Mr Capra goes to town

“Maybe there really wasn’t an America, maybe it was only Frank Capra”.

John Cassavetes

Our “name above the title” of the year is Frank Capra, the Italian-American who “made it”: the little Sicilian emigrant boy became the most celebrated, admired and Oscar-awarded filmmaker of the 1930s. He was 32 at the beginning of the decade when he created fundamental images and characters of democracy so strong that no later parody or ironic version has so far been able to break our vivid memory of Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, or Capra’s vision of Washington. Later, the Why We Fight series (with Capra as executive producer) and It’s a Wonderful Life contributed to the legend. But that’s not our agenda now. We are proud to be able to screen many of Frank

Capra’s silent films. Amazingly little of it has been seen by recent generations. It also remains unknown because very few specialists have cared to comment on the films apart from the comedies that Capra made with the incomparable Harry Langdon – films that to many specialists represent the peak and the profound philosophical core of all of silent film comedy (in the handful of films where the two artists cooperated fully). And yet those thirteen films directed by Capra build an enchanting achievement – that’s how many we will show, sometimes the only known print, plus three shorts written but not directed by Capra. We will be amazed by works of an already fully-formed mastermind comic, alert to social life: we already have “Capra” right there, projected without the thesis films or the ready-mades of later years.

Which will be followed by the ultra dynamic, original (and again little- known) beginning of Capra’s sound period, culminating in decisive masterpieces like American Madness, Platinum Blonde and The Bitter Tea of General Yen. No formulaic “Americana” yet, rather the same palpably profound vision, and especially the absence of pretention of certain later films like Lost Horizons (as great film as it is). What an exciting trip, where everybody can have his or her pick of the film that introduced the essential Capra. Will it be Rain or Shine, Dirigible or the slightly later American Madness (which, by the way, will have the ghostliest echoes of the week considering the state of the world we are now living through)? Or will it be one of the early sensational Barbara Stanwyck films, where mutual love does half of the work? I’m now thinking both of my personal favorite, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and The Miracle Woman, where Capra creates a variation of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and Stanwyck gives a portrait of Aimee Semple McPherson as a sexy female evangelist. Or perhaps Ladies of Leisure which inspired Richard Schickel to describe Frank Capra during those days as “a Dos Passos character”: “The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough… his head swimming with want…”

(Peter von Bagh)

Programme curated by Grover Crisp, Rita Belda (Sony Columbia) e Guy Borlée with the advice of Joseph McBride