Frank Capra's American Dream
Not the sappy populist of legend, Frank Capra, rather, was a demon-driven visionary who like a modern Rumpelstiltskin spun a golden America out of wishes, dreams, and straws in the wind. Kenneth Bowser's documentary, exec-produced by Capra's sons and as such amazingly upfront about Capra's insecurities, is a fine introduction to this chronically misunderstood filmmaker. Gary Cooper's paralyzing depression in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and James Stewart's suicidal fury in It's a Wonderful Life testify to the despair that was the flip side of his famous optimism, even as well-selected clips demonstrate the continuing vitality of the Capra work we all remember. It's certainly possible, however, to quibble about some of Bowser's choices -- the film is unfair to Capra's first collaborator, comedian Harry Langdon, and for some reason omits the miles of extant footage of the retired Capra discussing his career. Instead we have a slew of modern film directors (including such luminaries as the creators of thirtysomething) discussing their envy of Capra's ability to reach audiences. So true! Oliver Stone, however, is a good choice to discuss the prescience of Capra's films on the subjects of media manipulation and political monopoly -- Meet John Doe (1941) is better on that topic than that same year's Citizen Kane, in my view. And who knows more about manipulating icons than Oliver Stone?
The documentary opens a two-week series of Capra films at the Castro Theater. Capra's early talkie Ladies of Leisure (1930), screening Tuesday, is a good entry point to the series, inverting as it does the filmmaker's usual paradigm of innocence unprotected. Hardened moll Barbara Stanwyck regains her illusions in one of Capra's most effective early films. Meanwhile the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto continues its Capra series with among other films a screening of that masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life, on the exact date of Capra's 100th birthday, Sunday, May 18.
Frank Capra's American Dream screens daily at 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday through Monday, May 16-19. Ladies of Leisure screens at 7 p.m. (with Forbidden at 9 p.m.) on Tuesday, May 20. All showings are at the Castro, Castro & Market. Tickets are $6.50; call 621-6120 for more. For information on the Stanford Theater's Capra series, see Reps Etc. on Page 78.