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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Capra Times Three Makes For Great Reads

Taken Together, They Tell a Riveting Story

I’ll ask right off if the following is right or wrong: Cecil B. DeMille, and later Frank Capra, were the first major directors to pen a memoir. Others would after old Hollywood got 70’s traction, but before? Capra’s book was published in 1971. A major success, it made director recall a paying proposition. Film students, rising in number as schools widened the curriculum, swore by The Name Above The Title. Critics were impressed by colorful mosaic Capra made of his life, plus how candid he was about failures and insecurity. Capra had to be a showmanlike writer to put this book across, a same policy he applied to movies. That meant depicting himself as bigger than life, same as other screen pioneers who were bigger than life. What famed director went all humble and self-effacing for books or interviews? Don’t know of one offhand, unless his output was humble, and to that I bet even Ford Beebe puffed up when press or fans approached him. Capra embroiders, skips life incidents that slow momentum, and seizes credit for what went right in his work, all in service to text he hoped would be as entertaining as a Frank Capra movie. Readers, he knew, would expect no less.

I read The Name Above The Title in tandem with Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe Of Success, back and forth, one to the other, until 1100 pages representing both were done. For appetizer, there was McBride’s recent Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra, which clocks another 600 pages. I got afraid all this would turn me into Frank Capra. All three books are outstanding and for very different reasons. McBride corrects and chastises Capra for perhaps good cause, but didn’t live the man’s life, and there’s beauty of The Name Above The Title, whatever its fudging with facts. For instance: A most humiliating moment for the young director was his mis-hearing his name called at the 1933 Academy Awards dinner when they actually meant for Frank Lloyd to come up and collect the statue. Capra wallows in the long-past mortification, horror of it notched way past actuality of the event, but fun reading for all who harbor a single embarrassment as worse of their lives. Capra knew this was baggage mankind as a whole carries, so who couldn’t identify with his abasement? The young director as new hire at Mack Sennett’s pie factory makes for a chapter so appealing that I care less about its being wholly accurate than it just keeps on being funny. That one has been excerpted in Best Of … film writing anthologies since. Capra tells of wild/wooly moments shooting Submarine and Flight, makes Jack Holt a colorful personality, offscreen at least, and by dent of you-were-there anecdotes, fires our interest in forgotten service pics anyone would play hell tracking down in 1971(I didn’t see Submarine or Flight until pinched prints were shown me in the late 80’s).

Capra was taken to task for raking Harry Langdon over coals. Here was his sharpest ax to grind. Langdon had once fired Capra and got word out that he was less a director (of The Strong Man) than a glorified gagman. The slander almost still-borned Capra’s career, and being sensitive to slights meant he’d never forgive, even unto old age and biographer McBride recalling Capra’s always-reference to Langdon as “the little bastard.” Well, a man can hate for keeps. We all like to think we’re above it, but who is kidding who? The Frank flaw makes him human, a quality his book has much of. I can understand why old-age colleagues rallied round The Name Above The Title. They saw much of themselves in Capra. To worthwhile footnote re Capra v. Langdon, go find Ann Doran’s interview in Filmfax # 48 (that invaluable magazine again) --- she was at Columbia in the early 40’s and witnessed a Frank/Harry reunion way different from what Capra depicted in The Name Above The Title. A man making himself big like Capra will reach that point of urgency where bigness must be protected at cost that varies according to accomplishment. Since Capra was hands-down a most celebrated director of the 30’s, imagine burden that entailed. His book practically shouts despair Capra knew when awards stopped coming and phones quit ringing.

Frank Capra timed The Name Above The Title perfectly. It was the serious film book that 1971 needed, a great maker of late shows telling in detail how he made late shows great, reassuring us that staying up half of nights, at least to watch Capra movies, was not waste. Other survivors from Classic Hollywood could point and say yes, here is what we all went through to create marvelous films. Capra must have been deafened by applause he got in old age. A broader public saluted him than Ford, Hawks, maybe even Hitchcock, who of the group, was still working and so kept most relevant. Wellman, Walsh, a number of others, did books, but for a narrower constituency, Capra the model, conscious or not, for each of them. His writing was as much for those not fully in the bag for old films, but curious at least of how a Golden Age progressed, in other words a popular audience same as those Capra appealed to when he was a biggest cheese in movie land. There was value too for those deeper down rabbit holes, such as Capra account of spacing “length between gag lines to get more laughs,” and picking up pace on the set so outcome would play faster to the audience. Capra stayed home from previews, had his minions record the crowd response, then analyzed the tapes to determine where changes should be made. He talks a lot about improvisation on the set, this to argue Capra as fullest architect of finished films. I remember being so impressed by The Name Above The Title because there had been nothing quite like it to that point (1971 still a parched desert for worthwhile film books).

