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Archive for the ‘Directed by Frank Capra’ Category

Forbidden

19 May

Forbidden – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1932

★★★★★

The Story: A small down librarian heads for the high-life and finds true love.

~

Imperturbably soigné is how we usually see Adolphe Menjou, tailored so perfectly you don’t even notice it – except here we peer under the togs and find an actor of chance.

He had moved from playing betrayed and betrayer of husbands in the Silents, and now in the Talkies, we find a character with perfect diction and a well placed voice. All of which is to the good when his tuxedo gives out to a warm heart inside it. Surprise, surprise!

An unusual love story, pre-code, in which that heart is given to his mistress, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whose heart is also true. But Menjou can’t marry her, or won’t, he says, because he is already married to a woman he is indebted to. Perhaps it is the case that he can’t divorce and remain a successful politician. In any case, what we have is a story that rings true in its execution at every turn. All I know is I care for both these people and have not a single word of advice for either of them. All I can do is watch.

A triangle is completed by Ralph Bellamy as a muck-raking journalist, with a mean streak that gets wider as the years elapse. It’s not his usual thudding part, and he is very good in his crudeness, energy, and drive for Stanwyck’s hand. Surprise, surprise!

The story takes them through the years. They age. And things get worse for all of them as they do. Surprise, surprise!

Each scene is beautiful Their romance at night horseback riding on the beach is one of the most stunning scenes I have ever seen in a film. And the big confrontation filmed outside in a downpour is emblematic of the hardship true lovers will put up with to be with one another. Again – no surprise –  because all of it filmed by Joseph Walker.

And, also no surprise, it is written by Capra’s standby Jo Swerling.

Stanwyck is interesting, vulnerable, raw. When speech fails, Capra uses her as Silent actress, and she never gets it wrong, too big, too broad, too much. Always just right. She was one of those actresses who was greatest when young. Here she is 24. Her name is now above the credits. It will never find itself anywhere else.

She and Capra made four films in a row together. Then, years later, Meet John Doe, a collaboration of masterworks, as fresh and true in their execution and playing as a glass of milk at dawn.

 

 

Rain Or Shine

07 May

Rain or Shine – directed by Frank Capra. Backstage Comedy. 88 minutes Black And White 1930.

The Story: A madcap, double-talking circus manager is caught between his love for the pretty circus owner and his love for the circus which needs saving.

★★★★★

~

There is an elephant here. Here and there is an elephant. Here, there, and everywhere there is an elephant. The elephant is the circus itself, which needs an elephant to move it around and to provide comic weight. Very Funny.

Because  — also very funny — the light comic weight is carried by one Joe Cook whom no one has ever heard of, but who was the star of the Broadway musical of the same name.

Capra threw out all the music and focused on Cook, who is certainly worth the camera. He is a master of circus double-talk and con, and his sequences with his stooge Tom Howard are on a The Marx Brothers plane for pataphysical loonyness. They are doubly funny because you have never seen these characters before.

Capra was a master of crowd scenes like none since, so the handling of the material seems completely up to date, as does that of cinemaphotographer Joe Walker – particularly when Cook, to save the circus, embarks upon a series of acrobatic acts that make one’s jaw drop with delight and incredulity. Cook is a Cirque du Soleil all rolled up in one. Wow!

What makes Capra still modern? Still admirable? Still funny?

His narrative foreshortening, for one. He moves things along with an intelligence which trusts ours intelligence to catch up, and we are flattered and join in. Also Capra’s care for The Actor: everything Capra devised was meant so the audience could enjoy The Actor. And so two-scenes are kept in play instead of the folly of back and forth closeups, and you really get to understand what is going on in people. Capra had a steady crew of cronies who worked with him, and you see their credits and welcome the smartness of screenwriter Jo Swerling again, just as you see a drenching rain scene in every film and wonder how he will get his players out of it once more. Also Capra’s big heart, which shades and colors everything.

Is that enough?

