Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hollywood Directors Go To War

The restored and remastered edition of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE now gets an annual network prime time airing at Christmastime.  As well, it should.  The story of George Bailey, as played by James Stewart, is as popular and probably as beloved a yuletide tale as Charles Dickens' story of Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  Did you know that, in a big way, Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE was the director's response to having fought the massive Nazi horrors of World War 2?  To get the whole compelling and truly awesome story, go to Netflix and watch the documentary FIVE CAME BACK narrated by Meryl Streep.  The five are noted Hollywood directors, the makers of Hollywood movies now considered classics -- George Stevens, William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE director Frank Capra.
Today, on television, we live in a 24 hour news cycle.  Back in the 1930s, there was no television.  Americans listened to the radio daily and went to the movies at least once a week.  At the movies was where folks in the U.S. got short visual reports of news in the form of newsreels that played before the movie. Today, we know the monstrous and systematic evil of Hitler's Nazi regime.  In the late 1930s, when Hitler was devouring Europe, killing Jews and setting his demonic sights on England, Americans were not seeing the whole picture of this wickedness.  There was a strong Isolationist movement in the country at the time.  Some U.S. politicians and even celebrated American aviator Charles Lindbergh felt that we shouldn't get involved.  Hollywood was not truthfully reflecting the overseas darkness from Germany and Japan.  The Isolationists criticized filmmakers who were blunt and direct in addressing the threat of Hitler.
Those five Hollywood directors knew that the darkness was spreading.  Wyler was Jewish and had relatives in Europe.  Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Wyler reported for military duty and used their art and the power of film to make documentaries.  Making these documentaries was dangerous, life-threatening work.  It was work that enabled the American public to see actually the fury and carnage of war, especially after the U.S. was forced to get involved because of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This documentary work was complicated business as Hollywood and Washington were involved in the final cut, as it were.  Capra and Wyler were fighting bigotry against Jews overseas and fighting racism at home.  The U.S. troops were segregated.  Wyler was horrified at the way black soldiers were treated down South.  He hated the way corporate Hollywood wanted to minimize the image of black soldiers in films.  If you see FIVE CAME BACK, you will have a deeper appreciation for Wyler's classic drama, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES about three WW2 vets who return home.
George Stevens gave moviegoers fun comedies like WOMAN OF THE YEAR with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, THE MORE THE MERRIER with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, and SWING TIME, an apex of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers RKO artistry in art deco elegance.

He would never make comedies and musicals again after he returned from the war.  Stevens was present and documented the reality of concentration camps.  The camps were extermination mills.  Jews were being exterminated as if they were insects.  These were unspeakable crimes against humanity on an enormous scale.

I watched FIVE CAME BACK three times in one week.  It fascinated me that much.  Today's big Hollywood studio scene seems dominated by comic book superhero adventures.  Look at the five famous filmmakers who gave us this solid entertainment before WW2:  IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Capra), STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Ford), DODSWORTH, JEZEBEL and THE LETTER (Wyler),  SWING TIME, VIVACIOUS LADY, A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS with Fred Astaire plus the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen with an original film score by George and Ira Gershwin (Stevens), and THE MALTESE FALCON (Huston).  They would make gripping and often controversial wartime documentaries in which the superheroes were ordinary, average American men fighting for democracy and freedom.  Fighting and dying.  Capra's documentary, THE NEGRO SOLDIER, presented history and respectful images of African Americans not seen in typical Hollywood films.  For one thing, it showed black women in uniform at a time when black women were still mostly seen as maids in Hollywood movies.

A chill of absolute terror went through Capra's body and soul when he saw a documentary from a German filmmaker, a woman named Leni Riefenstahl.  Her 1935 work, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, was a visually striking showcase of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.
Her documentary propaganda film gave proof to how huge and how organized Hitler's army of evil was.  Her film style was presented in what, in its way, would become a template for sports documentaries.  Hitler too realized the power of film.  When Capra (on the right in pic below) saw TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, he knew something had to be done.  He knew he had to do something.
If you appreciate classic films, you must see this documentary.  In it, you see current filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro and Francis Ford Coppola gives comments, extra history and excellent insight.  We also get generous looks at the documentary footage from the five Hollywood directors, news footage of the time and archive interviews with the directors.  It's a well-written, balanced and informative documentary.  You will appreciate these filmmakers even more.  You will be angry.  Huston's LET THERE BE LIGHT, a doc showing young black and white WW2 Army veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was suppressed by the War Department for 35 years.

You will also be touched and fall deeper in love with the golden power of films.  I cried at the end which focused on Frank Capra, an immigrant who became a decorated American who served.  All five men returned from the war, they returned to film work, but the war had changed them and, in their time away, Hollywood had changed.  They had to be re-introduced all over again.

Wyler, Ford, Huston and Stevens came back and made hit films.  Capra came back and made his favorite film, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  It flopped at the box office and it flopped with critics.  Like a returning war veteran, the film became inconsequential. Overlooked in the community.  It became a public domain film.  The rights to it had not been picked up. It was "the forgotten man" like some war vets who came home to unemployment and homelessness.  For a new generation in the 1960s and 70s, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE was a movie we young baby boomers saw on local TV stations a lot during our summer vacations from school.  The prints of it were always tired and a bit tattered.  Scenes were cut out to make room for used car and kitchen product commercials.  As we grew to young adulthood, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE always made the list of films showing at revival movie theaters.  We saw it on big screens and re-appreciation began.  I am so proud of my generation for embracing George Bailey and seeing what movie critics and audiences in 1946 didn't.  We saw how special it is.  It's now restored. And redeemed.  It's no longer an inconsequential public domain feature.  It gets the love and attention it's long deserved.
 FIVE CAME BACK, an outstanding testament to the art of film and the life-risking contributions of filmmakers who saw that some of the most extraordinary superheroes the world has ever known are ordinary people who go out of their way to be of service to others.

"The greatest of all emotions that move us is love.  The world is not all evil.  Yes, we do have nightmares, but we also have dreams."  ~Director Frank Capra in FIVE CAME BACK.










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