Frank Capra and Confidence

I got this thick book from the library a couple of weeks ago . . . long enough to need to review it . . . and probably renew it again. I do not read as fast as a writer should (though does reading quickly glean more enjoyment?).

It’s Frank Capra’s autobiography, Frank Capra the Name Above the Title. Awhile back I was reading Mike Duran’s blog on “The God Thing”, a blog about how much of an atheist Gene Roddenberry was. Suddenly, I was looking at Star Trek in a whole new light. Yeah, Q acts like he’s a god but he’s really just an evolved being with a light show. Trelyan from TOS acted all powerful, but he really just had a better machine. On and on, there were repeatedly seemingly all-powerful being who turned out to just be more advanced or pulling the wool over our eyes and it was up to the humanist crew to figure it out.

Doesn’t bother me. The late Mr. Roddenberry was free to try and convince audiences of his POV. But I felt this shift where I started to look at my old favorites with suspicious eyes, suddenly conscious of why the story was being told. One of the near victims was Frank Capra. I watched It’s a Wonderful Life and You Can’t Take it With You almost back to back, and it suddenly occured to me that the villain was capitalism. Progressive evangelism! Alas! Can’t any of my old favorites have been thinking like me?

Of course, what’s more important is what I gleaned from their stories not necessarily what they intend. But, when you really like something . . . at least for me . . . I want to believe the work will last. That God smiles on it. That in the ressurrection I will be able to sit down and converse (maybe even work with) others like Frank Capra that left a warm spot in my memory.

Long story short though, Frank Capra was not what I suspected. He was a great patriot. Signed up for three wars (before, during, and during his career as a director). He sympathized with the low man, the guy scraping by. He believed in making films that inspired people and made them remember that God loved them. Some of that was probably responsible for his waning success as Americans wanted “less idealistic” more complex films. I don’t know what they can mean by that other than they wanted dirtier heroes grasping for personal, small, petty victories. I mean let’s put George Bailey up against Fifty Cent’s character in this one movie whose name I have forgotten. Or maybe Dexter a story where the hero is a serial killer. Or maybe a Vampire? Or better yet! A Serial Killer Gangster who becomes a vampire stalking a girl a hundred years younger than him.

Anyway, I’m finding this guy’s story fascinating. He lived a lot of Bailey’s life. Scraping buy trying to “amount” to something only to be knocked down by “circumstance” (a.k.a. negative providence). He’s not afraid to be ashamed of some of the stuff he did, or almost did, telling it honestly but being able to laugh at himself.

What had me up late last night though was thinking about his cockiness. Almost every time he is confronted with an obstacle, he solves it with cockiness. Some of it isn’t so great. He scams his way into his first directing job by being more cocky than the producer. Later he came clean after the job, telling his producer that he really had no movie experience. The producer says that he had a lawyer look into him and knew that going in. What sold him was his enthusiasm and confidence.

That’s the last time (that I’ve read so far) of him scamming, but the confidence remains. He goes into a job that offers $35 to start, he (really wanting the job) turns it down because he wants to move up the ladder from where he was. The upper boss (on his way out) finds he likes his confidence but can’t break his rule (everyone starts at $35). Frank compromises, he’ll start at $35 and then the boss can immediately raise his pay to $45. Again confidence pays off. He gets the job with the pay.

Later his career gains ground again and again when he stands up to someone who is in a position of authority (or has some power) relative to him. He puts in a gag that he thinks is funny (correction that part was a scam). His boss threatens to cut his job. Turns out the audience loved it. Frank gets fired anyway. He has to act penitent for awhile, eating crow, begging for his job (which he gets back), but the point is it happened because he dug in his heels on what he knew was the better material.

His first ‘A’ picture happened in a similar manner. He had to replace another director (a better known director) because his footage was terrible. Frank demands that he get to start from scratch. All new shooting. And he gets it! The actors are going to strike and he goes down there, admits they’re all in a bad spot, and then challenges them!

In a very interesting strategic move that would have made Ender Wiggin proud, he goes down to the set knowing he’s the bad guy. And rather than bust people over the head, he praises the actors and then makes a side issue the center issue. It’s brilliant if you ask me, but what sells it is that he committs fully to whatever he does.

Inwardly he’s dreading losing this job or questioning if he can really pull off what he claims. But in case after case, he is willing to put somehint on the line to get what he’s going for.

Part of me says he was arrogant and got away with it. Part says he’s full of pride, and I shouldn’t want to emulate that.

On the other hand . . . people followed him. And he did accomplish many great triumphs because of it. Was it arrogance or was it just an accurate appraisal of what he could do bolstered by some faith? He consciously doubted that he could do what he set out to do, but is there a hero who never doubts the outcome? Do you think it never crossed George Washington’s mind that today he might die in battle?

Isn’t that what makes a challenge, the perception that it could go sideways on you?

So what’s wrong with Capra? Is it that he spoke it? Should he have had a quite inner confidence? I can’t see that being true. Aren’t we told to speak our faith? Did Joshua and Caleb have to check with God before they said to the demoralized Israelites “We can take em!”

The more I think about it, Capra’s confidence seems to be what I wish I had. And something I wish to pass on to my sons and daughters. I want them to walk into any situation and now cower. Not be consumed with what could go wrong so that they live stingy impotent lives. I want them to be bold. Lights stand out. Salt stands out. And both attract at least some people. A dim light or a flavorless salt neither attracts nor repels.

What do you think? Is Capra arrogant or confident? Is cockiness good or bad? And if it’s good, or can be good, how do you get it? How do you teach it?

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