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April 11 - June 2, 2014

The Capra Touch

By the mid-1930s, Frank Capra was the most powerful director in Hollywood, eclipsing even the mighty Ernst Lubitsch and Charlie Chaplin. All three of these filmmakers earned their celebrity by making audiences laugh. But while Chaplin was stymied by the arrival of sound cinema, Capra and Lubitsch both displayed a skill at smoothly integrating plenty of dialogue into their films without slowing the seamless flow that comedy requires.

Ultimately, Capra surpassed Lubitsch by perfecting what was often called his “common touch”: his celebration of everyday pluck and high spirits in the face of the Great Depression. His 1930s films celebrated the spunk of the underdog while thumbing their noses at the high and mighty. If this emphasis on homespun decency sometimes veered close to sentimentality, especially in his later work, the films that made him famous not only helped establish screwball comedy as a genre, they also tackled miscegenation, religious hypocrisy and political corruption.

The first half of Capra’s biography reads like a classic “American Dream” story: the son of impoverished Sicilian immigrants living in Los Angeles manages to get into the California Institute of Technology despite working full-time while in high school. Although he had hopes of making a living as a scientist or engineer, he worked a variety of menial jobs before eventually finding work in the lower rungs of the film industry, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. From the beginning, he specialized in comedy, working on short films for Hal Roach and then Mack Sennett. When comedian Harry Langdon wanted to begin making features, he hired Capra as his writer and director. After making six films with Langdon in 1926 and 1927, including his first two directorial credits, Capra struck off on his own.  After an unsuccessful third feature, Capra found work as a director at the struggling Columbia Pictures.

He would work there from 1928 to 1939, during which time he rose to fame, helping to establish Columbia as an important studio along the way. After making a handful of silent films, Capra finally hit his stride with a string of brisk pre-Code early talkies. Many of these were melodramas starring Barbara Stanwyck, but they also included such topical films as The Miracle Woman, inspired by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and American Madness, about bank failures at the depth of the Depression. Perhaps Capra’s most daring film is The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a love story between a Chinese warlord and the American evangelist he’s holding captive.

The warm reception given Platinum Blonde and Lady for a Day cemented Capra’s reputation as a master of comedy and paved the way for the pinnacle of his success with 1934’s It Happened One Night. This triumph was repeated with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which introduced the Everyman protagonist who would feature prominently in Capra’s films for the next decade.

The troubled production of the ambitious Lost Horizon (1937), with which Capra had hoped to forge a new direction for his work, was the first major setback in the filmmaker’s career and began the rift with Columbia that grew despite the success of You Can’t Take It With You. Capra’s vision of his Everyman hero in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, excited considerable controversy with its populist vision of a corrupt federal government, but it also generated enough acclaim to convince Capra to leave Columbia and become an independent.

Mr. Smith also introduced a darker tone to Capra’s work that grew with Meet John Doe, a troubled and troubling film replete with demagogues, an irresponsible press and crowds that are easily turned into angry mobs. The film’s climax represented a narrative and ideological impasse for the director’s mix of populism and individualism. The experience ended the partnership between Capra and Robert Riskin, the screenwriter who had been his most important collaborator since 1931.

It is fair to say that Capra never really recovered from the breaks with Columbia and with Riskin, although he maintained his importance during World War II. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and was swiftly given a special appointment in charge of producing “war information” films designed to motivate U.S. forces headed for combat. Although the Why We Fight films were scripted and edited by many, and drew on footage from numerous sources, Capra oversaw all aspects of their production.
Burned out, by his own admission, at the end of the war, Capra was yet to endure years of suspicion during the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s, during which he narrowly escaped being blacklisted. Although he would make six more films, success was elusive, as Capra struggled to find a place for himself within a rapidly changing industry and society.

Although history has been kind to one of these postwar films, It’s a Wonderful Life, which was seen as old-fashioned compared to the contemporaneous The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but eventually gained a following on television, the rest of Capra’s later pictures remain to be rediscovered. What remains undeniable is the scope of Capra’s considerable achievements in the 1930s, which would influence subsequent generations of American filmmakers from Preston Sturges to Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese to the Coen brothers.

The following program notes are drawn from Capra’s autobiography, Name Above the Title (1971). While he was not always a reliable critic of his own work, even his distortions are quite revealing about movie- and myth-making.

