The Cinema of Capra, Part 2: Glimpses of Paradise
Charissa Fenton | On May 22, 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).
In 1937 Frank Capra made his most expensive feature film to that date, the $2 million extravagant production of Lost Horizon. A year later he returned to a more modest production with You Can’t Take it With You. While the two films could not be more different with setting and atmosphere they have one very prominent feature in common. Both films portray a sort of paradise on earth, Lost Horizon with the mysterious hidden city of Shangri-La and You Can’t Take it With You in the modest but happy home of the Vanderhof family. Yet while they both come from the same director and convey a similar theme, these two movies are actually perfect illustrations for the contrasting ideas of Utopia and Eutopia.
How are Utopia and Eutopia contrasting ideas? Utopia literally means “No Place.” It is a play on the word Eutopia which means “Good Place.” Sir Thomas Moore coined the term with his satirical novel Utopia to convey the idea that this perfect society is purely imaginary. It does not, nor can it actually exist on this earth.
Lost Horizon demonstrates a utopia. In the film we are taken (literally kidnapped) to the beautiful and remote paradise of Shangri-la. Throughout the film it remains just that; beautiful but remote. They describe to us the happy lives of the people who live there, but other than some very typical illustrations of a decently happy village, we don’t really see the paradise they talk about. What we do see for the majority of the film are some very unhappy travelers trapped in an eerie palace. The hero Robert Conway (Ronald Coleman) is the only one who really enjoys himself from the very first.
There is a very illuminating scene between Conway and Chang (H.B. Warner), the High Lama’s emissary, where Chang straight out describes the philosophy behind this Utopia. “To put it simply I should say that our general belief was in moderation. We preach ￼the virtue of avoiding excesses of every kind. Even including excess of virtue itself. We find in the valley it makes for great happiness among the natives. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. As for the result, our people are moderately honest, moderately chaste, and somewhat more than moderately happy.”
Further on, Conway asks about crime in the community. “We have no crime here.” Chang responds. “What makes a criminal? Lack, usually. Avariciousness. Envy. The desire to possess something owned by another. There can be no crime where there is a sufficiency of everything.” This line betrays the author’s worldview. If evil is solely a matter of environment, then Shangri-la is a possibility. If it is simply a matter of all people having exactly what they need, and following a general philosophy of moderation in all things, then this Utopia would cease to be “no place” and become a real possibility. But coming from a worldview of original sin where all human beings have born in them a predisposition to sin, the whole idea of Shangri-la falls apart. It fades into a nice idea, just a pleasant dream. When sin is in the picture all Eutopias fade away into Utopias before eventually devolving into Dystopias.
However, there was a glimpse in history, a memory in the subconscious psyche of humanity, of such a place where sin did not interfere: The Garden of Eden. That was the true Eutopia. In that pre-sin place, every kind of harmony could be found. Harmony between Man and Woman, harmony between human and beast, harmony between humans and creation, and above all, harmony between humanity and God. The fall of mankind brought all of this harmony into discord. Ever since then we have longed to experience that perfect harmony once more, but must be satisfied with small glimpses of it amidst the cacophonous noise of sin.
Lost Horizon dreams of a return to Eden, but You Can’t Take it With You shows how that return is made possible through the redeeming power of Christ and those who follow his ￼teachings. “Love thy neighbor” is the rule of living that runs through You Can’t Take it With You. While Lost Horizon talks of such kindness and love, You Can’t Take it With You shows it in the character of Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Here is a man who takes the Sermon on the Mount seriously, and even though we are only given a small glimpse into his world, we can see his fingerprints on every life he has touched.
From the very first moment we meet him, he brings joy to others by taking an interest in their lives. Mr. Poppins is a background person, easily ignored, and yet Grandpa goes straight to him and asks, “Do you like this work you’re doing?” He brings out of Mr. Poppins the Overworked Clerk, Mr. Poppins the Toymaker.
Grandpa Vanderhof opens up his home to this total stranger. In the Vanderhof home we find a “good place”, a Eutopia. There everyone works, but because Grandpa has taken away the stress and worry over “what shall we eat” and “where shall we sleep” by giving them a place in his house, they can focus on doing the things they really like to do. The atmosphere is so pleasant and fun. The people are allowed to be themselves. Yet none of it would work without Grandpa and the warm loving influence he has over all of them.
“What the world’s churches were preaching to apathetic congregations,” Frank Capra writes in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, “my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to movie audiences, if—it could prove, in theatrical conflict, that Christ’s spiritual law can be the most powerful sustaining force in anyone’s life.”
When the antagonist, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) declares himself better than all the other people in the room and lashes out with insults, Grandpa has the guts to stand up to him. If that were all, that would still be a pretty great scene, but it doesn’t end there. Immediately after losing his temper, Grandpa apologizes for himself and extends to this pompous and odious man the same love and charity he extends to everyone. He treats him as a neighbor, in the best possible way. He thinks of what Mr. Kirby might like and makes a gift to him on the spot of his brand new harmonica. This small act of kindness plants the seed that leads to Mr. Kirby’s change and redemption.
While Lost Horizon speaks of “the Christian ethic,” You Can’t Take it With You shows it. It is in loving others with the selfless love of charity that we find the Garden of Eden broken free of its confines in dreams and book and set loose to transform the world.