My Favorite Capra Movies, in Glorious Black and White

My Favorite Movies in Glorious Black and White

The first in a series.

Directed by Frank Capra

When watching Capra’s films, it’s worthwhile paying attention to all of the contributors who made his films so special. Most visibly, there are his leads, with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur turning up most often. Then there are the supporting and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, and more minor figures, who always turn in inspired performances. Then there are the screenwriters, with Robert Riskin being his most frequent and notable contributor. And then there’s the loving black-and-white camerawork by Joseph Walker.

If you really enjoy Capra’s work, then his autobiography The Name Above The Title is definitely worth reading.

It Happened One Night - 1934

One of the classic screwball comedies, starring Clark Gable as a newspaperman and Claudette Colbert as a willful and independent heiress. There is a certain art to starting a movie with two characters who can’t stand each other and couldn’t be more different, and then spending an entire movie throwing up barriers to their coming together while at the same time drawing them ever closer towards their ultimate union. At worst, movies like this are formulaic, but this is one of the originals, and utterly inspired at every turn. Underneath the comedy and romance is a story about the vitality of the American working classes compared to the idleness and and enervation of the high society folks – a theme that will be repeated through much of Capra’s work, as well as many of my other favorites of this period.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - 1936

This one stars Gary Cooper along with Jean Arthur, who would become the quintessential Capra leading lady. Another screwball comedy of a sort, but with Capra starting to bring other themes more clearly into the foreground. This time it’s the female lead who’s the newspaper reporter, and the male lead the one with the money, although he’s a small town rube who suddenly has unwanted millions thrust upon him. Capra begins here to pit small-town values against the greater sophistication of the city dwellers, with the native intelligence and goodness of the more rural cousins ultimately winning out over the corruption of those in the city.

You Can’t Take It With You - 1938

I love this movie, perhaps partially because it was the first Capra film I saw as an adult (well, ok, as a college student). Another screwball comedy of sorts, featuring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. But Stewart and Arthur are completely overshadowed in this one by Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore, playing the parents of the romantic leads, as competing patriarchs of two families that couldn’t be more different. Barrymore’s family is artistic and free-spirited, and their old house is closer to a commune than the residence for a nuclear family. Arnold plays a business tycoon who needs the Barrymore property to complete a big real estate development scheme.

Part of the appeal of this film for me is that there are no country rubes to be seen, and the heroes instead are an extended family living in an urban environment. For me, this makes for a story that is much less easily dismissed or trivialized by a modern audience.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939

Definitely a classic, with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, but once again the male lead is a country rube doing battle with the corrupting forces of the big city. Could be easily dismissed, except that Capra and his team deliver absolutely pitch-perfect performances.

Meet John Doe - 1941

This may be the most modern of Capra’s films. Gary Cooper returns here as leading man, and Barbara Stanwyck is another female news reporter. In many ways, Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, John Doe and the later It’s A Wonderful Life all use the same story of a simple “common man” confronting the dark powers of the modern, urban world. In this film, though, the “common man” is the least powerful and least virtuous of any of these heroes, and the media magnate played by Edward Arnold is the most powerful and least capable of redemption. The film is notable because Capra struggled to find a way for his hero to win this particular battle, even filming four different endings, and ultimately only being able to give him at best a partial victory.

The other modern element to this film is the portrayal of the Edward Arnold character not just as having power that comes from his money, but that comes from his control over the news media. The film offers as graphic and moving a portrayal of the problems inherent in centralized control over our media as anything I’ve ever seen, and it would be hard to find a more modern and compelling theme in these times, with the issue showing up almost daily on the front pages of whatever news outlets you happen to follow.

Arsenic and Old Lace - 1944

Another filming of a stage play, this time starring Cary Grant. Here, for a change, the film starts with the two romantic leads having already found each other. But then, things start to get complicated. Doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings as well as much of the rest of the Capra canon, but may be one of the most purely enjoyable comedies ever filmed on initial viewing.

It’s A Wonderful Life - 1946

The classic that everyone has seen. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore. Never tire of this one. For contrast, compare this to Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. Both are retrospectives showing the life of a single man. Kane shows the the life of a man who had everything, but could keep nothing he cared about. Capra’s film is about a man who was frustrated at every turn in achieving the things he thought he wanted, but ended up having more than he knew. Some people call it the best movie ever made. I certainly do.

February 16, 2014