Special thanks: Michael Horne—Sony; Tom Capra—Frank Capra Productions; Todd Weiner, Steven Hill—UCLA Film and Television Archive; Lynanne Schweiger—Library of Congress.


Friday April 11 at 7pm

Meet John Doe

Directed by Frank Capra. With Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck,
Edward Arnold
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 125 min

So I can truthfully say that it was the box-office customers who made Frank Capra whatever he was or is. […] And yet, and yet – an ego like mine needed – nay, required – the plaudits of sophisticated criticism. Childlike, creativity thirsts for the heady wine of the connoisseur’s acclaim. The ‘Capra-corn’ barbs had pierced the outer blubber.

And so, Meet John Doe, my first completely independent film venture, was aimed at winning critical praises. […] Riskin and I would astonish the critics with contemporary realities: the ugly face of hate; the power of uniformed bigots in red, white, and blue shirts; the agony of disillusionment, and the wild dark passions of mobs […].

We had abandoned our usual formula—a sane, honest ‘man of the people,’ thrust into a confrontation with the forces of evil, wins out with his innate goodness. This time our hero was a bindle stiff, a drifting piece of human flotsam as devoid of ideals as he was of change in his pocket. When the forces of evil tempt him—fine; no skin off his nose if they call him John Doe, the ‘Messiah of goodness,’ in exchange for steaks and fancy clothes. But—discovering he is being used to delude and defraud thousands of innocent people, he rebels. When he tries to tell the deluded people that he had been a fraud, but now believes as they do, the people turn on him, try to tear him limb from limb. So far so good. But now, what happens to John Doe?... In desperation—setting some kind of a pointless record—I was to photograph five different endings, and then try them out on theater audiences […]. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Sunday April 13 at 5pm

The Miracle Woman

Directed by Frank Capra. With Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners,
Sam Hardy
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 90 min

My next picture would deal with the most controversial idea I could think of—religion! I asked Harry Cohn to buy me Bless You Sister, a satirical play inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson, and written by Robert Riskin, the brightest of the ‘young Turks’ Cohn had imported from New York. [….]

Miracle Woman, the film version, had a most powerful opening sequence—a promise of greatness. A stiff-necked country congregation had replaced their aging, old-fashioned pastor with an up-an-coming ‘modernist.’ Sunday morning the villagers gather to yawn through the old man’s last sermon. Instead, his daughter comes out, eyes flashing with hate. She mounts the pulpit. In a nutshell, this is what she says: ‘My father is not able to preach his last sermon. He just died in my arms. And you killed him. For thirty years he tried to touch your stony hearts with the mercies of God—and failed! Why? Because you don’t want God. And you’re right! There is no God […].”

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Saturday April 19 at 9pm

A Hole in the Head

Directed by Frank Capra. With Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson,
Eleanor Parker
US 1959, 35mm, color, 120 min

A Hole in the Head was the answer to this personal question: Could I evoke heart and humor out of a ‘sex and violence’ entry, a story with no hero, no Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith; a story about hard, unpleasant characters? Bitter ‘realism’ was the trend. Could I leap a seven-year hiatus, dive into the pool of cynicism, and come up with laughs? Or, was my courage too worn and my legs too stiff to run with the times? [….]

The leading man was a grandstanding, dame-chasing wastrel; rearing a ten-year-old son in an atmosphere both sinful and phony. Could I fit such non-heroes into my own style of warm human comedy? If I couldn’t, I might as well hang up my kind of laughs. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Sunday April 20 at 5pm

Ladies of Leisure

Directed by Frank Capra. With Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves,
Lowell Sherman
US 1930, 35mm, b/w, 102 min

I had assembled a fine cast for Ladies of Leisure. Ralph Graves, Marie Prevost, Lowell Sherman, George Fawcett, and the stage star Nance O’Neill. All we needed was a leading lady to play the ‘party’ girl. I wanted a certain actress, but Harry Cohn dragged his feet about signing her. He asked me to talk to an ex-chorus girl who had made a hit in the stage play Burlesque. [….]

