Pixilated: Frank Capra’s Columbia Years

Nowhere in American cinema is the defense of the individual more resonant than in the films of Frank Capra. Though often misclassified as routine David vs. Goliath stories set against backdrops of quaint Americana, Capra’s films are, in fact, criticisms of mass culture’s repressive effect on the creative freedoms of individuals. Institutions and corporations — law firms, banks, newspapers; the supposed distinguished heads of community — are especially maligned, for their aggressive desire to silence the individual is directly associated with their self-serving desire for financial and societal gain.

In the thick of it all are Capra’s protagonists: idealists and nonconformists who pose a threat to the masses’ complacent groupthink. Their individualism results in crises of identity — crises wrought by the disapproval of the surrounding culture at-large — especially when challenged by the authority figures that are supposed to represent the community’s best interests. But institutions and even communities, as Capra’s main characters make clear, are dangerously inhibitive when it comes to the best interests of free-thinking and free-acting individuals. This is not to say that Capra’s films champion sentimental triumphs of the human spirit, as the low-grade Hollywood descendents of Capra’s style would like to have you believe, nor do they couch “Be Different! Be Yourself!” messages within skin-deep scripts. His protagonists, after all, don’t heroically confront the status quo; rather, they crash against the status quo’s imposing barricade, forced to determine exactly how they’re supposed to exist alongside it.

As Capra’s heroes defect from the expectations of the general public, they’re branded adolescent and emotionally unstable. “He’s pixilated,” two old ladies confess, when asked to describe the behavior of their townsman, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. “He walks in the rain without his hat, and talks to himself.” “Sometimes he whistles!” “And sings!” Deeds — an unsuspecting, simple man from the Vermont countryside who inherits $20 million and an opera house in New York City — also plays the tuba when overwhelming information requires private thought, slides down his mansion’s banister, and fancies himself a poet — all of it behavior deemed inappropriate for a man expected to conform to the boundaries of respectable society. Capra’s protagonists can all be easily defined as “pixilated” in the eyes of the obedient masses; to the masses, the individual is an anomaly, a jagged piece with no corresponding puzzle.

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Capra came to the United States from Sicily with his family in 1903 when he was still a child. He began his career in pictures working on silent films for the Our Gang cast, comic Harry Langdon, and slapstick producer Mack Sennett, first as a gagman and later a director. Capra would almost single-handedly bring esteem to Columbia Pictures when he was hired by the studio in the late ’20s as a director under contract. Columbia began as a low-budget studio on Gower Street in Hollywood’s Poverty Row; founded as CBC in 1919 by Harry Cohn, his brother Jack Cohn, and Joe Brandt, its reputation earned it the unflattering nickname “Corned Beef and Cabbage” before being renamed for good. Though Capra’s relationship with producer Jack Cohn was notoriously tumultuous (it ultimately resulted in Capra’s departure at the close of the ’30s), three of his films earned a number of Academy Awards for the studio, including It Happened One Night, the first film to win in all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress). At Columbia, Capra met two of his most important collaborators of the ’30s: screenwriter Robert Riskin and director of photography Joseph Walker, both of whom would play crucial roles in developing a signature style typically attributed to Capra alone.

Riskin, a New York City playwright, was responsible for the crackling, witty dialogue typified by films like It Happened One Night; while Capra may have aided in scene structure and character arc, Riskin was the one who made the characters snap. As a photographer, Walker maintained a deceptively pragmatic style, obedient to the most necessary needs of character and location (and, perhaps, forgotten in the shadow of more audacious contemporaries like Gregg Toland). His moments of subjective expression, as a result, were startling images of contrast: a defeated Deeds, engulfed in darkness and backlit by the fenced window of the county hospital; Jefferson Smith, also nearly defeated following a crash course in the government’s crookedness, lost in the identity-stripping blankness near the Lincoln Memorial. Capra’s films run on this kind of exquisite competence, a story- and character-serving technique that, while still in wide use by less “visionary” filmmakers, was nonetheless eclipsed by the technical prowess of directors like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in ensuing decades.

