The Cinema of Capra, Part 1: Pride & Humility
Charissa Fenton | On May 16, 2015
As a part of our Media Studies classes, students write essays exploring the work of great filmmakers. This article, by Cinema & New Media Arts student Charissa Fenton, is the second in a series of three essays exploring the work of classic director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” This excerpt from the book of James could very well describe any Frank Capra movie. Humility is a strong theme running through the moral center of each of his films.
Capra’s own life story recalls the many times he himself was humbled. Growing up as a poor immigrant, he determined at a young age that an education was the way out of poverty. He worked hard to get the money for school and eventually graduated with a degree in Engineering from Caltech. Now, he thought, people would be falling over themselves to give him a job. With the drop out of the economy after the first world war, that wasn’t so much the case. Battling the scorn of his family and neighbors, fighting for any work he could get, and dropping in and out of sickness, his proud heart was brought low. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, we get a picture of how time and again he is knocked down, even in the midst of his ascent as a great film maker.
His philosophy on comedy reveals a microcosm of the school of humility. “There[’s] a conspiracy among ‘non-human’ things to frustrate the high and mighty humans, especially the mean and underserving ones.” This is what Frank Capra’s college english professor called, “The Intransigence of Inanimate Objects.” A collar button always rolls under the bureau; if you’ve got two keys, you always try the wrong one first; and it always rains when you forget your umbrella. In contrast, these inanimate objects also recognize qualities of innocence. “That’s why … untrusting persons are more accident prone than the trusting. That’s why mules balk for some and not others, or why water buffalos charge men on sight yet allow little children to play on their backs, and why Daniel in the lions’ den remained unmolested.” This idea was the basis for many of Frank Capra’s film scenarios. It’s almost a philosophy on life that runs like a silver thread through big places and small in all of Capra’s pictures.
￼Capra got his start in the movie business crafting gags for silent film comedians. Working with small-time vaudevillian actor Harry Langdon, we get our first glimpse of how Capra’s philosophy would stretch out beyond the confines of the gag and into the very nature of a character. Although the studio head saw potential in Langdon, others did not. It was only when Capra came up with the idea that Langdon become an innocent, a good soldier, a little elf who gets out of scrapes with the help of God, did the character come to life.
The philosophy was there. An object will “frustrate the high and mighty humans, … the mean and undeserving.” The flip side of that is a good and innocent human that bumbles in and out of situations unaware of the providential help he gets. It was a delicate balance to get the idea to work, and when it did it was gold. Sadly, Harry Langdon himself didn’t understand the true nature of his character. He fell victim to pride, fame went to his head, and Capra ended up out on his ear once more.
Several years, and several films later we find Capra approaching pride in a different way. Lady for a Day is about a lie for the sake of pride. Apple Annie (May Robson) lies to her daughter, telling her that she is a rich society woman instead of a poor apple seller. It’s a lie for pride, but not so much Annie’s pride as the pride she wants her daughter to have. This is pride as an opposite to shame. Apple Annie is humbled fairly early on because she knows she will never be able to keep up the ruse when her daughter comes to visit. Annie’s lie, and subsequent threat of exposure, allows gangster Dave the Dude (Warren William) to show his true character. At constant risk of losing his own reputation, Dave helps Apple Annie out. Maybe it’s only to ensure he keeps getting good luck apples from her. That might be the case at first, but we watch as he is swept up into this whole idea. Despite a tough gangster exterior, he’s really a softy at heart.
Dave has two significant ways in which he is humbled. First there is the slow stripping ￼away of his pride in front of his men. Every time an obstacle comes up, Dave must shed a layer of the pretense of indifference. He is determined to make this happen more and more. Dave’s greatest moment of humbling comes when he is taken in by the police for suspicious activity. Little do they know how truly honest his deception really is. And so, biting back his pride, the big tough gangster must explain the fairytale of Apple Annie and his part in it, not only to the police but the mayor and even the governor.
In a sense, the ending of this movie follows a line of The Intransigence of Inanimate Objects. While Dave must be humbled, and Annie must be humbled, Annie’s daughter Louise is innocent. The eucatastrophic ending of the real high society people showing up to Annie’s party is not so much for her benefit as it is for her daughter’s. The high and mighty humans are humbled, but the innocent (Louise and her fiancé Carlos) are protected by providence.
This idea of the proud being humbled works exceptionally well in Capra’s hit classic It Happened One Night. It is essentially a battle between two egos whittling each other down. Socialite Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who marries King Westley simply to spite her father. Reporter Peter (Clark Gable) is no better in the department of ego, though he comes from the lower class. Our introduction to him involves him sticking it to his boss over the phone while a bunch of his drinking buddies crowd around. His boss fires him, but to keep his pride intact in front of his friends, he pretends to continue the conversation with the dead line declaring he wouldn’t keep the job if his boss begged him.
When they meet, our two protagonists parry and thwack at each other, each delivering blows that bring the other down to size. Even the ending confusion stems from pride. Ellie actually humbles herself by offering her love to Peter. He takes too long figuring out what she’s saying and what it means. This is such a break from their usual banter, we can hardly blame him for not recognizing her genuineness at first.
But now Peter has his own pride. He can’t accept her love until he has a little money in his pocket. If he had just said something to her before he left, everything would have been fine. But no, he had to go and make it a surprise. She’s hurt and thinks he’s abandoned her, then he’s hurt and thinks she abandoned him. In the end the misunderstanding is resolved but not until after both characters have had to chew on their pride for a little bit.
It may have started out as a formula for silly gags, but the idea of humanity’s need to be humbled sticks around in Capra films. It works because humans are quickest to see the fault of pride in others, but slowest to see it in themselves. We take great delight in watching the mighty fall, but with Capra we are also given the opportunity to see a little of that fault in ourselves. In the end it doesn’t matter if we’re humbled by inanimate objects, other people, or ourselves because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”