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Rambling about Capra and Sturges

On my continuing journey into American filmmakers I compared Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, two great comic directors of their day. I watched the films directed by Sturges and Capra and read their autobiographies.  They both wrote their life story in the same way they told stories on the screen; Carpra wrote his life similar to his message films, like Mr. Smith Goes To WashingtonIt’s A Wonderful Life and Mr Deeds Goes To Town, where his determined will and faith in the American dream helped him overcome the odds and reign as king of Hollywood in the 30s and into the 40s.  Sturges tells his life as a somewhat episodic disjointed narrative, the way I feel The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story waere told, and he only touches briefly on his career in Hollywood spending most of his time reminiscing about lessons he learned during his wanton exploits as a globe-trotting youth being dragged around by his “Bohemian” mother.

FRANK CAPRA

Capra portrays himself as a man driven by a worship of money and success with a hubris only matched by that of his studio boss, Harry Cohn.  Throughout he makes vain attempts to be self-effacing, wanting us to believe that his motivations are pure in the spirit of the American dream and ideals. Everything for Capra began with a prophetic letter his family received in Sicily from his older brother telling them about the promise of Los Angeles. Capra’s only laconic moment of the book is when he tells us about the horrid condition on the ship across the Atlantic and how he started peddling newspapers on street corners at the age of 6.  He struggled against the odds to attend school, become an exemplary student and got into CalTech.  He worked three jobs while staying up on his studies to graduate with a chemical engineering degree.  Every event and conversation during these early years seem as though they were steered by Divine Providence.

When Capra was down and out, living in a room from which he’d soon be evicted and unable to find an engineering job, he was approached by a man named “Tuffy” who offered Capra $20,000 to build a still for bootlegging. He tells the story as though he wants to convince us that he is the embodiment of incorruptible American ideals.  He refuses the money, trusting that again Providence will deliver him prosperity in legitimate work. From here on out, moments that tested Capra’s morals felt more like they came from one of his movies than they did from his own life.  I can picture Gary Cooper as “Frank Capra” and Akim Tamiroff as “Tuffy” exchanging witty banter as Tuffy tells him “look here kid, this is 20 Gs, don’t be a fool.” To which Cooper stands tall, “Tuffy, I don’t want any of your, or anyone else’s, dirty money. I’m looking to make an honest living.”

The nameless man in Mr Deeds…

I would be remiss if I were to ignore Capra’s tenacity and hard-work.  He started out as a gag-writer for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang,” worked through the picture-mill at Mack Sennett studios, made a comic star out of Harry Langdon and fought like hell to become a director at Columbia, bringing that little studio some major prestige.  But the manner in which Capra tells of his rise rings insincere. The same insincerity in his autobiography I felt in his message films.  In fact, there is a moment in the book where Capra is claims he talked himself into a mysterious illness when a nameless man comes to him and calls him a coward.  He tells Capra that he can reach hundreds of millions with his movies and if doesn’t use his God-given talents for God’s purpose he is an offense to God and humanity.  In the Capra’s film Mr Deeds Goes To Town, a nameless man storms into Mr. Deeds office and tells him he was given this money to do good for humanity. Perhaps he just used the encounter as inspiration for Deeds, or perhaps when reflecting on his life he recalls it being far more inspired and serendipitous than it was. What other people have called the heart and soul of some Capra films I saw as a contrivance. This is why, when I think of the genius of Capra as a director, I focus on It Happened One Night and Arsenic and Old Lace.

It Happened One Night was the movie that should have never happened.  Most people rejected the script, actors and actresses refused inflated salaries to avoid being cast.  As Capra tells it, Louis Mayer was punishing Clark Gable for demanding more money so he sent him to Columbia, dubbed Poverty Row by the bigger studios.  Then there is the incredibly charming Claudette Colbert. She was on contract with Paramount and would only do the picture if they could finish with her during her 4 week vacation and double her Paramount salary.  $50,000 for 4 weeks work.  What resulted was a production chalk full of concessions made to the two demanding stars who Capra eventually got to lighten up enough to inject incredible life into a funny script.  This road-tripping adventure has everything you need in a good comedy; quick witty dialogue mixed with physical comedy expertly and surprisingly turned by Gable and sexual innuendo that laughed in the face of the production code. “The Walls of Jericho are coming down.”

Arsenic and Old Lace was already a wonderful play by Joseph Kesselring then adapted by the genius screenwriting duo, Julius and Phillip Epstein. and Capra busted the film out on a very short schedule before he went into the Army to make war films for the Defense Department. Where One Night was successful on the performance of two stars, Arsenic and Old Lace benefits from an ensemble cast lead by Cary Grant in his funniest role. A man who, for me, only conjured up ideas of style and poise took on a script laden with physical comedy that showcased a versatility rare in actors.  But while he headlined the film, it is the supporting cast that helps this comedy transcend everything else Capra directed. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull steal the show as the delightfully, charmingly insane aunts that have been poisoning widowed men as “sympathy” killings.  They play killers that are so affable and sweet that I would probably accept any drink they hand me as to not hurt their feelings.  And while exuding a certain innocence that become endearing, you see Mortimer (Grant) doing everything to protect his aunts, risking his own life and his marriage in the process.  Rounding out the cast is Peter Lorre as a drunk and inept doctor who has butchered plastic surgery on Mortimer’s brother Jonathan played by Raymond Massey.  When each of these eccentric characters find themselves sharing a legal and deadly predicament, chaos erupts in the home.