It’s enough for me.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterwork of this director of great Americanness. Rain Or Shine’s an early one. Underlying honesty is our forte, a beckoning to the truth of the matter, a condition discovered when justice is balanced between folks. To righten the scales, Joe Cook performs an act of comic sabotage. It is nothing to the one Capra himself inflicts as he let’s loose a stupendous grand finale. How would anyone dare! Although anything less entertaining in the end would be unthinkable, un-Capra-like, unfinished.

 

Ladies Of Leisure

05 May

Ladies of Leisure – directed by Frank Capra. Melodrama. 99 minutes Black And White 1930

★★★★★

The Story:  a call girl models for a rich artist and falls in love with him and he with her, and all is well until his socially prominent parents intervene.

~

To see this film is to see one of the great stars of the movies in her first principal role and to see her at not just her first but her best.

Some movie stars start slow. They take a good long while to jell in the public value: Bette Davis, Bogart, Grable, Monroe, Hayworth. Others appear instantly out of the brow of Zeus, with something so particular, so fresh, so honest, and so inherently entertaining in all that, that the public never ceases wanting again what they first saw in them suddenly and at once: Brando, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Vivien Leigh, Edward G. Robinson, Chaplin, Garbo.

Barbara Stanwyck falls into the second category. And Women of Leisure is her Roman Holiday, East Of Eden, Streetcar Named Desire, and Torrent. She comes forth fresh, full, young, open, ready, and of a wide range within the confines of the material. The confines of the material are large, for they are full scale melodrama.

We don’t see melodrama any more as a serious dramatic medium, but in 1930 and before it was an accepted, honorable, and, by audiences, well understood and appreciated dramatic medium.

Melodrama is a word that means drama with music. And in movies you used to find a lot of it. Now Voyager with its big Max Steiner Score is a good example of it, and as you watch that movie you wonder if the acting of the actors could carry the scenes without the music elbowing in. But what the music did in movies was actually to elbow out written scenes. Movie music supplants writing, speech, dialogue, the working out of human drama through what people say to one another.

But in stage melodrama, the music was not present. (I’m not talking about meller-dramer, which is mock melodrama, in which music often is present: Irma Vep, Little Mary Sunshine.) In real stage melodrama the music is verbal, or rather the emotions attached to the words are a music which the words, in their completeness, cue in the actors. The only modern equivalent still played is opera. Opera dramas are ridiculous; the music sublime; the words are none, they are in a foreign tongue. But in real stage melodrama, the music is written out in lengthy dialogue, and in these scenes, nothing is ridiculous save the comic relief interluding them. Melodrama, that is to say, depends upon dramatic scenes written out to their fullest extent. No twist or turn is left out of the dialogue of a scene. The 19th Century theatre was rich with melodrama as serious theatre. Schiller a great exemplar of it, Pirandello makes use of its tropes, Shaw of its volubility. There is great pleasure in watching. good melodrama played out to the full by good actors willing in invest.

In modern plays, we do not often have such scenes; in modern movies never. Dialogue scenes are short and rationed. Emotion in them is rationed. It’s a different way of playing. It’s a good one. And actors expert at it are (by no means little) admirable since certainly through taciturnity they can avoid being hams. Sometimes less is more.

But sometimes more is more. And melodrama is always more. Screenwriter Jo Swerling has written a good one.

Stanwyck in his piece might become hammy at any moment, and never does. Watch her take the big confrontation scene with the young man’s mother. Seven minutes of sustained and varied dialogue and emotion in a demonstration of screen acting you will seldom ever seen again from any actor at any time in a movie. The scene does not move around, it does not stop and start, it does not cut away from her unduly. Rather it stays on her and watches her and honors what it is seeing in her. It is also written out unflinching through all its permutation and possibilities. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is withheld. Everything is offered the actors and us. And we revel in it. The length and scenic fullness of melodrama allows the audience to see into the actor’s being. It gives the actor time. That is its key virtue. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility to give ourselves to it.

Provided the actors can negotiate. it.

Any young actress starting out might well place herself here before this actress as she was starting out. It’s a big part, the focal role of the film. It offers her a range, and she takes it and runs with it in directions you would not expect. She is never sentimental, weep though she does, and she is never shallow, wise-crack though she does.