The new six-DVD box set The Premiere Frank Capra Collection reconfirms Capra’s rank as a filmmaker of unyielding greatness. It features five of Capra’s best films from his 11-year tenure while at Columbia Pictures — American Madness (1932), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) — as well as Frank Capra’s American Dream, a 1997 feature-length documentary narrated by Ron Howard. One could argue for the inclusion of Lost Horizon (1937), Capra’s big-budget adaptation of James Hilton’s novel, in the set, but its depiction of a fantastical utopia is, in many ways, disassociated from the tenor of the others in the set. (Incidentally, the absence of Capra’s major works from the ’40s is due solely to studio/rights issues: the fascist parable Meet John Doe [1941] was made for Warner Bros.; and It’s a Wonderful Life [1946], a complex film that has been routinely demoted to a mere harbinger of holiday-season sap by the sentimental crusaders of the world, was co-produced by Capra’s own Liberty Films and RKO.) The intricacies of the films’ development and production are communicated exhaustively by Frank Capra Jr., who provides commentary for each of his father’s films in the set, as well as a brief 10-to-30-minute “remembrance” featurette in the DVDs’ extras. Coupled with the American Dream documentary, these extras provide a comprehensive biography of Capra and his work, valuable supplements to the films for obsessives and neophytes alike.

Capra’s films of the ’30s are seminal works and cannot be underestimated; their influence on American film has been viral, forever infiltrating the structural and thematic templates of contemporary cinema. It’s become customary to falsely entrust the Capraesque style to any American filmmaker who eschews gregarious stylistic embellishment for populist sentimentality and feel-good gumption. True, Capra’s palpable “essence”, if you will, his surface touchstone of gutsy morality, is an integral aspect to even the most prosaic cliques of American cinema. Surface spectacle — the American-as-apple-pie tableaus and on-the-defensive everymen — is easy to manufacture and even easier to recognize; therefore, to really designate something “Capraesque” implies a deeper rummaging through more thorny baggage. The genuine inheritors of Capra’s idealist portraiture are filmmakers like Kenneth Lonergan, whose 2000 film You Can Count on Me boasts a difficult individualist, Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo), who proves inadaptable to the structured, pastoral surroundings of his hometown.

Demonstrations of Faith

The fast-paced American Madness isn’t typically lumped in with Capra’s essential films, but it deserves attention by anyone who’s ignored it. Bank manager Thomas Dickson, played with a wild-eyed scrappiness by Walter Huston, must restore faith in his customers after a robbery (an inside job, no less) incites distrust in the bank’s security and future. Dickson may be a representative of the bank, but he acts always in favor of the people, making loans based on character (“It’s the only thing you can bank on,” he insists) and vehemently defying the bank’s board of directors in the process. “A demonstration of faith is worth all the money in the world,” Dickson says, an attitude that proves to be both his pixilated split from the group of disapproving bank executives and the saving grace of the bank itself. As a Capra character, Dickson isn’t as acutely drawn as the later, better-known protagonists (his dedication to his customers renders him blind to other matters of personal importance, such as his wedding anniversary), but he retains the skeletal properties of an unassimilated individual.

The genesis of American Madness is rooted in a bit of good-intentioned propagandizing; the producers based Dickson loosely on A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America, in order to create a positive image of bankers in the midst of the Depression. Like Dickson, Giannini loaned money to those who had no collateral or couldn’t find funding elsewhere, including film studios like Columbia, which were deemed too financially risky at the time. The character would be resurrected, with some added existential heft, as George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, another of Capra’s films in which a banker looks to demonstrations of faith for personal salvation.

Capra taps into the paranoia of the Depression most notably with the gossip sequence following the robbery, a quick-cut series of phone calls that relay, and eventually distort, the news of the bank’s supposed collapse. The entire film is typified by a similar nervousness; against the wishes of the sound department, the actors were instructed to deliver their rapid dialog in overlapping waves, starting sentences before others had finished. In addition, Capra shot American Madness with an expressive eye, in many ways a direct contradiction to the pragmatic style that would come to define him throughout the decade. The robbery sequence is full of shadows and light; similar to those moments of defeat in Deeds and Mr. Smith mentioned earlier, but perhaps more strongly a flirtation with film noir stylization. One of the film’s most indelible images (and certainly one of the most striking in all of Capra’s work) is of the throng of customers storming the bank to withdraw their money. Capra shoots the mass from overhead, a slow-moving swarm of multi-hued fedoras breaching the bank’s walls. This kind of congregating American majority, such a counterproductive body to the sovereign desires of the individual, is always rushing, always haunting in claustrophobic waves.

A Long Line of Stubborn Idiots

It Happened One Night is probably the definitive romantic comedy in film’s 100-year-plus history. It certainly set a formal paradigm in place, one which nearly all romantic comedies have followed since: man and woman meet under chance circumstances, quickly discover they can’t stand one another, but stick together anyways in order to realize separate personal gains; upon going their separate ways at the end of the journey, they realize that they are, in fact, madly in love with each other. In It Happened One Night, the characters are Peter Warne and Ellie Andrews, played by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, respectively: Peter’s a cocky, down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter who meets Ellie, a spoiled runaway heiress intent on punishing her father for disapproving of her recent marriage.

