Frank Capra was a member of the most exclusive club in the world of film - those few directors with a style so personal that their names have been turned into adjectives. Words like "Felliniesque," "Hitchcockian" and "Wellesian" summon up instant images of the distinctive universes of their creators. And "Capraesque" evoked a world of little guys who stood up against the system, of poor people who insisted on their dignity, of small towns with bedrock values, of government that sometimes balked but almost always did the right thing when the voice of the people was heard.
Capra, who died Tuesday at the age of 94, made his most distinctive films in the Depression years of the 1930s and the wartime years of the 1940s, when America was shaken by uncertainty and found reassurance in his films like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." James Stewart and Gary Cooper played the quintessential Capraesque heroes, and helped to create their own images in his movies. To think of either one of them, standing up to the U.S. Congress or defying a crowd of angry townspeople, is to think of values that were taught in patriotism classes or around Boy Scout campfires.
And yet Frank Capra's films were not all sunny civics lessons, and today the films about Deeds, Smith and John Doe are probably not as popular with audiences as his pure comedies, like "It Happened One Night," or his masterpiece, "It's a Wonderful Life." If it was at least plausible 50 years ago that a little guy could turn big government around, people no longer believe that in the post-Watergate and Irangate era, and Capra films that once seemed at least almost believable now play like wish-fulfillment.
"It's a Wonderful Life," however, is as truthful as the day it was released. Yet it was not considered a successful film when it opened in 1946, and was even allowed to fall out of copyright before being rediscovered as one of everyone's favorite American films.
In the movie, Jimmy Stewart began and ended as an ethical small-town hero who helped little folks get mortgages on their homes. But in between, in a harrowing fantasy sequence as dark in its way as anything in Stewart's or Capra's careers, he contemplated suicide, got drunk, and saw his hometown transformed into the kind of place where good people were not welcome. The film's rediscovery began in the 1970s, when public TV stations started using it as cheap Christmastime programming because it was out of copyright and cost them nothing. Now it is as much a part of the American holiday season as Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."
Frank Capra saw himself, I imagine, as a bit like the heroes of some of his movies. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 6, and began in Hollywood in the silent era. (One of his best films from that period, Harry Langdon's "The Strong Man," was recently reissued on video and belongs in the front rank of silent comedy.)
His early sound films included titles that would not easily fit under the "Capraesque" umbrella, including "Platinum Blonde" (1931), which is central to the Jean Harlow legend, and the sexy "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1932), with Barbara Stanwyck. "It Happened One Night" (1934) was an instant worldwide smash hit, certifying Clark Gable once and forever as a great star and making great use of Claudette Colbert's pert wit and perfect timing in a story about a runaway heiress and a newspaper reporter who built a "wall of Jericho" out of a sheet on a clothesline, right down the middle of a motel room they had to share for a night.
Capra's political films began two years later, with "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" in 1936, and (after "Lost Horizon" in 1938) "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and "Meet John Doe" (1941). These films, which seem somewhat sentimental and simplistic today, were powerfully effective at the time of their release, contrasting American democracy to the rise of Hitler and fascism.
After making several important wartime documentaries, he had career successes with "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) and "State of the Union" (1948), but "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) was not accepted as warmly as expected, and in the 1950s, his career seemed to lose its direction and he lost his self-confidence. His last film, "A Pocketful of Miracles," starred Bette Davis in 1961.
Until he suffered a recent series of strokes, Capra lived a full and rich old age, visiting film festivals, speaking to students, spending time with his family, and issuing angry broadsides against those, such as Ted Turner, who wanted to "colorize" his black-and-white classics. He was a small, cheerful man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, and he seemed to take a particular pleasure in combining as many and various checks and tweeds as could be worn at any one time, augmented by loud handkerchiefs and unlikely ties.
The term "Capraesque" is used by today's film critics as a word of both praise and blame - praise when they agree with a film's portrait of the common man standing up against the system, blame if they think a film is too sentimental or corny. Frank Capra, who outlived his films by 30 years, was never able to understand the negative connotations of "Capraesque," and perhaps that was one source of his strength as a director.