Monday, December 23, 2013

Notes on two films by Frank Capra: Meet John Doe (1941) and It´s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe and It´s A Wonderful Life are probably the finest films by Frank Capra. At the same time the most optimistic examples of the solidarity of common people but as well his most fathomless films. Often attacked for his sentimentality including his faith in what we call the “American dream”, Capra is much more complex. It is also remarkable that Capra had quite a lot of very different admirers, the great documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls, one of the most important American independent filmmakers John Cassavetes, the Japanese director Yoji Yamada, John Ford or the Indian master Satyajit Ray. More or less the only afinity of Capra`s very special mixture of drama and comedy exists today only in the films by Japanese Yoji Yamada.
Yamada has in common with Capra that his “solidarity" with the common people were never really approved by critics influenced by left ideologies. Ideologies are blind and useless if it comes to Cinema.
Meet John Doe is at the first sight one of these films which were supposed to prepare America for the entrance in World War II. Other examples are Hangmen also die by Fritz Lang, To Be Or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch, The Great Dictator by Charles Chaplin or Foreign Correspondent by Alfred Hitchcock. It is remarkable that Meet John Doe is probably the only Anti Nazi-film in Hollywood where the danger of fascism has already reached America while especially The Great Dictator and To Be Or Not To Be leave the fascism in an Europe which was still engrossed by the still “neutral” America.
D.B. Norton is in several aspects a wannabe American Hitler and at the same time a representant of economical power, means something like Krupp and Hitler at the same time.
The most daring aspect in Capra´s film is the confrontation between a real solidarity of the people and how easy it can be abused by political interests. Today we know that one reason the German fascism could exist was the distortion of certain traditions. For examples the solidarity of the working class before the fascism was distorted into a pseudo people´s solidarity against Jews or communists and many other ethic and political minorities. For example the Nazis changed texts of traditional songs of the working movement into pure fascistic propaganda songs.
It is an oversimplification to say that Capra only focused on his idealized America because he always works with this distortion of the American dream and he always deals with the endangerment of this dream. Capra´s optimism can not exist without these moments of a total social danger.

To deal with film history means often to brush away the dust and to ask often the reputation these films once got. From these reputations often only the simplifications survive. The dynamic in the finest films by Capra is always between idealization and a sharp questioning of his vision of America. An often one dimensional  criticism was often chewing on Capra´s anticommunism, his conservatism or his seeming sentimentality. Meet John Doe has very disturbing moments and obvious hints to American sympathies for a fascistic state embodied by D.B. Norton and his nephew who wears a Nazi-like uniform.
Even more striking  - the front line between the usual American capitalism and the tendency to an authoritarian state is very thin – which is quite a lot for a director which was put carelessly in the conservative corner.

The John Doe-movement with all its national conventions, a kind of civil right movement against corruption and exploitation turns once near the end into its opposite. The solidarity of the masses turns here caused by manipulation into an angry mob. It is one of the most disturbing moment in Capra´s work. It was interpreted as a christian metaphor, a hint to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but an interpretation like so much written on Capra again a simplification. Meaningless to say that these often as conservative labelled masters John Ford and Frank Capra were the very few during the time of World War 2 with a vision of social reality in America.
From my very German perspective this moment is one of the most representative image of the Twentieth Century. In very few moments we see a quasi revolutionary movement is
changed and distorted into a dangerous mob. Except in the films by John Ford and Terrence Malick , the American dream never appeared on film more vulnerable than here. How this American dream turns into a nightmare has the unthinkable dimension how the post-revolutionary German in the 1920s turned into one of the most barbaric terror states in the history of mankind.
In a way Capra is much closer to more recent analyses of the phenomenon of fascism than it seems at the first view. Fascism is hidden overall as well in America and often under coziness.
After all Meet John Doe is one of Capra´s richest and most complex films. The seemingly naivety of Capra is nothing else than a wrong track. It should not be overlooked that between all the elements he played with, comedy, melodrama and sentimentality, there is often a sharpness.