Her co-star is a lunky actor, who is neither good nor bad, so his performance does not sabotage hers. And she has decent support in Blanche Sweet and the rest of the company.

And she is held like a treasure by Frank Capra who directed her. He learned at once that Stanwyck had only the first take, and so he rehearsed everyone separately, went through the blocking with her, and then shot it with two cameras so as to gather the co-actors in the shot. He shot her closeups first so they were fresh. He had a superb sound man, and one of the great cameramen in movies, Joe Walker. Capra said to Stanwyck, “You are not beautiful, but I will do something for you that will bring out the beauty that is in you and in your acting,” and so he and Walker did. Stanwyck’s skin was luminous under light, she had high cheek bones, and an alto voice perfect for sound. And she had the common touch.

Capra did not want to use Stanwyck in this pictures. He interviewed her, and she was surly. She had come to Hollywood and made some bum films that led nowhere; no one was taking an interest in her; no one told her anything about screen acting. She was about to go back to New York where she had had a big success as a stage actress. But she had made a screen test at another studio; Alexander Korda, then a young director directed it; they had no one to act opposite her and no script, so Korda asked her what she wanted to do, and she played a scene from one of her Broadway hits. When she later told Korda that Capra didn’t want her, Korda (or, depending on the story, her husband Frank Fay) went to Capra and took the test over and urged him to see it. Unwillingly Capra did, and in it he recognized exactly what he needed. That surly girl was a brilliant actress waiting to be released.

What he saw, and what all of us still see in Ladies Of Leisure, is a young actress flying at her full potential: honest, straightforward, strong, vulnerable, varied, brave, loving, and smart. These are the qualities Stanwyck has been famous for forever. It is wonderful; it is refreshing to see them here and for the first time.

And no musical score. Stanwyck does it all.

 

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

15 Jan

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen – directed by Frank Capra. Drama. 88 minutes Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

The Story: A girl from a nice New England family is kidnapped by a Chinese warlord.

Nils Asther is certainly one of the more fascinating actors of motion pictures. The actor he puts one in mind of is Garbo. Like Garbo he was Scandinavian, and like Garbo he was very beautiful, and unlike Garbo he was called The Male Garbo – although in a way she was also the male Garbo. In any case, he is a power of subtlety as General Yen (oh, rightly named!) hankering after Barbara Stanwyck. He wears a brilliant make-up, achieved by shaving his eyelashes (which caused his eyes to bleed) and a viperish mustache. He smokes a cigarette so you know exactly what six things he is feeling at the moment, and you presently come to care about his soul, which is his main resemblance to Garbo after all. His eye make-up is so severe he never blinks.

For we are in the arena of miscegenation, and there is no doubt about the story playing upon our inner horror of mating outside our race. We wait out the story to see if it will take place. Oh, horrors! Can a white girl from a proper old New England family actually give herself to An Oriental? We are not dealing with preaching what is Politically Correct here. The film starts with the fine actress Clara Blandick laying it out flat: “They are all tricky, treacherous, immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They are all Chinamen to me.” So we are immediately thrust into in the underground of our own natural prejudice.

The great character actor, Walter Connolly makes his film debut here in a ripping role, that of a scallywag financial wizard finagling the General’s power. His acting, his presence, and the writing of his part keep tipping the scales not just backward and forward but everywhichway, so our expectations are all a-tumble.

The great cameraman Joe Walker, who filmed many of Capra pieces, brings glory to the screen. His camera placements and lighting are a university education in camera craft.

The only difficulty is that Stanwyck is miscast as a girl from an upper crust New England family, for she is nothing of the kind and does nothing even to suggest that she is. She is common. Stanwyck brings her fabled honesty to the part, which she did all her long life, but that is not enough. But sometimes it was just enough, as here, but she never played deeply with accents, never learned character work. She brings herself at the moment. She started as a dancer so she brings physical certainty to her roles. There are never two things going on. If she says yes and really wants to say no, the “Yes,” will sound like “No.” She is without ambiguity, uncertainty, or subtext. But she is steady on. She has a fine voice for film and a face camera ready in any light and under any conditions. And, a rarer thing than you might think, she is an actor with the common touch. She never blinks either.

The film is magnificently produced. It cost over a million to make. It was the first movie ever to play at Radio City Music Hall (where it failed), and Frank Capra said it was his favorite film. The material is surprising and real, and the treatment unforced and free. It certainly is one of the most interesting films of the ‘30s.

 

The State Of The Union

18 Jul

The State Of The Union – directed by Frank Capra. Political Drama. A self-made millionaire runs for president and ruins himself morally. 124 minutes Black and White 1948.

★★★★

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She was a remarkable personality. He was an unremarkable one. She was a thoroughbred racing down the track with the blinders on. He was a garden variety Joe shambling along taking it all in. She was quick thinking and controlling. He was withdrawn and deliberating. Energetically they made a perfect couple because they could see into one another and you could see them do it and you could see that they didn’t mind being seen doing it. Theirs is a transparent cocktail. So a film with them presents, before one looks at it, the promise of a union that puts pat to one of the great American hatreds, snobbism. She was upper class, he was lower. They are equal opposite parts, and there is a democracy to them as a given. Knowing they are together in a film means we are to be presented with that common vision of fairness which is at the heart of the American character and vitality. Their popularity is the popularity of the audience themselves. The homogeneity of the heterodox, they are the melting pot itself. They are one from many. Claudette Colbert was slated to play the wife here as she was also slated to play Margo Channing in All About Eve, and, while she is a marvelous film actor, it is impossible to imagine these parts being played by anyone but the actors who did play them. Katharine Hepburn is particularly suited to this part if you consider her from the point of the enneagram, for her point is One, the one who is born right, and Hepburn’s is a woman who never veers from her sense of what is right, This sense drives the entire plot of the film, and without it the film would lack the foundation it possesses. Hepburn’s playing is superb – light, quick, agile, responsive, and natural. She is right without being righteous. She is most profound when funny, as Ones are, which makes her being right digestible, and she is most untrue when emotional which Ones also are, which makes her weeping scenes merely lachrymose. Hepburn seems to think that weeping is the Great Thing That Acting Requires, but when Hepburn tears up, her character goes out the window. Otherwise everything she does is on the money, down to the smallest detail. Just beware the trembling lip, folks. When she starts getting noble, head for the exits. Spenser Tracy, who plays the husband two-timing her, commands his part like a skipper; virtually every detail is believable. He’s funny and true, convinced and convincing, and it’s largely his film. The script from a Broadway success, feels jammed with repartee and wisecracks, overwritten and forced. Capra is a great director of crowd mayhem, but everybody yells a lot and delivers noble orations. It’s a bit thick, with a thickness made viscous by Victor Young’s taffy score. Angela Lansbury is but 22 when she plays the hardheaded, lascivious newspaper magnate who is having an affaire with Tracy and who instruments his presidential bid. The maturity of her bearing is almost sufficient, but she is helped by her costumes by Irene, and particularly by her hairdos by Sydney Guilaroff, who also does Hepburn’s hair and does it brilliantly, for this is not one of Hepburn’s slacks roles. Adolphe Menjou plays the campaign manager tellingly and Van Johnson, in one of his great sardonic roles, plays the press agent. Capra made few films after the war, for after the war America was no longer corn-fed. But if you like the writing of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Newsroom, The Social Network), as I do, you will be very happy watching The State Of The Union.

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Life

06 Dec

It’s A Wonderful Life – Directed by Frank Capra. Comedy/Drama. A home-town man teeters suicidally rather than bankrupting himself and his fellow townsfolk. 130 minutes Black and White 1946.

