Review: Frank Capra, The Name Above The Title

Frank Capra’s life as of 1971 was much like the flavor of his more famous characters, Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, and George Bailey. He started out as a peasant in Sicilli that couldn’t read, then he and his family followed their brother to America where the family scrimped, saved, and built like only third-world peasants can. And as a result he gained a growing faith in God, and a love of the American ideal–despite being nearly charged with treason and blacklisted because of his country’s government.

If his account is to be believed (and it is believable) then he worked harder than anyone I know, and overcame obstacle after obstacle. First getting a college degree in science as a first generation illiterate immigrant, then serving as a officer in WWI (and later II), coming out without a job, broke with nothing to show for it despite the education he fought so hard to get, and then finally getting a job in film.

Three things really resonated with me from his story. First was moxie, guts, confidence. Its something I’ve wanted to have most of my adult life. Maybe I have a form of it, anyone who knows me can tell you I’m dogged. Not very smart, but dogged. But he knew (or believed) in his own talents, not in an arrogant way (I don’t want that) but in the way of someone who knows they’re right and will push to have that vision become reality. I desire it I suppose, because I can think of many times when I knew a better course and I buckled when I should have kept my ‘hat in my hand’ as Frank Capra would say.

The second was his struggle with art. Adventure, might be a better term. His vision for how to make a movie was ‘one man, one film’ meaning that the director turns everything into the vision of a single artist. Yes, the actors are involved but the film must have a single artistic vision. The director must direct. He pits this against the committee method of making films (lots of managers looking at the bottom line). Maybe its a little easier for a writer (my characters cannot go on strike, and I don’t have to pay them =), but there is the same intrinsic battle of what I want to write vs. what I think will sell.

I even thought once about making a satire where I’d use as many cliches and bad writing advice as I could in an entertaining way, enough the reader knows what I’m doing, not so much it stinks. An example might be the following hook, based on a lot of what I’ve heard about the important hooking in the first thirteen lines of a story:

Blam! Wood splinters from the cabin wall. My brother Ed looks at me with eyes as big as the defecit. “You shot at Ellen!” A train whistle blares in the distance.

I’m dumbfounded. The whistle gets louder. There’s a gun in my hand! I look to Ed, “I don’t know what–”

The roof caves as a North Rail engine screams through the roof with a dragon’s tail of steel and diesel smoke. Ed’s gone along with the kitchen. I flail back, tripping over the split frame of the three kiloton bomb Ed was trying to defuse.

I catch my reflection in the shiny metal casing. It’s not my face. My long dead brother stares back at me, when the bomb goes off.

And that’s how it all started.

Dang . . . that story might be worth writing? Nobody take that . . . pauses to make a note in his files.

Thirdly, Capra chronicles his faith and how faith met his artistic vision. From a CE (Christmas and Easter) Catholic, Capra nearly dies of an illness before a mysterious man tells him that he is a coward and an offense to God because Hitler was somewhere else poisoning the world 15-20 million people, 20 minutes at a time and Capra had the capability to reach hundreds of millions for two hours at a time. The man, who is never identified, says, “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with–you are an offense to God . . . ”

Capra takes this to heart and repents. He is healed from his deadly ailment, and begins to set his talents to work. What he makes next are some of his most inspiring films, including Mr. Deeds goes to Town, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. He does not attempt to make overt-message films, but tries to make films that “. . . let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other . . . ” And because this book is full of great inspirtational quotes, ” [Speaking of It’s a Wonderful Life]. . . to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the dissillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure!

In much my own thoughts, Capra seems to have concluded that those with artistic talent (Or is all talent art?) have those talents from God. And they have a great power to reach the world with His love and wonder. To communicate in ways that few sermons or gospel tracts can, what is in the heart of God. This is something I am so firmly believing of late, that art in every form is a means of communication, a means of com-passion between people. Not mere words of what I believe, but a sublime way to say more than mere words. When we hear Amazing Grace don’t we get more out of it than simply a creed of God’s love? We get a sense of it.

Take the Sisteen Chapel’s center mural. There was a time that I would have been offended by its nudity, now I think it is magnificent. The reach between man and God is so strikingly profound, Adam, innocent reaching up with a limp-impotent wrist, and God, powerful and loving reaching down to close the gap. It is beautiful. I first got real appreciation of the mural through The Agony and Ecstasy with Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo. At the end, with the painting finally done, the artist is talking to the pope (Rex Harrison) who has spent much of the story at war. And the pope, the religious leader, is looking at that central mural and he askes Michaelangelo, “Is that how you truly see him? [God] Not angry. Not vengeful, but like that? Strong, benign, loving?” Michaelangelo replies, “He knows anger too, but the act of creation is an act of love.”

How many people has that touched with the idea that God loves them? Or It’s a Wonderful Life? No, neither of them gives you the Romans plan of salvation. You won’t walk away with a Doctorate of Divinity. But, God asks for neither, but promises all who call on the name of YHVH will be saved. The starting point for faith is knowing your weakness (which both of those examples show), and knowing that someone strong and loving is watching and ready to save (which both of those show).

I would recommend this book, and I hope to talk with Mr. Capra myself one day. His life in terms of career did not seem to have the happy ending that Mr. Capra was famous for, but as he said ressurection is the best ending of all.

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