Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Frank Capra
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"I'd be the first to admit I'm a damn good director."-Frank Capra

"Merry Christmas!"-George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It's a Wonderful Life

There is a particular reason I chose to write this installment of Whose Film Is It Anyway? on Frank Capra, and it is not just that he directed one of the most beloved and lasting Christmas movies ever made, It's a Wonderful Life (though that did help his chances). Capra made a name for himself throughout the "˜30s and "˜40s as not just an excellent director, but also a champion of virtue, a tireless defender of the basic goodness inherent in humanity, and perhaps the ultimate "feel good" filmmaker of all time. No director spends their entire career making Christmas movies (though if they did, I'd probably be required to do an installment on them this time of year), but Frank Capra spent his entire career making movies that live up to the Christmas spirit. Throughout his work, Capra constantly forwards the idea that humanity is basically good, and that through working together and basically doing the right thing, we can all get a leg up in the end.

In 1934, Capra released It Happened One Night, one of only three films to ever win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), a feat which only One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs have matched. The film follows Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) as she flees the overprotective clutches of her incredibly wealthy father in an attempt to reach New York and her new husband. Along the way she crosses paths with opportunistic journalist Pete Warne (Clark Gable) who agrees to get her to New York in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. What follows is a classic screwball romance as the two make their way toward New York and slowly come to depend on and love each other. Peter spends much of the film winning Ellen over with his arrogant attitude and extreme confidence (never on better display than in a scene where he tries, and fails, to flag down a car so they can hitchhike, which you can see below), yet it is his pride and eventual humility that keeps Ellen from consummating her marriage. Once Ellen arrives in New York (and after a misunderstanding, of course) Peter steps aside to let her be with the man he believes she loves, also refusing to take the reward money for returning her safely. It is this stubborn refusal, along with Peter's willingness to stand aside to ensure Ellen's happiness that finally wins him the girl.

Humility and the ability of one man to make a difference again took center stage in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which tells of the humble Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) and his battle against corruption and cynicism within the U.S. Senate. With the help of his secretary Ms. Saunders (Jean Arthur), and with his commitment to American ideals, Smith is able to tackle the profiteering plot of Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains) and businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). The filibuster that ends the film is pure Capra gold, as Smith pleads for honesty, integrity, and dignity to a room full of dispassionate politicians. In the face of what Capra argues is a broken system full of laziness, cynicism, and outright corruption, the director pleads, through Jimmy Stewart as his surrogate, for kindness, generosity, and good will from the people who can enact great change and better the country they serve.

Capra next championed the ability of one man to make a difference in 1941's Meet John Doe, in which struggling journalist Ann Mitchell (the always excellent Barbara Stanwyck) publishes a fictional suicide note from a man angry at society's ills, and then casts John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play the man once his philosophy takes off. At first Willoughby is doing it for the money, but eventually he comes to believe in his own words, and fights against the powerful entrenched interests that seek to co-opt his popularity for their own gain. In the end, he is saved from actually going through with the suicide Ann had created by the knowledge that he has inspired the people to fight against wrongs in society and attempt to improve the world around them.

This tendency reached its apotheosis in It's a Wonderful Life, Capra's finest ode to the inherent value of human life and to the effect one man can have on those around him. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has given up everything he ever wanted in life to ensure the happiness of his brother, his uncle, and the entire town of Bedford Falls. When he finally hits rock bottom and decides to commit suicide so that his family can collect his life insurance and save his ailing business, he is visited by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) who allows him a glimpse of what his town would be like if he was never born. The film exists as a triumphant ode to the will of the human spirit, the advantages of virtue and kindness, and the ability of one man to improve the lives of everyone he touches.

As the holiday season fully descends upon us, there is perhaps no better message than this to remember, and possibly no better director to remind us than Frank Capra. If we are, for most of the year, consumed with cynicism, this is the time to let that pessimism fade away and to believe, if only for a few days, that man is good, that we can help one another, and that each of us touches the lives of those around us and can improve those lives if only we are willing to try. That is what Christmas is all about, and that is what Frank Capra spent much of his career telling us. Every once in a while, especially at this time of year, it's nice to listen. In fact, it's a wonderful thought.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

1/2: Mike Myers

1/16: Kevin Smith

1/30: Akira Kurosawa

2/13: George Lucas
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