenty years. He first began having doubts about the “real” Frank Capra when he was assigned to write the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tribute to Capra in 1981. Research on his Capra book began in earnest in 1984, and it took the author seven years to sort out the conflicting evidence produced by that research. Hundreds of people are cited and named in his “Acknowledgments,” not only Hollywood figures but also Capra’s classmates and dozens of family members no one else had bothered to contact. McBride’s methods and thoroughness seem downright compulsive, and the “truth” he unearthed may seem distasteful to some.

Although McBride offers a major and substantial reevaluation of Capra’s career, there can be no doubt that Frank Capra was a major director. His career flourished during the 1930’s, when he was the top talent at Columbia Studios and seemed to encompass the spirit of the times. Even so, the success of Capra’s Columbia pictures resulted from a fruitful collaboration with gifted screenwriters, particularly Robert Riskin, who worked successfully with Capra during the 1930’s, even though the two men shared very different sensibilities and political attitudes. This situation recalls the reevaluation of Orson Welles and his collaboration with Herman Mankiewicz on the classic Citizen Kane (1941), debated during the 1970’s by Pauline Kael, defending Mankiewicz, and Peter Bogdanovich, who championed Welles. McBride argues that films that are now considered “Capraesque” could just as easily and as accurately be called “Riskinesque.” He also asserts that neither Capra nor Riskin worked as well separately as they did together.

Another less savory issue concerns the man behind the artist. After Alfred Hitchcock’s death in 1980, Donald Spoto raised disturbing questions about the director’s character in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1984) and then offered more astonishing revelations in Laurence Olivier: A Biography (1992). Unlike Spoto, McBride is not simply selling sensationalism and smut,...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)