Announcing My 2021 Movie Retrospective: The Films of Frank Capra

The director of my current choice for “favorite movie of all time” was a paradigmatic American success story: a Sicilian immigrant who rose through the ranks of a booming industry thanks to hard work and talent. After honing his skills in the anarchic world of silent comedy, he came into his own as an artist with the arrival of sound, helping to set the template for the era’s defining genre, the screwball. Long before the auteur theory was articulated, he got his “name above the title” (as his later autobiography would boast) with the rare combination of popular and critical success, earning three Best Director Oscars before the ceremony turned ten years old. His growing conviction that so much cultural power should be put to responsible ends eventually led him to Washington, D.C. when the United States joined World War II. There he oversaw the military’s documentary program, producing a series of films meant to teach and boost the morale of the boys on their way to the inferno. These films, too, were highly praised. But after the war, his fortunes turned. An effort to start an independent production company outside the purview of the studio system fizzled, and his output gradually slowed. He spent his final working decades embittered by a changing society. His cultural relevance today stands mostly on the annual mega-ritual called Christmas, which causes his most famous film to be regularly rediscovered and reconsidered. It helps that the film in question is a complicated text, rich enough to be embraced by both the political left and right, Christians and skeptics alike. Having lived the American Dream, he opened up the idea to see what, if anything, was inside it.

The man, of course, is Frank Capra. Between 1926 and 1961, he directed 48 feature films (counting the seven Why We Fight wartime films, which run between 41 and 82 minutes in length, and also counting the three educational television specials he directed in the mid-1950s, which are each a bit less than an hour). Two of his early films, For the Love of Mike and Say It with Sables, are considered lost, while two others don’t seem to have been made available either on disc or online. (The Way of the Strong, from 1928, was screened at a Capra retrospective at Harvard in 2014, and The Donovan Affair, from 1929, has played at festivals under unusual conditions; namely, live dubbing, as the soundtrack to this 100% talking picture is kaput.) Therefore, I will be watching 44 of Capra’s films (along with the five available short films he directed) in chronological order starting January 1. This means that I’ll be watching It’s a Wonderful Life in early February, which will be a new experience.

In fact, much of this will be new, as always with my yearly retrospectives. At this point, I’ve seen only ten of those 44. That includes all the major films from the mid-30s on, but only two of the 18 available films released prior to It Happened One Night (1934). I am most excited to explore Capra’s contributions to the pre-Code era. Those movies certainly seem more fun than what I imagine to be the uncomplicated motivational energy of the wartime films. (I’m prepared to be proven wrong!) I’ll be studying those nonfiction films side-by-side with the Everyman parables starring Gary Cooper and James Stewart on which Capra’s artistic reputation either lives or dies. There will be unavoidable forays into the realm of politics, as I look into just how a lifelong Republican became a king in Hollywood during the presidency of FDR. And I will hope to find some value in those mostly forgotten final films. The end of Capra’s career differs significantly from the other two directors I’ve chosen for retrospectives. Buñuel went out with a handful of internationally-produced masterpieces. Spielberg, of course, isn’t finished yet, but he remains productive and accomplished into his seventies. It’s impossible to imagine him fading away like Capra did. However unfashionable he may be now, though, Capra remains important — particularly to me. I look forward to putting It’s a Wonderful Life in its full context.

This is the list of films I’ll be watching, along with their years of release.

The Strong Man – 1926

Long Pants – 1927

That Certain Thing – 1928

So This Is Love? – 1928

The Matinee Idol – 1928

The Power of the Press – 1928

Submarine – 1928

The Younger Generation – 1929

Flight – 1929

Ladies of Leisure – 1930

Rain or Shine – 1930

Dirigible – 1931

The Miracle Woman – 1931

Platinum Blonde – 1931

Forbidden – 1932

American Madness – 1932

The Bitter Tea of General Yen – 1933

Lady for a Day – 1933

It Happened One Night – 1934

Broadway Bill – 1934

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – 1936

Lost Horizon – 1937

You Can’t Take It with You – 1938

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 1939

Meet John Doe – 1941

Why We Fight – 1942-1945

  • Prelude to War – 1942
  • The Nazis Strike – 1943
  • Divide and Conquer – 1943
  • The Battle of Britain – 1943
  • The Battle of Russia – 1943
  • The Battle of China – 1944
  • War Comes to America – 1945

Tunisian Victory – 1944

Arsenic and Old Lace – 1944

Know Your Enemy: Japan – 1945

It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946

State of the Union – 1948

Riding High – 1950

Here Comes the Groom – 1951

The Bell System Science Series – 1956-1957

  • Our Mr. Sun – 1956
  • Hemo the Magnificent – 1957
  • The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays – 1957

A Hole in the Head – 1959

Pocketful of Miracles – 1961

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