The Cinema of Capra, Part 3: Guts & Stardust
Charissa Fenton | On May 30, 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 third in a series of three essays exploring the work of classic director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
“…it’s not my job to preach a sermon. Art is anyhow a homily. My job is to speak in living images, not in arguments. I must exhibit life full-face, not discuss life.”
— Nikolai Gogol
Art is a homily, or at least it can be for the artist who strives to show truth, goodness, and beauty in his work. In our modern world, where Christian films are often stereotyped and written off as preachy, sentimental, unrealistic, and corny it might be a good idea to take a look back at a man whose films were nicknamed “Capracorn” for some of the very same reasons. In spite of this, Frank Capra is considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. Through his art we can see a strong homily of living images full of humanity. A “divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust” as Capra himself would say. Frank Capra set a standard for Christian entertainment with stories that illustrate biblical values played out in the everyday lives of regular people.
Capra himself was a Catholic from an Italian immigrant family. In the early days of his career he describes himself as a “Christmas Catholic” only attending church once a year. Yet the values of Christianity were always very dear to him. Throughout the 1920s and 30s he was always reaching for the top of the ladder of success. In his autobiography The Name Above the Title he describes his obsession with winning an Oscar during those early years of the Academy. When It Happened One Night unexpectedly swept the Oscars with five wins including Best Picture and Best Director, he should have been ecstatic. He was, but at the same time he began to doubt himself. Was the picture only a fluke? Had he reached his peak? Should he stop now while he was ahead? After a long stress-induced illness, Capra describes a strange encounter with a “little faceless man” introduced to him by his friend Max Winslow. The little man told him, “You, sir, you can talk to hundreds of millions for two hours — and in the dark. The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gift to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with — you are an offense to God — and humanity.”
This incident shook Capra out of his depression, yet he still hadn’t figured out what he needed to do. One night he confided to his friend Myles Connolly, “directors have the power to speak to hundreds of millions for two hours, and in the dark. Okay. But this director doesn’t know what the hell to say. Am I going to give up entertainment and bore people stiff with ‘message’ films? You know what Howard Hughes said: ‘When I want to send a message I use Western Union.’ Well, what am I supposed to preach for two hours and in the dark?” Connolly advised him that there was something inside of him aching to get out. “Let it out,” he said, “not as preachment, you fool, but as entertainment.” From there Capra went on to make some of his most beloved films, films that contain strong messages yet still hold up as entertainment.
Early seeds of the messages most important to him can be found in many of his films before this incident. American Madness, for example, can be considered the forerunner to films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it a beloved and respectable banker is brought to the brink of suicide when there is a run on the bank. While the big men with big pockets won’t lend him a dime, his faithful clerk is able to round up many friends and customers who are willing to stake what little money they have on his character to save the bank. Capra writes, “How powerful is the quality of honesty! Honest men, of any color or tongue, are trusted and loved. They attract others like magnets attract iron fillings. An honest man carries with him his own aura, crown, army, wealth, happiness, and social standing. He carries them all in the noblest of all titles: an honest man.”
Capra’s compelling “honest men” differ strongly from both cardboard “good guy” heroes (infallible men in white hats), and from the ever popular non-hero or anti-hero of modern day. Whether it’s Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, or George Bailey, Capra films deliver heroes that are both idealizations and incredibly real. These are not supermen, they are regular guys full of humor, dreams, and plain every day common sense. These are the best of the people we know, and yet they are still the people we know. At the very least they are the people we want to know, and for two hours in the dark we can get to know them better and hope that maybe someday we can be like them.
Even when Capra does stray from his honest man archetype in Meet John Doe, the concept is still intrinsic to the film. Long John Willoughby starts out as a non-hero, a man who is not so concerned with honesty that he won’t play along with the newspaper’s charade for a price. And yet, the John Doe that he pretends to be becomes more than just a facade. It becomes his own ideal for himself. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity of someone “who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for years. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.” This mask is a person “dressing up as Christ.” They pretend to be something greater than themselves and in the process become the thing they pretended to be.
Each of Capra’s heroes must face not only powerful villains and overwhelming odds, but also a period of self-doubt. A strong criticism of mainstream Christianity itself in recent years has been its preoccupation with portraying a life with Christ as a life free from strife. From an advertising standpoint, this seems like a nice idea. Come to Christ and all of your troubles will be taken away. But Christ himself never promised any such thing. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).
Mr. Deeds tries to use his fortune to help his fellow man and he is slapped with a lawsuit challenging his fitness of mind. Mr. Smith tries to speak out against corruption in the government he loves, and is nearly slandered into silence. John Willoughby and George Bailey are both driven to the brink of suicide. Their self-doubt and despair is so tangible and understandable after every beautiful ideal is crushed into dust. Even those strong men who fight the good fight can’t do it on their own.
In the end, the eucatastrophe of each great Capra film comes back to one simple rule, “Love thy neighbor.” Imbued in each of these films is not only the ideal of the honest man, but the ideal of a loving community. By setting up a groundwork of loving their neighbors, the heroes are always rescued by a return of that love. The community aspect comes from Capra’s own love of people. He populates his films with interesting faces and interesting moments. Little character “bits” build up a rapport between the audience and the world of the story. No role is too small in a Capra film. He’s too busy making each person valuable. “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each other,” Capra says.
While the name of Jesus or the Gospel message are not usually mentioned explicitly in Frank Capra’s films, his stories and characters stand as living testimonies of a life lived right. Jesus said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43–44). So it is with Capra characters. Through honesty, decency, courage, and love they show us a world where virtue always triumphs in the end. And Capra does all of this while entertaining us for two hours in the dark. The key is that divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust.