In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

TheCanadian Review of American Studies, Volume IX, Number 2, Fall, 1978 Frank Capra: The Art of the Moralist Leland A. Poague. The Cinema of Frank Capra: An Approach to Film Comedy. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1975. 252 pp. Frank Capra: The Man and His Films. Edited by Richard Glatzer and John Raeburn. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1974. 190 + xiv pp. Donald C. Willis. The Films of Frank Capra. Metuchen, N.J.: TheScarecrow Press, Inc., 1974. 214 pp. Frank Capra. The Name Above the Title. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. 513 + xii pp. George E. Toles One of the necessary conditions for the survival of a "classic," and in Frank Kermode's view the most important, is that "we have to want it to survive" and, therefore, "take a great deal of trouble over it," perhaps "out of a kind of instinct for self-preservation." 1 When the critic pays homage to a given work, in other words, he may be consciously or unconsciously expressing the hope that the area in himself which the artist has penetrated and entered into secret fellowship with, will be joined somehow to the ongoing life of the "classic." Any classic's life-span, even that of a work as well-established as King Lear, is indeterminate, Kermode goes on to say, and the critic must come to terms with the knowledge that our ivanting a treasured thing to endure will not, perhaps in the majority of circumstances, be enough. If this is part of the good critic's understanding of his position relative to the works he is most anxious to keep alive in the minds of others, it is, of course, a fearful and unavoidable part of the artist's understanding as well. I was recently reminded of the artist's painful share in this process while re-reading the final third of The Name Above the Title, the autobiography of the American film director, Frank Capra. The book was written nearly a decade after Capra's decision to retire from filmmaking (his last film, Pocke(ful of Miracles, was released in 1961), at a time when the body of his work was neither widely viewed nor critically esteemed. Having had the exceptional good fortune to find a vast sympathetic audience for almost all of his best films at the time of their release, Capra was obliged, by the late sixties, to 250 George E. Toles consider the possibility that though his films had been uniquely suited to speal< to the exigencies of a particular historical moment, the moment had passed. The audience with which he had managed to communicate in such a direct and personal way for so many years had perhaps permanently disappeared . In the concluding sections of his book, Capra chronicles his losses while trying to make sense of the socio-cultural changes that seemed to produce a steadily widening gap between the "timeless principles" celebrated in his films and the decisively time-bound laws of the world. Capra, whose best films so often unfold in an atmosphere of beautiful simplicity and emotional transparency, expresses an awareness that, as a society's way of thinking about and imaging itself changes, the transparent may grow obscure and simplicity may require an interpreter. It is always troubling to see an artist whom one cares about placed in a position where he feels compelled to explain and defend his work. The German poet Rilke once wrote that "a work of art is good when it is born of necessity," and that one of the severest tests for its creator is that "he must always remain unconscious, without an idea of his greatest qualities, if he does not want to rob them of their naivete and virginity." 2 The nature of the necessity, then, is something not to be inquired into too closely. It must dwell in a secret place if it is to retain its force and purity. Capra's book strikes me as being impatient of secrets of any kind. It aspires to make every event and personality it touches immediately comprehensible. Capra is determined that his personality appear to be an entirely open one, and he endeavors to recall, at sometimes exhausting length, the full range of feelings that every important occurrence in his life produced in him. Though by no means a simple man, Capra is passionately devoted to simplicity, and obviously hopes that his life story will honestly testify to the same thesis that shaped all of his most personal films. The terms of this thesis are concisely expressed in Dostoyevsky's "dream" of a "ridiculous man." Those who proclaim that suffering is beautiful because suffering alone contains thought, or that wickedness is the normal state of men, are in error. "Love others as you love yourself. And that's all there is to it. Nothing else is required. That would settle everything."J As I previously noted, one of Capra's implied concerns about his work, in a period when not only the aesthetic merits of his films but also their moral vocabulary were discredited or dismissed, was that it might become unintelligible . Unlike many Hollywood directors, Capra never conceived of his films, once he had achieved complete authority in making them, as casual entertainments ; he resolved that the best of them should have an "afterlife." Attempting to save his work from the further distortions and greater indifference which the great dark of time might be preparing for it, Capra ignored Rilke's counsel and tried to articulate the "spiritual necessity" which informed the development of his creative imagination. His self-conscious defense of things for which no words are adequate does Frank Capra 251 not,in my mind, touch the art whose cause it is intended to serve. Instead, it provides those unresponsive both to Capra's art and to his claims that he be judged an artist, with evidence to strengthen their conviction that his films, if not the product of cynical calculation, are nonetheless shallow and insubstantial . In the face of so many fervid affirmations, often written in a style perilously close to that of Mr. Deeds' greeting card verses, one would like Capra to remember that the figure of Christ, whom he invokes so often, once saidof his parables that those possessing faith already can understand them, butthose who do not cannot. The typically inflated rhetoric used to convey Capra's sense of mission has the effect of taking us further into certain vulnerable areas of sensibility than we care to go; there is a point at which candor yields no further glory, and is welcomely replaced by reticence. What continually impresses me, however, in the midst of so much illadvised "hawking" of his articles of faith, is that Capra feels no embarrassment - in fact, seems perfectly secure-in identifying himself as a moralist. More than anything else, this unapologetic moralism has been a stumbling block for critics of his films, who have argued since the thirties, as Capra is wellaware, that an explicitly didactic purpose is invariably inimical to the emergence of genuine art, and that where Capra is concerned, it severely limits theoperation of one of his greatest natural gifts: his wide comic attentiveness tounexpected details of human behavior. The more strongly a moral point , asserts itself in any given scene, critics argued, the less flexible become Capra's powers of observation. Rather than de-emphasize the significance of thisendlessly challenged aspect of his work, or try to approach it in terms whichwould reconcile his "moralism" with what he takes to be the prevailing contemporary attitude toward it, he declares that his moral and aesthetic aims areinseparable. The most important choice he ever made as a filmmaker, he tells us, was to give his work a firmly positivist, Christian orientation. In Marianne Moore's attractive phrase, Capra exhibits here "the courage of his peculiarities." For Capra, as I have already mentioned, the central law of life is that we do whatever we can to stimulate one another to love. He believes that the success orfailure of his films can best be measured by considering the degree to which , theyrendered this imperative imaginatively compelling. The films deserve to survive, in his view, as long as this dominant concern in them retains its emotional charge, which is to say its ability to engage the soul. I make such a point of this because it is precisely the "moralist" dimension of his ambition and achievement that almost all of the critics who have attempted to rehabilitate Capra's reputation (in the seven years that have passed since the appearance of his autobiography) seem most unwilling to confront directly. It is never in the foreground, but always furtively on the periphery of their discussions. The writers who pay the most attention to it are generally those with the least appreciative things to say. Consequently, before going on to examine the cases recent writers on Capra have made for his continued 252 George E. Toles recogmt10n as a director of the first rank, I would like to raise for brief consideration the vexing issue of the status of moralism in art. The names of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are introduced with mechanical regularity whenever this subject is treated at any length, usually to be cited as evidence that even the greatest artists, when afflicted with the fanatic's zeal to cure ills by moralizing them into submission, are working at cross-purposes with their authentic creative instincts. Tolstoy, having denied that part of himself which found its expression in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, goes on to write Resurrection, a novel which is in no way comparable to them. Dostoyevsky, likewise, brings nothing like the same conviction or authority of imaginative judgment to his rendering of Raskolnikov's spiritual regeneration in prison that he exhibits in his prior anatomy of his sickness. While I would not for a moment challenge either of these critical commonplaces , I am less willing to accept the conclusion that so frequently accompanies their presentation. I will risk distortion by attempting to state it in one sentence. The negative counterweight in Tolstoy's and Dostoyevsky's natures which prevents them from coming easily or naturally to the vision they seekof men becoming truly themselves by fulfilling the good that is in them - isthe source of their artistic integrity. True heart knowledge is only increased, it would appear, with an increase in pain, and the artists who tell us most are those who refuse to be comforted. Thus, many admirers of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are relieved to discover an enormous tension in their religious assertions which keeps the "breakthrough" they desire from taking place. Ironically, when St. Jerome cautioned that the "proper business of a monk is not to instruct but to mourn," he was simultaneously proposing a definition of the artist, which grows ever more creditable. An equally lopsided definition, but one which has an immediate relevance to the conception of artistic conscience as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky understood it, is offered by Kierkegaard. The religious sphere in man, he argues, "is present from the very first instant and has a decisive predominance, but for a while it waits patiently to give the poet leave to talk himself out." 4 The sources of art, I think, are sufficiently mysterious that almost anything one chooses to say about them will seem at least partially plausible. Surely it would be difficult to establish why a "poet" who seeks to formulate "binding answers" to the difficult life-questions he takes up harms his art to the extent that he appends judgments to it, however strict and unyielding these latter may be. In my view, the tremendous impetus to draw us out of the realm of suffering to a place where a patient faith awaits us, a faith with the power "to comprehend the whole being and lift it up," is intimately conjoined with Dostoyevsky 's capacity to see into suffering so deeply. Dostoyevsky regards himself as being in a cage, and believes that the only terms of existence possible in that cage are terms of sickness, not health. Consequently, though he is obsessed with the nature of the cage, it isnever the obsession of one who has grown comfortable with it because it is his and who, therefore, wills himself Frank Capra 253 into a closer sympathetic identification with it. He is convinced, rather, that hisonly salvation lies outside the cage, and that the act of nurturing a pain orsubmitting to its logic only extends the length of his confinement. It is this attitude, I believe, which immediately distinguishes his work from that of film director Ingmar Bergman, who has made himself, in the course of his lengthy career, a veritable connoisseur of the varieties of existential anguish. Erik Erikson once spoke wisely of the danger of a "great creative man building his hateand his grudges into his system as bulwarks- bulwarks which eventually makethe system first rigid and finally brittle." 5 Considered in the light of this statement, the artist's urge to locate himself on a serene, morally positive ground may be a safeguard of imaginative flexibility rather than its destroyer. Nothing, it seems to me, is more easily impaired within the vision of a writer or filmmaker who endeavors to look steadily at the world than the secure conviction of what can be honestly affirmed; nothing, conversely, is more difficult to hold in abeyance, once its power has been clearly felt, than the forceof skepticism. The fundamental problem with the "moralism" of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is not that there is some unassimilable element in the vision toward which they move that bars the latter's existence in the aesthetic realm, but that its articulation lacks the energy and, surprisingly enough, the intimacy of the preceding negative argument. By intimacy, I mean the sense that something has arisen spontaneously from within, rather than having been imposed by an exertion of will. The very qualities that make both novelists supreme masters of negative analysis (Tolstoy possessed a terrifying ability, in Turgenev's view, to reduce anything, with a few sharp strokes, to its "component atoms of falsity") are perhaps what hinder them from entering freely into the expressive, yet unselfconscious language of faith to which they aspire. Both exhort us to a kind of discernment before which the rational faculty must stand silent and accepting; the path that opens up is of the same sort that we traverse in dreams, one that asks us to "leap over space, time, the laws of reason and existence, and stop only at points dear to our hearts" (Dostoyevsky, p. 213). They have the conviction necessary for such a journey, but not perhaps the requisite lightness of spirit. Even when they claim to be subdued by love, they feel the need to prolong the argument with despair. My choice of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as the primary focus in this limited defense of the moralist's beleaguered position in art has not been as arbitrary as it probably thus far appears. I have selected them because their work is so unmistakably associated with all the imaginative concerns that Capra's films are felt to lack. With few exceptions (most notably, George Bailey in It's a Wonderful L(fe), Capra's characters are not psychologically complex. While his protagonists are generally obliged to suffer through various crises, the nature of suffering itself has no particular interest for Capra, and he pays little attention to it. Capra has an infinite tolerance for sentiment (in this one area, Dostoyevsky is something of an ally), while Tolstoy is deeply wary of it. Evil is 254 George E. Toles an alien presence in Capra's world; though it frequently assumes powerful proportions, it is always observed from the outside and at a distance, never from within. He is loathe to have it wear too humanly recognizable a face. Finally, however vitally attached he is to an emotional issue, his handling of it displays none of the characteristics of Arnoldian high seriousness. One of his strongest convictions as a director is that one must be modest in one's approach to large emotions. The man who holds that the way to come nearer to "great and solemn objects" is to take on their qualities is unlikely to reach them. The most luminous emotional states (those lying nearest to one's spiritual center) are generally stumbled into as if by a happy accident. Undoubtedly, the contradiction in human nature which Capra most clearly apprehends is that the things which mean most to us are very often the things which most embarrass us. If the ideal which one would turn into an "immediate experience" is not mingled with raw and homely elements, it will, in all probability, wither; one must keep it buoyant and lively if it is to flourish, and that is why Capra rings it round with laughter. Capra believes with Chesterton that "there are other things that can be high as well as high seriousness. I think, for instance, that there can be such things as high spirits, and that these also can be spiritual." 6 Having acknowledged the absence in Capra's work of so many of the capabilities and forms of understanding which give the fictive worlds of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky their scope and depth, I think it can be said, without risk of elevating Capra's achievement unduly, that the greatest strength of his films lies precisely in the area where, as I have suggested, the novelists' "moralism" is weak-that is to say, in the articulation, as opposed to the reasoning out, of the vision of possibility. What this vision consists of is a fleeting glimpse of the glory of the perfected community. There are those who would instantly counter such a claim by insisting that without the steady tug of that hard, darker knowledge (which, as I have conceded, plays a relatively small part in Capra's scheme of things), such a vision is meaningless; it takes place in an intellectual vacuum. Where I would argue the presence of beauty and an authentic imaging of joy that I have no desire to explain away, they would perhaps identify nothing at work beyond a spurious sentimentality. The charge of sentimentality always proves difficult to deal with decisively , possibly because the term is so indefinite. It is especially difficult to respond to when applied to the work of someone whom I feel does, on numerous occasions, lapse into it. The best defense I can offer is to indicate that the term is more inclusive than those who regularly employ it may realize. Hoffmansthal has written that "each epoch has its own sentimentality, its specific way of overemphasizing strata of emotion. The sentimentality of the present is egotistic and unloving; it exaggerates not the feeling of love but that of the self." As for the assumption that a warmly affirmative concluding vision depends for its validity on the depth of the artist's revealed awareness of the obstructions reality puts in the way of it, I do not believe that the kind Frank Capra 255 ofvision Capra extends to us can ever, strictly speaking, be "earned." Perhaps itmust always take the form of an impossible gift, whose source and presence are equally mysterious. I recall an interesting analogy that film critic Stanley Kauffman once, rather untypically, devised to justify his being moved by certain moments of greattenderness in a film by Charlie Chaplin. He compared the effect of these moments to that produced by a splendid aria in an opera where the preceding recitative had been awkward and amusingly excessive. The sudden ascent into adifferent dimension at the aria's commencement, with the discovery that an emotional situation which only a brief instant before had seemed pure contrivance was now unfolding with exquisite clarity and force, manages to restore to art some of its primeval magic. Though there are risks involved in surrendering to moments in film which seem to compel a deep assent, without questioning the process that brought us there (one need only recall The Triumph of the Will), there are fully as many perils in standing always in an adversary relation to the artist who would move us in positive ways. I often wonder whether it is possible to say that we have really grasped an artist's work unless it has first succeeded in grasping us. The Capra endings which directly celebrate the pleasures of human fellowship are all, in some sense, "invitations to the dance." Externally, they bear a strong resemblance to the comic scene in Chaplin's City Lights where the tramp has found his way into a nightclub, in a state of higli.inebriation, and watches from a table as a crowd of people file out onto the dance-floor. When the orchestra begins to play in an agitated tempo, and the couples' dancing quickens to match its intensity, the tramp's foot beats against the floor more and more energetically, without its owner's full knowledge or consent, in rhythm with the music. Finally, unable to restrain himself a moment longer, thetramp seizes hold of a large, primly erect elderly woman passing his table, and, to her astonishment, proceeds to whisk her about the dance floor. The comic extravagance of the ungovernable impulse to burst through the restraints of "formalized humanity" is present in Capra's climaxes. The potentially ludicrous gesture, however, is generally accompanied by a sudden rush of feeling, developing out of our recognition that the incentive to move, the inner necessity which sets the dance awhirl, is ethical. Toward the end of Capra's You Can't Take It With You, the Edward Arnold character, Anthony Kirby, having made up his mind to renounce the logic of power which has crept into all areas of his life, seeks to find some small action which would tell those he has wronged, less self-servingly than speech, "come, let it be done now." His solution, which, I am convinced, no one but Capra could have dramatized with enough imaginative conviction to make it seem irresistible rather than absurd, is to take the harmonica Grandpa Vanderhof tenders to him and to embark, tentatively at first, and then with an expanding delectation which visibly dissolves the division in his will, on a noisy duet with him. Capra's appetite for magic does not find its limits in this one man's 256 George E. Toles efficacious irruption into life. No; as in Dickens there must be "a rich and heedless overflowing." Kirby's music, emanating from a spirit that is wakening to a sense of its own possibilities, seems to create a forcefield that would draw into itself all those odd creatures in Vanderhofs densely populated household who have that music for themselves and have learned to dance to it. Soon the room is filled with madly capering figures who seem to have sprung, fullblown , from the air, and one experiences (as one does to an even greater extent in the closing minutes of It's a Wonde(ful L[fe) a gorgeous sensation of fullness. One of the fundamental tendencies of human existence, according to Sartre, is "the tendency to fill": "a good part of our life is passed in plugging up holes, in filling empty places, in realizing and symbolically establishing a plenitude."7 It is precisely this desire for plenitude that Capra would answer for, as he plunges us into the thick of his benevolent social fabric. Plenitude, in Capra's terms, is always a house in which good will and well-being are so far in the ascendant that no competing presence is proof against them. In such a place, the accumulations of time hold no terror, and one ceases to be a dispersed being. The level of criticism attained in most of the Capra scholarship published to date is not particularly high. Little that has been written could be said to illuminate a path into his work which might oblige those who do not care for it to reassess their position. The kind of sensitive, invigorating advocacy that James Agee and, more recently, Walter Kerr provided for the silent clowns, or that Manny Farber and Stanley Cavell, respectively, exhibit in their superbly evocative essays on Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, has set a standard for writing on American film comedy which none of the Capra studies with which I am familiar has equalled. The lengthiest and most ambitiousthough not, I think, the best examination of Capra's films presently available -is Leland Poague's The Cinerna of Frank Capra. In his introduction Poague correctly points out that Capra's films are too often approached as sociological artifacts, whose chief interest lies in their fantasy reconstruc-tion of depression problems, and in the "naive," covertly political solutions which Capra's fables served to promote. He argues that the persistent attempts to evaluate Capra's achievement from a sociological perspective have obscured the much larger and more important issue of their aesthetic value. Poague believes that the best means of doing justice to the latter is to approach the films as mythic structures, of the sort that Northrop Frye has skeletonized in his Anatomy of Criticism. If it can be shown that the comic and romance forms employed in Capra's films share many of the conventions or ritualistic components of older, literary forms, then there is no necessity, according to Poague, to concern oneself with Capra's implied ideology, or to try to determine how wide and finely responsive a sensibility he possesses. Mythic structures, as Poague conceives them, have a mysterious inherent value. A film which loosely Frank Capra 257 observes the requirements of the comic form he delineates, and thus reveals a "classical" pattern and symmetry, is automatically regarded as a significant aesthetic performance. Poague takes enormous delight in applying the terminology of Greek drama to formulaic Hollywood plots, and he clearly believes that by analyzing these plots in terms of agon rituals and fertility celebrations he is creating a context for them that is not only dignified, but meaningful. Hence, one repeatedly encounters statements like the following, from his chapter on Pocke(ful of Miracles: "His attitude toward Queenie's request is one of bemused condescension. He does not fully comprehend the strength of her comic fertility instinct" (p. 221). Now here does Poague acknowledge the difficulty of differentiating between the status of Capra's films, in their presumably scrupulous adherence to these formal conventions, and that of innumerable comedies made by directors of vastly inferior ability whose work, when approached in the same fashion, would reveal equally compelling mythic structures. Under what circumstances should we resist the temptation to see comic characters' mishaps in water as preludes to symbolic rebirth? Although he offers fuller explications of theme and narrative action than any previous Capra commentator, Poague does not convince me that one can learn much that is essential about the brilliance of Capra's visual storytelling by lingering too long over the stories themselves. The witchery of so many of Capra's good films lies almost entirely in the handling; to look at the story in isolation is to see the dragon before it has been transformed into a princess. Otis Ferguson, a film reviewer for The New Republic in the l930's and one of Capra's earliest admirers, made this point while commenting on the success of ft Happened One Night: "It is purely foolish to consider films in terms of what their story would look like on paper ... a movie can be made out of anything or nothing so long as it is in the hands of the best picturemakers-which is to say, those with the best feeling for life and for the intricate possibilities and effects of film_s."8 One cannot, for this reason, properly evaluate Capra's films without carefully considering, in each case, the workings of his style. Perhaps the most distinctive features of this style are its speed and urgency- scenes seldom glide in Capra, they snap. Speed is, of course, a vital component in the styles of other major comedy directors of the period, especially Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, but whereas they generally use speed as a means of bypassing or skating over the potentially complicating emotional factors in a situation, Capra's tactic is to ignite an emotional scene without warning and propel us into the center of it as it flashes into existence. Poague devotes one fairly lengthy chapter to the subject of style, but the discussion is a cul-de-sac, having no bearing whatever on the readings of the films that follow. Reading this chapter, with its conscientious checklist of some of the general characteristics of Capra's editing and camera techniques, I was struck by the fact that at no point in his study had Poague managed to 258 George E. Toles put me in touch with any of the things in Capra's work which delighted me or caused me to love it. To return for a moment to the terms with which this essay began, I had no conception what it was in Capra that most deeply mattered to him, that constituted his stake in the director's survival. Donald C. Willis's The Films of Frank Capra, which is more a monograph than a book, is at least in this one respect a more engaging introduction to the Capra world. It is a study which strives to keep a child's openness about the excitement that anything good, however small, induces. The specific texture of the author's pleasure or disappointment always layers the ground on which we move. Willis has no prose style to speak of, and his approach is aggressively non-academic, eschewing all the proprieties of "objective criticism" while furiously waving the banner of common sense. Nevertheless, he displays a better "feel" for the special marks of Capra's style of direction than most of the commentators who have tried to get at it more methodically. On numerous occasions, he pulls one up sharply with a succinct description of how Capra "points" a scene or invisibly adjusts its lines of force. Here is his analysis of Capra's use of the Senate chamber in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Capra's Senate is alive as few interiors in movies have been. It's a unique setting, and Capra .. [takes] full advantage of the unique possibilities for staging. For example, in a fullshot of the chamber, Smith, standing at his desk in the last row of senators, holds the floor. In the same shot, Senator Paine, in the first row, rises and interrupts Smith. Without turning to face him, he asks if the senator will yield the floor. Smith refuses, and his refusal seems an act of insolence directed at the whole Senate body. The staging of the clash, in one take, with the senators standing at a distance from each other and facing the Senate president, generates an unusual, extraordinary tension. It's an electric, unforgettable moment. And it's a concise expresston of the battle lines drawn for Smith, and drawn by him, on this odd, formal battlefield, with both Smith and Paine employing its formality as weapons. (p.' 26) What makes Capra's style so highly-charged is its continuous effort to animate everything it touches. His typical method of attacking a scene is to build into it as many pretexts for heightened activity as possible, and to draw these together around a common center, or focal point. As often as not, this point is not stabilized, but participates in the motion, much like the eye of a maelstrom. It is seldom remarked that there is no natural alliance between the energy released in such quantities throughout Capra's narratives and the vision of abiding tranquillity they strive to make tenable. Capra makes no attempt to distance himself from the turbulence he generates. He tries as far as possible to get inside it. Disorder, therefore, seems to infect the governing perspective, as it never does in a John Ford or Satyajit Ray film, where upheavals are witnessed from a vantage point outside the circle of stress. William