Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Capra Double Feature

Over the summer, I blogged about how fascinated and moved I was by a documentary on Netflix.  It's called FIVE CAME BACK and I urge every true classic film fan to see it. We're taken back to the 1930s when five directors were tops in their Hollywood field.  We're drawn into World War 2.  All five are known for giving us some of Hollywood's most beloved and acclaimed classics -- even if one was not beloved and acclaimed when first it was released.  The directors are John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.  In the early 1930s, Hitler started his evil, bigoted plan to devour Europe.  The discrimination against Jews in the workplace and in schools was a gathering storm that would be assisted by Nazi stormtroopers.  Eventually, millions of Jews would be exterminated in concentration camps.  There was no TV with 24-hour news coverage in the 1930s.  Americans got their news via newspapers, radio and in newsreel presentations that preceded the main features when Americans went to the movies.  Americans, on the whole, were unaware of the extent of Hitler's horrors.  Nor were they aware of how huge his Third Reich army was.  Hard to believe today but there was an Isolationist Movement in the U.S. at that time.  Some politicians, and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, felt that America shouldn't get involved.  Just let Europe handle that Hitler situation.  Meanwhile, Nazis were holding rallies in New York City.  William Wyler had Jewish relatives in Europe.  Frank Capra saw a 1935 documentary/promo for Hitler and his army called TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and it terrified him to the bone.  He realized America had to get involved.  This was Capra, the Italian immigrant who gave us wonderful films, uplifting movies such as MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, LOST HORIZON, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, the Oscar winning granddaddy of screwball comedies.  It starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
The five directors enlisted and served during World War 2.  They were tapped by the government to make documentaries and short features that would help the war effort, motivate young men to enlist.  The five also witnessed the carnage of war, sights that Americans had not been seeing.  They changed that.  They filmed it.  They were in active duty.  Wyler hated the racism that African American soldiers endured in America before they were shipped overseas to fight for democracy.  Stevens and Capra, two men who gave us delightful comedies, saw first-hand the massive, demonic work of Hitler's regime.  All five came back from the war changed men and changed filmmakers.  Stevens never again made light films like the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic musical, SWING TIME, or WOMAN OF THE YEAR and THE MORE THE MERRIER.  Capra, returned a decorated veteran who had to reintroduce himself to Hollywood.  He made IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  It flopped with critics and the movie-going public.  Today, it's a beloved classic that gets an annual NBC network airing during the Christmas holiday season.

The documentary is 3-hours long and I've watched it 4 times.  It's that good.  You will learn so much about the directors, filmmaking and American history.  Here's Frank Capra (right) in uniform working on one of his WW2 assignments.
This week, Donald Trump pretty much threatened NBC from the White House.  He seems to approve only news reports about him that are flattering.  NBC News reported something that wasn't so flattering.  He tweeted:  "With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"

That tweet's attitude violates the First Amendment in our nation's Bill of Rights.

Frank Capra movies were sentimental and enjoyable.  He loved the working class.  I call him "The Charles Dickens of Old Hollywood" because of the way he cared about the common man.  He also had a keen eye for the political abuse of power and corrupt men slicing away freedom of speech.

With that in mind, I recommend two Frank Capra classics.  They are old movies but they may feel achingly relevant today.  The first one is... 1939's MR. SMITH GOES TO WATCHING starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.  I wish I could air this in prime time right now on network television.
James Stewart plays the new young Senator who takes on a political machine with the help of a once cynical, smart-as-a-whip Washington aide played by Jean Arthur.  His honesty melts her cynicism and warms her heart as he wages his David v Goliath political battle for fairness.

The other Frank Capra film I recommend is 1941's MEET JOHN DOE starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.  The movies opens with the words "free press" being drilled off a building front and replaced with the name of the new owners.  She's the smart-as-a-whip newspaper reporter for the paper experiencing some brutal layoffs.  She concocts a story that will keep her from being unemployed and be hot for newspaper sales.  She's an ambitious single woman who takes care of relatives with her income.  Her newspaper story involves finding a John Doe to keep it going.  In comes Gary Cooper as a hobo.  His story and John Doe gain wide popularity.  She and the hobo have had some financial luck.  But he winds up getting speeches to read on national radio from the paper's publisher.  The reporter and the hobo come to realize that the wealthy publisher,  her new boss, has fascist leanings and wants to control the press.

John Doe is willing to risk his life for the truth, for the chance to expose greed and corporate corruption.  The reporter is on his side.

And there you have it.  One Frank Capra classic from 1939.  The other is from 1941.  Both have elements that will feel timely and relevant today in 2017, in my opinion.  Be sure to check out FIVE CAME BACK on Netflix and narrated by Meryl Streep.  It shows the awesome light and dark power of film and how it can change lives.

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