Bright Lights Film Journal

Frank Capra’s American Dream (Kenneth Bowser, 1997)

This beloved film artist was driven as much by self-doubt as by his belief in the power of the “little man”

The rise of Frank Capra from sickly, abused, impoverished Sicilian immigrant to what one of his sons calls “a shaper of how we view America” is the subject of Kenneth Bowser’s Frank Capra’s American Dream. This biography, produced by Tom and Frank Capra, Jr., attempts to replace the simplistic image of Capra as a sort of undiscriminating, sentimental populist with a more complex reality.

What emerges from these interviews and film clips is an illuminating, if mostly uncritical, portrait of a tragically conflicted personality whose work, more than that of many directors, is barely veiled autobiography. The Capra seen here joins his fictional counterparts — Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe — as an Everyman whose sudden wealth and fame, those driving myths of the “American Dream” that was Capra’s eternal subject, nearly destroy him.

Capra never quite believed in his own accomplishments, and in his Catholic way seemed to suffer most when he was most praised. After a record critical and commercial success with It Happened One Night and Broadway Bill (both 1934), Capra had a breakdown that required lengthy hospitalization. His life and career were marked by both milestones — helping start the Directors Guild, transforming Columbia Pictures from poverty row to major studio — and catastrophes. Among the latter were serious bouts of depression, nagging guilt over being wealthy when the rest of society was suffering, and being investigated as a communist by HUAC.

Before World War II, Capra’s personal demons were largely held at bay by a kind of natural buoyancy and a gratitude for what he believed America had done for him. During the war he made a series of propaganda films called collectively Why We Fightand in the process had to examine reams of unedited atrocity footage shot by the allies. These images seemed to bring Capra’s anxieties to the fore in his first postwar film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This grim portrait of small-town America enslaved by its capitalist masters is as black as any film noir, and redemption is no longer possible through the initiative of a single principled individual, as it had been in the earlier films. Only supernatural intervention — in this case, an angel — could save Capra’s fantasy of smalltown America and his beloved “little man” George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from killing himself.

Frank Capra’s American Dream shows how timely many of these films are today, particularly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe with their scathing portraits of political corruption and immoral mass media. And Capra’s visual and storytelling skills are well displayed in the narrative drive of films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and luminous close-ups of stars like Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. Still, the director’s own voice, muted here, might have added something down-to-earth that’s missing in this too-perfect picture. In his famous autobiography, for example, he agonizes over the lasting effects of having sold his independent company, Liberty Pictures, to Paramount after the failure of It’s a Wonderful Life: “I fell never to rise to be the same man again either as a person or a talent… I lost my nerve… for fear of losing a few bucks.”