Thus began my long personal and professional association with Barbara Stanwyck. Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt. Naïve, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, clothes, or hair-dos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. She knew nothing about camera tricks: how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Sunday April 20 at 7pm
Sunday May 4 at 7pm

It Happened One Night

Directed by Frank Capra. With Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert,
Walter Connolly
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 105 min

Relieved from the onus of studio ‘expectations,’ we slammed through the film clowning, laughing, ad-libbing. [...] But two ‘happenings’ during the shooting of It Happened One Night may be worth noting. One: Colbert fretted, pouted, and argued about her part; challenged my slap-happy way of shooting scenes; fussed constantly [...]. But all her little tantrums—motivated by her antipathy toward me—were rehearsals for the picture. All she had to do was bug Gable on camera as she bugged me off camera. And she was wonderful in the part [...].

And, two: The metamorphosis of Clark Gable, the ‘bad boy’ exiled to Siberia. [...] I believe it was the only picture in which Gable was ever allowed to play himself: the fun-loving, boyish, attractive, he-man rogue that was the real Gable. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Monday April 21 at 7pm

American Madness

Directed by Frank Capra. With Walter Huston, Pat O’Brien, Kay Johnson
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 75 min

Was there some film ‘hay’ to be made out of the Depression? Of course—the ‘sob’ angle: wealth versus ‘ideals’; Big Money against little people. Opportunistic as Hearst reporters, Riskin and I concocted a wild story about a bank president (Walter Huston) who is filled with youthful optimism and a cheerful trust in men. He is bitterly opposed by both his own directors and other banks for his ‘unsound’ and ‘dangerous’ practices of making loans on faith. Riskin wrote the screenplay, marking the beginning of a Capra-Riskin collaboration that was to last for years. [....]

In truth, it was one of the first Hollywood films to grapple directly and openly with the Depression’s fears and panic. [...] American Madness was a shocker to the public. It created controversy among critics and bitter contention in financial circles. Some called it ‘New Dealish’ [...] ‘impractical star-gazing’ [...] ‘fuzzy thinking.’ Others said the thinking was no fuzzier than the ‘thinking’ of financiers which created the boom and the crash.

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Saturday April 26 at 9pm

You Can’t Take It With You

Directed by Frank Capra. With Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore,
James Stewart
US 1938, 35mm, b/w, 127 min

Why this mania to film Kaufman and Hart’s play? Because it was a laugh riot? A Pulitzer Prize play? Of course. But I also saw something deeper, something greater. Hidden in You Can’t Take It With You was a golden opportunity to dramatize Love Thy Neighbor in living drama. What the world’s churches were preaching to apathetic congregations, my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to movie audiences [...].

The conflict: devour thy neighbor versus love thy neighbor. The weapons: a bankful of money against a houseful of love. The stakes: the future happiness of two young people, a Kirby son and a Vanderhof granddaughter; and more important, the viability of a lamb when confronted by a lion.

But, you may ask, can a defenseless lamb cope with a lion armed with fangs and claws and a willingness to use them? He can. And how he does was, for me, a new dramatic format that I used in practically all my future films.

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Sunday April 27 at 5pm

Forbidden

Directed by Frank Capra. With Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Bellamy
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 87 min

I had yet to learn that drama is not really just actors weeping and suffering all over the place. It isn’t drama unless the audiences are emotionally moved. Actors’ crocodile tears alone can’t touch their hearts. But courage, faith, love, and sacrifices for others will—if believable.

In spite of scriptwriter Jo Swerling’s valiant efforts to write in some ‘bones,’ Forbidden ended up as two hours of soggy, 99.44% pure soap opera. Some critics moistened their reviews with tears, most burned them with acid. Forbidden was saved from the ‘loss’ column by one or two directorial ‘gems’ (sic), and the fine believable performances of Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, and Ralph Bellamy (one of his earliest films).

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Sunday April 27 at 7pm

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Directed by Frank Capra. With Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 125 min

And here was I, in the process of making a satire about government officials; a comedy about a callow, hayseed Senator who comes to Washington carrying a crate of homing pigeons—to send messages back to Ma—and disrupts important Senate deliberations with a filibuster. The cancerous tumor of war was growing the body politic, but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose. Wasn’t this the most untimely time for me to make a film about Washington? [....]

I left the Lincoln Memorial with this growing conviction about our film: The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure. And back we went to Hollywood to get to work on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The panic was over. It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.