Capra came to Charlotte once, I believe in the early 80’s. The theatre ran It Happened One Night to back his visit. The print was lousy and Capra apologized for it. Of course, that was Columbia’s fault and not his. Most of their backlog looked bad in days when revival housing booked whatever tatters could be got. Still, it was Capra in person and he was gracious. A lot of young people probably went into the business by his example. This man didn’t need the money but flew out (in this instance, 3000 miles) to please admirers whose number was swelled by the book. Columbia in a DVD age tried at last to make the films presentable. Results now on Blu-Ray bear out at least qualified success of their mission. Capra remains the biggest director name in Columbia’s inventory and will likely remain so. Research-wise, Capra is covered as well as any Classic Era filmmaker, thanks to Joseph McBride’s work which has been ongoing since The Catastrophe Of Success was published in 1992. Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra tells of the struggle McBride had to get his earlier book published in the face of “bureaucratic resistance,” quite a dramatic odyssey for the author and a full-absorbing read. McBride’s books made for a nice tandem with Capra’s own. Also Two Cheers For Hollywood, a compilation of McBride essays, set visits, and interviews gathered over a fifty year period, is highly recommended. 


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Capra's THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE rang true with me when I read it in 1971. Made me want to see as many (all) of his films as possible. A favorite is THAT CERTAIN THING (1928) which I had on 8mm. It's about box lunches and great fun. It's available digitally from what looks like that 8mm print.

Expecting these people to write about their misadventures and misfortunes is expecting them to wallow in self pity. They are too classy for that tho there is no end of writers doing their best to fill us in on the details these folk wisely left out.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

In the picture of Capra and stars in front of the Capitol Building, some of the faces look pasted on.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

5:33 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I agree, Tommie Hicks. Good catch.

The Robot

9:25 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love this post! NAME ABOVE THE TITLE and THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS are both great, important books and I love your conclusion that neither necessarily cancels out the other (although plenty of commentators would have us believe exactly that.) My folks sent me an autographed copy of Capra's book while I was still in college... they heard him speak at the screening of, I believe, THE STRONG MAN! NAME ABOVE THE TITLE was a surprise best seller and more than a few eyebrows were raised when the director ranked one of his 'forgotten' films as his all time best (about this time I told a university cinema professor one of my favorite films was IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and he said 'what the hell is that?')

Seems to me, anyone who takes any autobiography as documentary fact is missing the point, and I can think of few memoirs as hugely entertaining as Capra's book. McBride's first Capra book can be harsh but is more often a clear-eyed overview, deliberately cutting his subject little slack (which was, you know, kinda the point). Will have to track down UNMASKING CAPRA! As usual, good job, John!

10:47 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I read "The Name Above the Title" in my teens, about the same time I discovered Kevin Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By..." Capra had as much scorn for Harry Cohn as he did for Langdon, referring to the Columbia boss as "His Crudeness" and "The Crude One." Frank felt he had a bigger role in lifting Columbia out of Poverty Row - and recalled with considerable anger Cohn putting Capra's name on a film he had nothing to do with for its British release.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Capra needed Cohn just as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones et al needed Leon Schlesinger. No other studio boss would have given Capra the freedom he needed just as the guys at LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES needed Leon.

I was running one of the features Harry Langdon directed just for myself when a couple of fellows walked in off the street and asked if they could watch. To my delight (not having read the film was not funny) they laughed themselves silly.

Capra was wrong about Langdon, wrong big and wrong destructive. That does not stop me from liking Capra's films but that attitude has kept a lot of people from appreciating Harry Langdon. People forget that opinions expressed in books are subjective not objective. Too often opinions become gospel.

12:09 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

My take, both in 1971 and today, is that Capra seemed to be a very troubled man. Ample proof is the freefall of his post-war career, and the self-flagellation he indulged in his autobiography. Maybe deep down he felt he should have been an engineer or architect, and he wasted his life making films. At any rate, he could certainly hold a grudge. The truth according to Capra or Langdon is probably somewhere in the middle. But Capra was extraordinarily vindictive for the rest of his life, it seems.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Chaplin published "My Autobiography" in 1966, beating Capra to the punch by 5 years, it seems.

11:11 PM  

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