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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Few can argue Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant, was perhaps the most
prominent film director in Hollywood in the late 1920's through the
1930's. Ron Howard narrates the film, with contributions from directors
Robert Altman, Arthur Hiller, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and others,
including Fay Wray. This documentary showcases a few of Capra's silent
films and most every film through the 1930's and the rest of his
career. Capra won an unprecedented three Oscars for best director in
the 1930's and was nominated for three others as well. Only three
directors alive today have been nominated for as many as six best
director Oscars: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen.
Only four directors have ever been nominated more than six times: Fred
Zinnemann(7), David Lean (7), Billy Wilder(8), and William Wyler(12).
That puts things in perspective.
The film covers Capra's arrival on Ellis island in 1903, his days as a newspaper boy, and his enthusiasm with joining the army near the end of World War I. After the war, there was a four to five year period when Capra wondered what to do with himself, moving to San Francisco to avoid family intrusions into his life. After arriving in San Francisco, Capra quickly entered the film business learning the film-making process from the ground up by working for other companies. He even worked on Erich Von Stroheim's masterpiece: Greed. He became a gag writer for Hal Roach studios and then moved on to work for Mack Sennett where he wrote for and later directed Harry Langdon. After parting ways with Langdon due to artistic and personality differences, Capra moved over to Columbia Pictures, which was a near poverty row studio at the time. Here Capra was free to hone his craft in his style, and he was respected if not entirely always liked by Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia. The rest, as they say, is history.
Capra's long feud with Harry Cohn ended with the release of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington in 1939. What few folks realize is that Capra sacrificed a few prime years of his career for the good of his country, re-joining the army and making a series of pro-U.S. propaganda films from 1943 to 1945. These are the films referred to as the "Why We Fight" series. Capra wrote, directed, and/or produced around fifteen of these films within three years. Returning to making films after the war, he made his best remembered film It's A Wonderful Life, which was originally a box office failure then. He followed it up with State Of The Union, one of the Tracy/Hepburn pairings, before the failure of Liberty Pictures forced him to become a studio director at Paramount. Following this film, Capra almost became a victim of HUAC, unthinkable on the heels of his dedicated service as a colonel.
At Paramount, Capra found himself hemmed in by a studio system he left Columbia to avoid a decade earlier. After two pictures, he left Paramount and busied himself with other non-film projects. From 1956-1958, he made four films for the Bell Science series of films. One of these in particular, entitled Hemo The Magnificent (about the circulatory system), became a staple in the lives of millions of school children in the 1960's. Capra returned to Hollywood for two more films after this series, neither of which did well at the box office. Capra found himself in a new world in Hollywood from 1959 to 1961; big name actors now controlled film production in Hollywood, while directors became much less important than in Capra's heyday.
The film covers Capra's career completely accompanied by brief glimpses of home life. Like many successful directors of his time, Capra had a stable home life with one wife and four children. The film also highlights his contributions to film organizations and his autobiography which became a best seller. He toured college campuses speaking to a new generation of young film-goers who discovered his films while being screened by university film societies or on television. There's something to be said for that, and it's probably found in the eternal idealism and optimism of Capra's style. Viewers see themselves in the common folk struggling to survive against enormous odds or fighting for the good in this world or trying to right wrongs or reluctantly falling in love or doing the right thing despite the siren call of their dreams. ***1/2 of 4 stars.
How can you go wrong with a doco about a great Yankee humanitarian like Capra and having the likes of Scorsese, Dreyfuss, Oliver Stone and so on, praise the man himself? This conservative structured doco takes us from A to Z of Capra's career.
Solid, interesting, informative documentary on Frank Capra both the man
and his improbable journey from immigrant poverty to being one of the
best known directors of all time.
One of the most interesting aspects is the way the documentary shows Capra's best work was often darker and less corny or sentimentalized than it's remembered. Heroes earn any happy endings they get, and there is often pain, self-doubt and loss along the way. It makes the valid point that emotional and ultimately hopeful is far different from sentimental and corny, and Capra knew and fought for that difference.
For the most part the interviews with other directors, actors, friends and family are very effective. Although there are a few Hollywood types who's connection to Capra and his work seems tenuous at best, and sometimes analysis gives way to gushing.
While not quite deep, emotional or revelatory enough to be a great film, it is a very good one, that any film buff should certainly see.
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