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Monday April 28 at 7pm

The Younger Generation

Directed by Frank Capra. With Jean Hersholt, Lina Basquette,
Ricardo Cortez
US 1929, 35mm, b/w, 75 min

With a fine cast: Jean Hersholt, Ricardo Cortez, Lena Basquette, [sic] and Rosa Rosanova, we made Fannie Hurst’s play—It Is to Laugh—about a social-climbing super-Jew who denied his parents—into a half-talkie film. We called it The Younger Generation. The first half we shot silent at Columbia, the second half in sound at a ‘sound stage’ on Santa Monica Boulevard, somewhere. While many big shots mulled about sound, or tried exorcising it with incantations of ‘fad!’ ‘won’t sell!’ some sharpie wangled priorities in sound equipment, hung horse blankets on the walls of a ‘barn,’ and had himself a rental sound stage with customers waiting in line.

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Sunday May 4 at 5pm

The Battle of Russia

Directed by Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 83 min

[The] Why We Fight films … were to revolutionize not only documentary filmmaking throughout the world, but also the horse-and-buggy method of indoctrinating and informing troops with the truth. [....]

By an order from Winston Churchill all were shown to the British public in theaters. The Russians showed Battle of Russia throughout all their theaters. And in the chaotic months of occupation after the war, American Embassies played the Why We Fight series in enemy countries [...].

Thus, the Why We Fight series became our official, definitive answer to: What was government policy during the dire decade 1931-41? For whenever State, the White House, or Congress was unable, or unwilling, to tell us what our government’s policy had been (and this happened often) I followed General Marshall’s advice: ‘In those cases make your own best estimate, and see if they don’t agree with you later.’ [....]

Thus, it can be truly said that the Why We Fight films not only stated, but in many instances, actually created and nailed down American and world pre-war policy. No, I won’t say it. Yes, I will say it. I was the first ‘Voice of America.’ 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Monday May 5 at 7pm

State of the Union

Directed by Frank Capra. With Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 124 min

To me, films were novels filled with living people. I cast actors that I believed could be those living people [...].

Tracy, the actor, had never manufactured even a hairpin, yet mentally, physically, and psychologically he was the very rich American industrialist who wanted to put his know-how and ideals about democracy into the service of better government. And Hepburn, the actress, was the very-much-in-love wife who saw the ideals and hopes of her strong, decent, patriotic husband being twisted, warped, and compromised into cheap vote-getting tricks by a gang of hungry politicos too long away from the patronage trough. Print courtesy of Universal Studios.

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Friday May 9 at 7pm

It’s A Wonderful Life

Directed by Frank Capra. With James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 130 min

I didn’t give a film-clip whether critics hailed or hooted Wonderful Life. I thought it was the greatest film I had ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people; the motion picture I had wanted to make since I first peered into a movie camera’s eyepiece in that San Francisco Jewish gymnasium.

A film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure!

To show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man’s life touches so many other lives [...].

A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes … I wanted to shout, ‘You are the salt of the earth. And It’s a Wonderful Life is my memorial to you!’ Print courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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Friday May 9 at 9:30pm

Platinum Blonde

Directed by Frank Capra. With Loretta Young, Robert Williams, Jean Harlow
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 90 min

I played it safe with an out-an-out comedy—Platinum Blonde. For a story, Jo Swerling and I stole a column from Front Page, a big hit play. As a back-up I asked Robert Riskin to write the dialogue. We loaded the picture with gags and a great cast: Loretta Young, Bobby Williams (a new comedy sensation), and—for sex—we added Jean Harlow, the reigning Love Goddess. How could I miss? I didn’t. And Harlow’s breastworks burst their silken confines on magazine covers and pin-up walls.

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Saturday May 10 at 7pm

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Directed by Frank Capra. With Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther,
Toshia Mori
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 87 min

Walter Wanger happened to be preparing a Columbia picture from Grace Zaring Stone’s novel The Bitter Tea of General Yen. It was a strangely poetic romance between a Chinese warlord and an American missionary. Representatives of two cultures as far apart as the poles, clash and fall in love. To me it was Art with a capital A. [….]

