A Tribute to Capra's Mastery

While the director's style faded from popularity, his most pressing concerns never did. Hence his movies' continuing appeal.

FRANK CAPRA didn't seem upset when critics trotted out the label "Capra-corn" to describe the sentimental, even weepy aspects of his work. His films made a strong claim on the emotions, and if moviegoers muttered "corny" while shedding tears into their popcorn, it was all right with him.But sentiment wasn't the whole story with Mr. Capra, who died last week at his California home. His movies had a dark side, too, probing the most troubling problems of human experience; compare the frequent references to suicide in his films, for example, with the way his contemporary Howard Hawks doggedly avoided that subject. Today's critics tend to overstress Capra's darkness, though, as eagerly as casual audiences overstress his penchant for happy or hopeful endings. In fact, both were present in lar ge measures, and recognition of both is necessary to a full appreciation of his art. Capra's life story was as striking, and nearly as well known, as the plots of his most celebrated films. Brought to the United States as a child by his Sicilian parents, he worked his way through public school and college, then wandered into the movie business almost by accident, like many filmmakers at a time when cinema was still an almost-new invention and there was no "official" way to join its ranks. His training was largely in comedy; his first feature as a director, "The Strong Man," was a Harry L angdon farce. Highlights of his early career included the 1931 adventure "Dirigible" and the 1932 social-issue drama "American Madness," which prefigured some of his later themes. These films still look solid today, as do "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," a surprisingly complex melodrama, and "Lady for a Day," which he remade as "Pocketful of Miracles" almost 30 years later. A smash hit of 1934, "It Happened One Night," earned Capra his first Academy Award - two more would follow, in '36 and '38 - and helped launch the '30s tradition of screwball comedy. His populism made its strongest impact on audiences during the period between "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" in 1936 and "State of the Union" in 1948, generally thought of as the crest of his career. To cut through the oversimplifications about sentiment and darkness in Capra's cinema, it's helpful to think of him as first and foremost a profoundly American filmmaker with a profoundly American sensibility that mingled thought and feeling, hope and skepticism, realism and artifice into a body of work that incorporated both brilliant and overcooked elements in ever-varying proportions. This view of Capra as a quintessentially American romantic is central to Raymond Carney's major study, "American Visio n: The Films of Frank Capra," which juxtaposes Capra's images and stories with paintings by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James, and other such citations. There is special significance, Mr. Carney suggests, in the title of Capra's autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," which points to the never-ending tussle between the individual and the institutional - the "name" referring to personhood in all its particularity, the "title" to "abstract systems of expression" that seek to entrap and categorize us. The title of Capra's book also refers, of course, to the challenge of directing personal movies in Hollywood's industrial atmosphere. At this he succeeded remarkably well during the golden years of his career. "Capra is a genuine auteur, and there is no mistaking his point of view," wrote Andrew Sarris in his book "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968," embedding this praise in what is otherwise a mixed view of Capra's work. Capra said what he thought, and audiences liked what he said for decades. Capra's career lay largely dormant for the last 30 years of his life, a result of changes in both moviemaking and moviegoing. But the lasting importance of his legacy, for both good and ill, can be felt in the populism of such latter-day directors as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, in the unabashed sentiment of recent pictures like "Ghost" and "Regarding Henry," and in the work of an emotion-oriented star like Julia Roberts, who specializes in superficially Capraesque movies like "Steel Magnolias" and " Pretty Woman." His influence can also be felt in what appear to be far-flung territories, such as Spike Lee's proudly African-American cinema (see the ending of "Mo' Better Blues") and parts of Ken Burns's TV documentary "The Civil War," with its mixture of patriotism, fatalism, and romanticism. Capra's style faded from popularity, but his most pressing concerns never did. This is why his films remain favorites whenever moviegoers look beyond the hits of the moment to more enduring expressions from the past.

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