Film American dreamer As a retrospective of Frank Capra’s early films comes to Scotland, Allan Hunter thinks it’s time for a reassessment of the great sentimentalist filmmaker
THE BEST FILM & DVD RELEASES
✽✽ Mary and Max Nutty but moving Australian claymation animated feature gets long overdue release. See review, page 42. Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 5–Tue 9 Nov. ✽✽ Another Year Mike Leigh’s returns to bleak but brilliant form with excruciating dissection of ageing North London friends. See review, page 43. Selected release, Fri 5 Nov. ✽✽ Let Me In Surprisingly decent American remake of Swedish horror Let the Right One In. See review, page 42 and profile, index. General release, Fri 5 Nov. ✽✽ We Are What We Are Politically nuanced Mexican cannibal horror. See review, opposite. GFT, Glasgow and selected release, Fri 12 Nov. ✽✽ The Hunter Oblique but impressive Iranian cop killer thriller. See review, page 43 and Profile, in index. GFT, Glasgow until Thu 4 Nov; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 5–Thu 11 Nov. ✽✽ The Arbor Smart docudrama about Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar. Selected release, out now. ✽✽ The Kids Are Alright Delightful Lesbian mum comedy drama. General release, out now. ✽✽ French Film Festival The best new (and old) cinema from the French speaking world. See Festival Focus, opposite. GFT, Glasgow; Filmhouse, Edinburgh and various venues, Thu 11 Nov–Tue 7 Dec. ✽✽ The Ballroom Cheeky Brazilian comedy drama set in an old school ballroom shimmies out on DVD. See review, page 53. Out now (Matchbox). ✽✽ Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece/Tintin and the Blue Oranges Two superb early 1960s live action adaptations unearthed and reissued ahead of Spielberg’s Tintin blockbuster. See review, page 53. Out now (BFI).
Frank Capra is always considered the Norman Rockwell of American cinema. His fanfares for the common man have been lauded for their charm almost as frequently as they have been derided for their sentimentality. The term ‘ Capracorn’ was never intended as a compliment.
Capra died in 1991 and is best known to modern audiences as the director of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the bleakest of all the Yuletide classics in which small town hero James Stewart is driven to suicide by the frustrations of a life that has failed to meet the naive expectations of his younger self. It’s a Wonderful Life was heavily influenced by A Christmas Carol and Capra himself is something of a latterday Dickens, exploring class, politics and the conflict between individual and state in some of the most outstanding pieces of populist storytelling to emerge from Hollywood in the 1930s.
Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and moved with his family to America in 1903. Throughout his life, he retained an immigrant’s passion for the values of his adopted country tempered by an understanding of their imperfections. His best films are poised between apple-pie idealism and despairing cynicism. Boy Scout dupe Stewart does triumph over the corrupt politicians in Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Gary Cooper’s eccentric philanthropist defeats the forces of greed in Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936) but it is a close run thing. Capra’s greatest classics celebrate the triumph of the underdog and the virtues of the America Way but they also show an awareness of the thin line between a healthy democracy and mob rule. An entire community may rally around 40 THE LIST 4–18 Nov 2010
‘CAPRACORN’ WAS NEVER
INTENDED AS A COMPLIMENT
Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life but it is their pursuit of self-interest that causes the earlier calamitous run on his independent bank.
Capra was more versatile than his critics might have allowed. In 1934 It Happened One Night (pictured), was the first film to sweep the board at the Oscars and can still knock spots off the soulless romantic comedies that Hollywood serves up these days. His winning way with a snappy comedy is shown time and time again in Platinum Blonde (1931) and his endearing adaptation of the Broadway non- conformity You Can’t Take It With You (1938). He brought out the best in stars like Barbara Stanwyck in the melodrama Forbidden (1932) and the exotic romance The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). hymn
Capra’s career suffered an alarming and irreversible decline from the late 1940s onwards. His style was out of tune with cinema’s bland celebrations and sly subversions of Eisenhower’s presidency. His tales of hopeless dreamers still define our sense of 1930s America in the same way as the fatalistic dramas of Marcel Carne have shaped our understanding of pre- war France. John Cassavetes once remarked: ‘Maybe there never was an America in the 30s. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.’ This ten film season is a chance to acknowledge that his Depression-era fairytales came with dark shadows and menacing hints of what lay ahead. Forget Capra’s reputation for all-American corn and just savour the work of a true Hollywood great. The Frank Capra season, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Wed 10 Nov–Thu 9 Dec.