There were three major roles in Bitter Tea: a young American missionary woman, a powerful Chinese warlord—General Yen, and his diabolically clever American financial adviser. [...] The missionary was a well-bred, straightlaced New England young lady, externally frigid but internally burning with her ‘call.’ Casting this part was easy—Barbara Stanwyck. [....]

In 1932 miscegenation was far, far out. So far out, the British Empire banned it, making it my only other Columbia film that lost money.

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Saturday May 10 at 9pm

Arsenic and Old Lace

Directed by Frank Capra. With Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 118 min

To the already imposing cast of Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander we added these high-powered performers: Raymond Massey, to play the maniacal killer (played by Boris Karloff on the stage); Peter Lorre, to play Massey’s partner-in-murder (a shy, idio surgeon); Priscilla Lane, for Grant’s new bride; Jack Carson, for the dumb cop who writes plays; and my favorite character actor, Jimmy Gleason, for the tough-detective role. And to round out an all-star cast of scene stealers, we engaged Edward Everett Horton to play the huffy keeper of the ‘rest home’ who comes to pick up the ‘girls,’ but instead picks up ‘just a pinch’ of arsenic in his elderberry wine [...].

And I couldn’t have been happier. No great social document ‘to save the world,’ no worries about whether John Doe should or should not jump; just good old-fashioned theater—an anything goes, rip-roaring comedy about murder. I let the scene stealers run wild; for the actors it was a mugger’s ball. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.

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Sunday May 11 at 5pm

Lady for a Day

Directed by Frank Capra. With Warren William, May Robson, Guy Kibbee
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 93 min

In six weeks we banged out a script; hopefully, a warm, funny ‘saga’ about Apple Annie: a filthy, drunken, apple-selling harridan who bossed the beggars of Times Square. Hidden in the deepest recess of her tatters, Annie nursed a secret of secrets—cabalistically shared only with fellow panhandlers who swore the beggar’s blood oath—Apple Annie had an illegitimate daughter! Sh-h-h! A daughter she had been secretly educating (since infancy) in a convent in far-off Spain by extorting ‘taxes’ from the lame, the halt, and the blind who worked her ‘territory’; in return, she knighted them ‘godfathers.’

A letter came from Spain. Her daughter (now seventeen) has fallen in love with a Spanish nobleman’s son. The count wishes to meet her family before consenting to the marriage [...].

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Sunday May 11 at 7pm

Pocketful of Miracles

Directed by Frank Capra. With Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Hope Lange
US 1961, 35mm, color, 136 min

United Artists agreed to finance and distribute Pocketful of Miracles, if—Frank Capra Productions could sign up one incandescent superstar, or two workaday stars that could twinkle but not dazzle. So FCP bought the remake rights to Lady for a Day [...] and searched Hollywood’s heaven for a super-nova or two prosaic novas to scintillate in the starring roles.

The two biggest parts were, of course, Dave the Dude, tough, cocky, but superstitious midtown bootlegger who is feuding with the mob for control of the Manhattan territory, and Apple Annie, the ruthless ruler of the Times Square panhandlers, who gets in a jam by living a lie to her illegitimate daughter. [….]

The first indication that Lady Luck had deserted me—after a forty-year honeymoon—occurred after the third day of shooting: That night the headaches returned. [...] How could the filming of Pocketful, torn with discord and loathings, directed by a walking zombie, stumble through to completion—within its budget and schedule? By occupational pride that transcends hazards. Amateurs play for fun in fair weather. Professionals play to win in the teeth of torments. Despite Bette Davis’s hatred for Ford, for her part, and for me; despite Glenn Ford’s tying a knot in my guts every time he bounced into a scene like a musical comedy funny-man; despite my unfocused state between sleeping and waking [...] I kept plugging away [...].

Peter Falk was my joy, my anchor to reality. Introducing that remarkable talent to the techniques of comedy made me forget pains, tired blood, and maniacal hankerings to murder Glenn Ford. Thank you, Peter Falk. Print courtesy of Park Circus.