* * * * *

Clint Eastwood remarked how violent James Stewart was in the Anthony Mann Westerns he made in his late middle age. But they are nothing to compare with the rudeness, insolence, insult, and threat he delivers in this supposedly down-home performance of a would-be suicide learning about the life he has lived before it is too late. The insanity with which he throttles the foolish Thomas Mitchell is terrifying. He is violently mean to his children (as indeed one must be at Christmas to have a really meaningful Yule.) But the picture as a Christmas Classic probably looms as large as it does for the same reason that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does – because of the Scrooginess of Stewart, as George Bailey, followed by the ghastly death-threat visions before he mends his ways. Jimmy Stewart is remarkable in the role, and except for the final scene of the sanctimonious, Deus ex-macchina rescue by the townsfolk of Bedford Falls, where there is something wrong with his singing and his smile, we have a great performance by a master of his craft. It is said that the film was not successful in its day, but I’m not so sure. I saw it when it came out, and I remember it vividly. And both it and Stewart and Capra were nominated for Oscars that year. Or perhaps there is not something wrong with that final smile. Perhaps what I see behind it is a hangover of his own nasty brush with the afterlife. Stewart had been away at war, one of the first big stars to enlist, and he bravely piloted more bombing missions over Europe than was good for any mortal man. Everyone was changed by The War, and what changed most in Hollywood was the virtual inability of its male stars to play comedy any more. Tyrone Power had been marvelous in light comedy; so had Henry Fonda; so had Stewart; George Stevens never directed another one, and screwball comedy never really returned. They came back from The War changed men. Solutions now weren’t so easy as they once were in Capra’s great, good-hearted comedies of the 30s. Capra never made a convincing comedy after World War II, and his career petered out. Here however he is in the last chapter of his topmost form. Every scene is beautifully written, every scene is perfectly begun, played, ended, and edited. Like Normal Rockwell’s paintings, what is illustrated here – and It’s A Wonderful Life is essentially a genre painting and an illustration – is the value of the truth of American community, which is that we must get along with people quite different from ourselves in personal style, race, and national derivation, and that to do so is to survive by the only means possible for survival: love. Love is what needs to survive. And love is what survives us. To make the illustration clear Capra does exactly what Rockwell does: he makes his humans almost caricatures. Like Rockwell, Capra’s characters live in gawky motion, and their gesture is strategized in the direction of endearing folly. All this is still true of America and Americans. Forgetting love’s survival through cooperation and public service and remembering it again is our national drama. This is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life the one film of Capra’s that will not date. To force the illustration, Capra has cast the story perfectly: first with Lionel Barrymore, the perennial Scrooge of radio in those days, as the meanie Mr. Potts, and he eats the role alive. Then with Ward Bond as the cop, Beulah Bondi as the mom, Donna Reed as the feisty wife, Gloria Graham as the town gal of questionable morals, Henry Travers as The Angel Clarence, Frank Faylen as the cabbie, Sheldon Leonard as the bartender, and a huge heterogeneous cast of townsfolk. It’s A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.

 

Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown

28 Jan

Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown —  directed by Frank Captra and Harry Edwards. Three broad comedies: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Strong Man; Long Pants.   193 minutes blck and white 1922 and later.

* * * * *

Harry Langdon was tapioca pudding buttoned up in a tight little jacket. Wry bee-stung lips, white makeup, wide-spaced eyes beady and alert as a chipmunk. He was a child-size man with a child’s responsiveness to life, a responsiveness physically and emotionally more subtle than Chaplin’s. The entire body is always engaged differently, unlike Chaplin’s which as the little tramp was broadly kinetic and always the same. Tiny men both of them, Langdon seems smaller, a pipsqueak, and like Chaplin and Keaton, heroic. I find him very very funny. And always surprising. See him in this Strong Man picture defend his honor from a female rapist! See his scene in the bus with a cold. See the little bows he takes as the strong man at the end.  Watch his eyes. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the second feature puts him in a crosscountry walking race. See the cyclone scene!  See the cliff hanger scene!  See the scene in the bassinet!  I fell off my chair laughing. Watch his contortions when he first lays eye on his dream girl, the ever-gauche Joan Crawford (age 23). The picture is set up in long sequences, and they’re wonderful, and only in pictures and only in silent pictures would they work. The third piece, Long Pants, I found less amusing, but still… See him, he’s a find: the Pierrot of silent film, The Great White Clown. A master.

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