Both films were made quickly, shot from the hip as they say, which allowed pure magic to happen.  Capra didn’t have the lax schedules he had with some of his other films and I think that restriction produced his two best films.  If you haven’t watched these movies, watch them immediately, you won’t regret one minute.  And if you have a soft-spot for the Capra-corn/Capraesque message films, they are all good, tightly directed films from a master craftsmen in the purest sense. But I highly recommend You Can’t Take It With You above all others.  It’s a film that happens to mix Capra’s good-natured message with a mix of zany characters lead by Lionel Barrymore.  And a quick final note on Capra: the films he went on to make for the War Department became the “Why We Fight” documentary series which are incredible, beautiful propaganda films that highlight Capra’s strength as a director.  They inspired a jingoism in me that I have felt in over a decade.

 STURGES

While Capra was busy chasing his fame and gold statues over at Columbia, Sturges was a brash screenwriter emerging at Paramount.  He started writing plays almost out of spite of girl that left him and then transitioned effortlessly to Hollywood.  Between 1940 and 1945 he wrote and directed The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Miracle and Morgan Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Great Moment (originally titled Triumph Over Pain).  He literally shot like a meteor to the top of Hollywood, but came on a whim, like he did everything in his life.

Born just months apart, while Capra fought his way out of poverty working three jobs and earning a degree, Preston’s mother, an eccentric bohemian, dragged Preston across Europe. She continually abandoned him at boarding schools and with guardians throughout his life as she traversed the continent with her friends.  Preston became part of her misadventures in between school terms and found himself around the elite class of Europeans as well as around hustlers and grifters.  His mother in fact took him along as she hustled thousands from a bank by exploiting a devaluation of the franc to bring her extra funds. The personalities and experiences from Preston’s childhood stuck in his mind and they all ended up in his movies.  Where Capra had a life of deep thought, tough struggles and a fulfillment of the American Dream while he coveted money, Sturges was raised without a country, without respect of money and events that to him seemed (derived from the structure of his book) episodic.  One event was never really born from the preceding event and this fast paced life directly contributed to the frenetic energy of his films.

The Great Moment was not a very good movie.  Sturges had ambitions for the film that stood in direct opposition to those of the studio and they took the film over. It’s not worth a review here.  Instead, I wanted to mention two brilliant comedies, both successful in large part to Eddie Bracken: Miracle at Morgan Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero.

Miracle is about the loving, and yet unloved, Norval Jones (Bracken).  He wants desperately to be a soldier going out to the front lines, but doesn’t pass the physical.  He is also deeply in love with Trudy Kockenlocker (HA!) played by Betty Hutton who has a resounding admiration and attraction for men in uniform.  She finds herself married and pregnant after a night with the troops but can’t remember who the man was and believes the used fake names, so who could track him?  Norval steps up, offering to help Trudy, but when her father (Sturges mainstay William Demarest) gets involved Norval finds himself running from the law.  It is high energy, quick moving comedy that brings back Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy to reprise their roles from The Great McGinty.  The ending is rushed and truncated again, like all of Sturges’ films, with one last play at a joke and ‘The End.’

I didn’t know Eddie Bracken before this movie but he’s a brilliant comic actor with great physicality and seems fearless as he asks us to laugh at him. Sturges again tapped into Bracken’s strengths for Hail The Conquering Hero.  Bracken now plays Woodrow, a soldier who is going to return home without ever seeing battle (again physical ailments prevent him from fighting).  He is afraid of returning home in disgrace, so William Demarest and a group of soldiers returning form the battle at Guadalcanal tell his hometown that he is in fact a front line hero.  One white lie spins out of control as Woodrow gets nominated for local office and finds the praise to be more than he can bear.  Sturges’ pace is so quick that you hardly have time to question the town’s Woodrow-fever, all you can do is sit back and go along with it.

In the end, Sturges is the fun fling. Watching Miracle  or The Palm Beach Story is always good for just an entertaining laugh. A capricious restaurateur, filmmaker and vagabond, Sturges didn’t take life too serious, believing in Sullivan’s message that laughter is all some people have. Capra is the more intellectual filmmaker that takes his role in the world much more serious.  He took his life much more serious. But no two filmmakers proved Truffaut more right than these men, possibly the first two auteurs of American talking cinema.  Their personalities and life experiences are not just stamped on their movies, they are engraved in the emulsion of every frame.  It wasn’t until studios started to control them did their movies lose their audience, and their award prestige. According to Capra the artistic fortunes that brought such great American films in the 30s and 40s started to slide with the sale of Liberty Films to Paramount in 1947.  He said, “…practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the “patronage” of deviates and masturbators.  If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.”

That’s a bit of a pessimistic attitude coming from Capra. If he felt the deviants got hold of Hollywood in the 60s, the 70s should have killed him. But he does end the autobiography with hope. He admires filmmakers like Lumet, Kubrick, Wise, Schaffner and Jewison. Yes, there is a certain “wholesomeness” to the comedies of the 30s and 40s on the surface, but they worked in plenty of controversy (I mean, Betty Hutton didn’t even know which soldier knocked her up, Gable blew down the walls of Jericho).  His biggest complaint seems to be that he doesn’t feel filmmakers have something important to say anymore and he ends by encouraging people that have something to say to give it shot, saying “…to the discouraged, the doubting, or the despairing… ‘friend, you are a divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust. So hang in there! If doors opened for me, they can open for anyone.”

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