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Live Piano Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Monday May 12 at 7pm

The Way of the Strong

Directed by Frank Capra. With Mitchell Lewis, Alice Day, Margaret Livingston
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 61 min

In my next two pictures for Columbia Say It with Sables and Way of the Strong, again I experimented—soft-pedaling comedy and pulling out all stops on heavy drama. I knew my experiment with drama was dismal. I was too inexperienced to handle the delicate nuances or the sustained moods of dramatic conflict. But, in the elementary school of trial and error—where I was both student and teacher—I had to experiment if I were ever to master this new, universal language of film that was revolutionizing the mores of the world. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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Live Piano Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Saturday May 24 at 7pm

The Matinee Idol

Directed by Frank Capra. With Bessie Love, Johnnie Walker,
Lionel Belmore
US 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 66 min

In quick succession, six weeks for each picture (two weeks for writing, two for shooting, two for editing), I made two more films: So This Is Love […] and Matinee Idol, a tent-show comedy with Johnny Walker [sic] and Bessie Love. In them I tried mixing in another so-called sure-fire ingredient with comedy—a little love story. It seemed to work. Besides which, I ‘discovered’ another directing trick: Don’t let the ponderous behind-the-scenes machinery distract from the heroine’s fluttering eyelid. People pay to hear Heifetz’s violin, not to marvel at his fingers.

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Saturday May 24 at 9pm

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Directed by Frank Capra. With Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur,
George Bancroft
US 1936, 35mm, b/w, 115 min

And what was the great ‘message’ of Mr. Deeds? Nothing earth-shaking. Just this: A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach deep down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment. That theme prevailed in all—except two—of my future films. It was the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled to an ort by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity. [....]

Longfellow Deeds was not just a funny man cavorting in frothy situations. He was the living symbol of the deep rebellion in every human heart—a growing resentment against being compartmentalized. And when Mr. Deeds routed the mass predators, using only his simple weapons of honesty, wit, and courage—audiences not only laughed, they cheered!

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Friday May 30 at 7pm

Broadway Bill

Directed by Frank Capra. With Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Walter Connolly
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 103 min


Friday May 30 at 9pm

Riding High

Directed by Frank Capra. With Bing Crosby, Coleen Gray, Charles Bickford
US 1950, 35mm, b/w, 112 min

Only weeks after I had finished It Happened One Night in early 1933 (and months before it copped the five major Oscars in the Academy sweepstakes), I had made an entertaining film out of Mark Hellinger’s short story about a man, a maid, and a Cinderella racehorse named ‘Broadway Bill.’ The man was Warner Baxter, the maid Myrna Loy, and Broadway Bill was a tame, tired plug because Warner Baxter was deathly afraid of horses—especially of those with their tails up. As a result, many warm scenes I had in mind between the man and his horse I could not do, and those I did photograph were disappointing because Baxter was terrified of being bitten or kicked. I vowed that some day I would do Broadway Bill over again with a man who loved horses.

Well, a man who loved and owned horses (they never won), and who was one of our biggest stars, had a dressing room right around the corner from my Paramount office. Der Bingle! Bing Crosby, a horse, and a maid—a natural! [...]

The relaxed, easy-going behavior on our sets was partly due to the fact that Riding High was my first picture in years that did not deal with a social issue. But mostly it was due to Crosby’s gaiety and whole-hearted cooperation.

 

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Monday June 2 at 7pm

Lost Horizon

Directed by Frank Capra. With Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 132 min

Browsing in the Union Station’s newsstand for something to read on the train, I saw a book [...] Lost Horizon, written by the English writer James Hilton. I read it; not only read it, but dreamed about it all night. [....]

The High Lama said he saw all nations strengthening—not in wisdom but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy. He saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might match a whole army… Anticipating the holocaust, Shangri-La had, for nearly two centuries, been accumulating the treasure of the mind and the wisdom of the ages. [....]

Had the High Lama been able to scour the whole world for a man to carry on his vision of Shangri-La, he would have selected Ronald Colman. Beautiful of face and soul, sensitive to the fragile and gentle, responsive both to poetic visions and hard intellect—cultured actor Ronald Colman was born to play the kidnapped foreign secretary who ‘understood’ his kidnapping. [....]

With wind machines, snow machines, and back-projection machines we conjured up the Arctic rigors of the Himalayas. The snow the actors crunched through was snow; the fluted outcroppings of glacial ice shimmered real because they were real. The breath-showing puzzle—ludicrously ‘solved’ once by dry ice in actor’s mouths—was cracked by an ice house. The key to misty breath, red noses, and frosty eyebrows was so obvious it had been overlooked—lower the temperature, fool.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700