It´s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Another irony about the oversimplified reputation of Capra as a conservative American: There is still an internal memorandum of the FBI (source Wikipedia) on this film which calls it “subversive communistic propaganda”.
The history of reception of this film is legendary. First a commercial disaster which ruined immediately the independent company by Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens “Liberty Films”. For years this, Capra´s most ambitioned film was forgotten and rediscovered in the 1970s because the copyright was expelled and TV stations could broadcast it for free. The fact that this film has now the reputation as one if not the most famous Christmas film has a long history. Like all of Capra´s masterpieces, It´s a Wonderful Life has as well a very disturbing part, if not one of the most scariest part in Capra´s work at all. Without any doubt it was this film which used all facets of James Stewart´s art of acting, the lovable average American but as well the frustrated small town man who looses one dream after another. The abyssal aspect of James Steart´s performances we will see later in Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Two Rode Together was established in his interpretation of George Bailey. Between a sometimes euphoric optimism, brooding depressive and sometimes even violent and self destructing character remains one of the finest performances by James Stewart.
It is among so much as well one of the great ensemble pieces in American Film history, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell or Lionel Barrymore ( who was already very sick) just to mention a few – created unforgettable characters. The film remains in the fictive small town Bedford Falls. George dreams to see the world fails always. He is stuck in this boring little town when he overtook the "Baily and Loan"-bank, a kind of alternative bank which gives small credits to underprivileged ordinary people. Even his honeymoon fails while his little bank is in a crisis.
In its narrative structure, It´s a Wonderful Life is Capra´s most unorthodox film. It begins with a lot of snow falling at Christmas eve over the sleepy little town. From the off we hear Gerorge´s friends and his family praying for him who is in danger to commit suicide. Than a fantastic and very burlesque moment when angels in form of stars discussing who has to sent down to help George. Unfortunately only a former clock maker is available who is not the brightest guardian angel at all. Joseph, one of the superior angels has to introduce this former clockmaker Clarence into George´s Life. What an idea:! The first hour of this film both angels watch George Bailey´s life until that crucial moment at Christmas eve 1946 like they watching a film with us. It is a kind of film in a film but also a compilation of all themes of previous films by Capra, his love for ordinary people who try to survive in a society which is dominated by money. Even part of Capra´s own history are reflected in a poor Sicilian immigrant who owns an own house with the support of the “Bailey and Loan”.
The second part connects with the overture.
One of the most heartbreaking moments takes place at Christmas eve, George comes home fill of despair, because the money of his bank disappeared which means probably prison for him. One of his daughters plays on a piano a simple Christmas song which goes on his nerves. This melody played on piano will appear in this euphoric final later but at the moment it seems to be sad. A big miniature bridge is built among the Christmas decoration. Yes, building bridges, air fields etc was always George´s dreams . All these dreams has failed, he never left this town. In that Moment George smashes this miniature bridge and parts of the decoration he smashes his own dreams. It is a subtle hint to his intention to destroy himself. When “saved” by his guardian angel”, the film turns again into burlesque and later in a very bizarre and surrealistic nightmare. Bailey sees for some times the world without him, a nightmarish town called after the greedy rich man who would have controlled Bedford Falls without the “Bailey and Loan”-Bank. It is the bleakest scene in Capra´s work. The people George used to know, can´t recognize him. The people, friends and even his mother are full of bitterness. His younger brother is in this parallel universe dead since childhood. We know that George saved his life when he was a kid, a kid which does not exist in this parallel world.
His wife became an old maid. This scene is an absurd balance act between burlesque and sometimes very disturbing nightmarish moments. James Stewart is now an Undead who have even never lived. It is night and even horror elements are for a moment the dominating aspect of this film. Even in a more formal abstract sense, It´s a Wonderful Life proofs once again that Capra can´t be labelled as a director of feel good films. Coziness, idyll can´t exist in a film by Capra without its reverse.
There might be a lot of possible explanations why this, without doubt one if not the finest film by Frank Capra was a commercial failure. It appears as Capra´s premature swan song, the summing up of all his previous work. It is an ambitious project but already made in a Hollywood which has nothing in common with the Hollywood Capra where was so successful.
As how in a lot of some of the greatest American films, It´s a Wonderful Life seems to consist of some different movements more structured like a symphony or an opera and far away from a straight told story. The film is one of the phenomenons in the history of American Cinema, a “sensitivity which is very American but very off-Hollywood” (David Fincher on Terrence Malick) and can be compared with films like Stroheim´s Greed, Welles´ The Magnificent Ambersons, Ford´s The Searchers or finally Malick´s The Tree of Life.
Yes, and finally the Happy End, the most euphoric in the history of American Cinema the most emphasized praise of the solidarity of the common people. It is moving not because it makes us happy but because it suggests as well that we have the right to be happy even for a moment.
The end is a reward we deserve after we went through a tour de force of all emotions possible in a human life
And there is a lot more to say about this film and maybe it had to happen that it is actually rediscovered in the 1970s after it was forgotten for decades. Maybe the distance of time is needed to open our eyes. It´s a Wonderful Life is despite all its heartwarming and funny moments as well often a very daring film. You have to dig in this film for getting the beauty of it.
I am quite happy with the fact that It´s a Wonderful Life became in the last 10 years a traditional Christmas tradition for me, probably the most moving Christmas song cinema ever created.

Rüdiger Tomczak