Pechter, who has undoubtedly written the best single essay on Capra's style ("American Madness," included in Pechter's fine book of film essays, Twenty- /our Times a Second), believes that the disorder is strong enough in the visual presentation to deprive the nominal values of the film (innocence and benevolence) of their strength: "In seeing the films again, [these qualities] seem strangely elusive, forever asserting themselves on set occasions, but Frank Capra 259 always dissipating ... finally in a kind of shrill excitement."9 Pechter obviously wants the strain of melancholy which he perceives as a thread winding through all of Capra's major films to become at least visible to those whose settled view of Capra's world declares it unrelentingly cheery -and so, I think, he overemphasizes its influence. But the error is a most enlightening one. When Pechter suggests that the qualities to be affirmed "dissipate" before obtaining a real purchase on the action, he is referring to Capra's tendency, particularly in It's a Wonde(ful L(fe, to employ the same pressing rhythm whether he is engaging moral positives or negatives. The haste which Capra displays in bringing sudden harmonies out of momentous discords is, on the surface of it, like Richard Ill's wooing of Lady Anne, in which emotional consolidation is pursued with such dexterous quickness that its weight will not be tested. Capra's compressed presentations of figures poised on the threshold of a ripening tenderness or joy are in no sense dissipated , however, by not being carried through to an end-point. They are, rather, merely held in check. These not-quite-completed experiences collect beneath the surface of the narrative action to form an increasingly large unfulfilled promise. Only at the close of the film are all barriers to their fulfillment lifted, and then they freely expand in an atmosphere of ecstatic repose. The Pechter essay has been reprinted in the Richard Glatzer /John Rae burn anthology, Frank Capra: The Man and His Films. I find myself returnmg to this compilation of essays and reviews more often than to any of the other currently available studies of the director. Willis's book, in spite of his many striking intuitions about the "'hidden levers" Capra operates when directing a scene, is seriously weakened by the absence of anything resembling a controlling thesis, and by the author's near mania for making brisk pronouncements about Capra's level of performance in every sequence analyzed; while his enthusiasm is often attractive, his peevishness is of a kind that takes too much· credit to itself. This urge to carp, which sometimes dominates entire chapters, puts Willis at the opposite extreme from Poague, who approaches all but one of Capra's films (Lost Horizon) as fully realized works of art, and is inclined to regard negative evaluation of any form as a misunderstanding of the nature of myth. The Glatzer/ Raeburn anthology gathers together nearly all of the pieces on Capra of real distinction (unfortunately, not a vast quantity) published in English prior to 1976. Included in their wide-ranging selection are the wonderfully astute early reviews of Broadway Bill and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town by Otis Ferguson, and the four articles on Capra Graham Greene wrote while doing regular film criticism for The Spectator. There are rather good general essays by Stephen Handzo and Robert Sklar, and a long interview with Capra by Richard Glatzer, which offers the most engaging informal portrait of the director I have encountered to date. Inexplicably, this collection fails to provide a detailed filmography, and its short bibliography 260 George E. Toles is, by any standards, unduly selective. My chief regret, however, isthat Robin Wood's excellent comparative analysis of It's a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock 's Shadow of a Doubt-"Ideology, Genre, Auteur," Film Comment (Jan.-Feb., 1977)-was composed too late to obtain a place in this volume. As it stands, the anthology lacks a full-scale analysis of Wonderful Life, which I think unquestionably deserves to be regarded as Capra's masterpiece. Notes 1Frank Kermode, "Survival of the Classic," in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essars (New York, 1971), p. 179. 2Rainer Maria Rilke, letters to a Young Poet, trans. K. W. Maurer (St. James, Manitoba, 1958). JFyodor Dostoyevsky, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (New York, 1961),pp. 223, 225. 4Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in Walter L. Reed, Meditations on the Hero: A Stucfi· c1fthe Romantic Hero in Nineteenth Century Fiction (New Haven, 1974), p. 81. 5Quoted in Vernon Young, Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (New York 1972), p. 217. 6Q. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London, 1932), p. 20. 7Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomeno/01;ica/ Ontology, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York, 1956), p. 613). BQtis Ferguson, The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (Philadelphia, 1971), p. 127. 9Wilham S. Pechter, Twenty~four Times a Second: Films and Filmmakers(New York, 1971),p.126. ...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 249-260
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.