New view of director Capra. Author sees his films as more than entertainment

``Capra-corn'' is the term that supposedly sums up Frank Capra's popular Hollywood movies. They're fine for a Saturday night's entertainment, most critics say. In fact, it's hard to resist their amiable mixtures of half-baked realism and ripe sentimentality. But they're just movies - not ``cinema art'' - the reasoning goes, and we ought to feel a bit guilty when we spend our time wallowing in ``It's a Wonderful Life'' or ``Meet John Doe'' or ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'' If you share this common view, Raymond Carney has news for you. Capra's work isn't corny at all, he says. It's enormously complex, profoundly creative, and richly philosophical, with roots in the greatest traditions of American art and literature.

Even a quick skim through Carney's book ``American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra'' (Cambridge University Press, $24.95) reveals his seriousness about Capra's artistic pedigree. Some of the illustrations are stills from Capra movies, but more pages are filled with reproductions of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer paintings. Capra is quoted from time to time, but more words are taken from such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James - artists of a sort usually thought of as Capra's opposite.

It turns out to be Henry James, in fact, who provides the key ingredient in Carney's interpretation of Capra's work: the concept of ``making a scene'' as an essential activity in life and art. Carney quotes lovingly from James's autobiographical account of the first time he heard that phrase, and the possibilities it conjured up for him.

``Making a scene,'' says Carney, means reacting against the circumstances of life in a spirit of creative rebellion. The best characters in film and literature, he goes on, are those who continually reinvent their lives, refusing to be hedged in by mere convention.

Carney finds such characters everywhere in Capra's work. Consider his analysis of ``The Bitter Tea of General Yen,'' a 1933 melodrama. The heroine, a British woman played by Barbara Stanwyck, gets separated from her fianc'e by a revolution in China and finds herself in the palace of General Yen, a mysterious Asian who appears to have unlimited wealth and power.

Gradually she learns that it's all a sham: Her protector is really a tottering ruler whose last remnants of glory are slipping rapidly away. Yet he remains a hero, in Carney's view, because of his talent for psychologically and imaginatively rich living, which he carries on vigorously despite the odds against him. Even his eventual suicide, Carney says, is so elaborately and ceremoniously staged that it becomes a triumph - an ultimate gesture of creative behavior - instead of a defeat.

Carney's reading of this movie is unorthodox but persuasive. We miss the real value of ``The Bitter Tea,'' he insists, if we interpret it only as a typical Hollywood confrontation between naive femininity and exotic masculinity, or between Western innocence and Eastern mystery. Rather, the film is a carefully crafted allegory about the possibility of ``making a scene,'' and General Yen is a profoundly imaginative thinker who constantly re-creates his life in response to changing circumstances.

Evidence found in details

To support this proposition, Carney musters an astonishing amount of evidence within the movie, from nuances of performance to details of architecture and lighting - thus heading off the charge that he's merely ``reading into the film'' his own pet theories.

Carney's interpretation of Capra has its shortcomings, however. Consider his treatment of ``Forbidden,'' a 1932 drama with Adolph Menjou and Ralph Bellamy, as well as Miss Stanwyck, who appeared in several Capra films.

Problems glossed over?

Speaking of the heroine, a repressed woman who decides to make drastic changes in her way of living, Carney acknowledges ``the poverty of her social and public life.'' But it's clearly ``the richness of her imaginative and emotional life'' that interests and attracts him most, and which redeems her as a character in his view. This raises a key question regarding Capra's work: Is the filmmaker willing to minimize the physical and material problems of his characters as long as they have a ``wonderful life'' of the imagination? Do his movies gloss over real-world problems in a rush to celebrate characters who share his preoccupation with psychological creativity?

``American Vision'' never addresses this point satisfactorily. Nor does it resolve some other matters raised by Carney's analyses. For just one example, why does suicide play such a frequent role in Capra films? And how does this differentiate his work from that of Howard Hawks, who took pains to eliminate the suicide motif from his films on moral as well as artistic grounds?

Carney is a resourceful scholar, but he could use a bit of General Yen's creative flexibility. He pursues his arguments with a tenacity that borders on obsessiveness at times, and he relies with dogged consistency on a limited arsenal of insights. While it's a provocative study, ``American Vision'' raises more questions than it answers - about the author's own preoccupations as well as the movies he so enthusiastically addresses.

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