Peter and Ellie both reject the rules of their own worlds with behavior that challenges the prescribed norm. Peter’s drunken bravado gets him cast from the paper he works for, an institution that expects deferent assimilation; like Dickson in American Madness or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, he’s a good representative of an otherwise individual-subjugating establishment. Similarly, Ellie’s position — quite literally between her father and new husband, aboard a nondescript passenger bus — is self-imposed, the result of stubborn behavior unbecoming for a lady of her eminence. “I come from a long line of stubborn idiots!” she tells her father after he points out her exasperating personality. It’s a great line, sure, a joke, but it’s also a declaration of solidarity with Capra’s brand of rebellious idealism.

Perhaps because It Happened One Night is such an extroverted instance of screwball comedy (a style dear to Capra’s comic past, but one not immediately associated with his more dramatically-inclined reputation), Peter and Ellie may initially appear, on the surface, to be unconnected to the legion of Capra idealists. They’re endearingly selfish characters, entirely motivated (at first) by their own interests; Ellie needs a co-conspirator to help evade her father’s pursuit, and Peter plans to use the whole serendipitous circumstance as the basis for an exclusive article that will get him back in the newspaper’s good graces. These two characters, however, help to resolve a common misconception about Capra: his films are not populist creeds, and his protagonists are not tidy manifestations of the proverbial underdog. Admittedly, the ideals that characters like Mssrs. Deeds and Smith stand for — freedom for the individual and uncompromised justice for the world in which he lives — happen to be those embraced by political platforms of the “common man”, but they’re individualist ideals nonetheless, impractical grasps for personal autonomy where it’s not easily granted.

Gable only ever worked with Capra once, but that one performance became downright iconic. At the time, Gable was a contract player for rival MGM Studios; he was loaned to Columbia, a less “posh” studio by Hollywood standards, by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer as punishment for his difficult behavior, and wound up winning his first Oscar as a result. It’s rumored that his wise-cracking, carrot-eating character was the basis for Bugs Bunny, and the first motel scene, in which he undresses to reveal no undershirt, reportedly led to a severe drop in undershirt sales across the country. The role of Peter was very different than those Gable was used to playing; where MGM sought to typecast him as the manly man (think Gone With the Wind [1939], for which he’s generally best-known), It Happened One Night gave him juicy comedy, irreverent attitude, and generous physicality to chew on. He got great comic mileage in his educative rants on donut-dunking technique and proper piggybacking logic, and the scene in which he explains the fine art of hitchhiking only to fail miserably while demonstrating the ineffectiveness of his own thumb is a classic moment of on-screen schadenfreude — one treated to the great visual punchline of Colbert’s bared leg compelling a passing car to a screeching halt.

Colbert refused to pull up her skirt at first for the scene, and consented only when Capra threatened to bring in a leg double. In fact, Colbert proved to be just as spoiled as her character: she demanded a $50,000 payday (twice her normal rate and nearly one-sixth of the film’s total budget), publicly smeared the film while shooting, and had to be persuaded to attend the Academy Awards, where she would win an Oscar alongside Gable. When the film’s unexpected success gained steam across the country, she almost didn’t believe it — pixilated, perhaps; stubborn, indeed.

A Man Oughta Know Where He Fits In

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the bustling denizens of New York City attempt to take advantage of Longfellow Deeds’s rampant eccentricities and further thwart his individualism: his lawyers try to outsmart him in order to get to his fortune; his fellow poets humiliate him in an upscale restaurant; and the media, led by undercover reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur, Capra’s Grace Kelly of the ’30s), turns his quaint malleability into a running gag. Deeds (Gary Cooper) is an especially easy target, a fish out of water who attempts to navigate New York City via the bearings of his bucolic Mandrake Falls, Vermont upbringing. He’s brought to New York by a sudden, vast inheritance left to him by a recently deceased uncle of wealth and prominence; clearly, Deeds does not fit into the etiquette-dictated structure of high-society life. He’s often lost in the haze of his own thoughts and flights of fancy, easily distracted by fire-engine sirens (he’s a volunteer fire fighter back home, you see), and prone to childlike romps through the ornate skeleton of his newly acquired mansion.

It’s all too much for Deeds at times: in the restaurant, infantilized by the same poets he considers his peers, Deeds is reduced to a rage-driven pugilist. Deeds’s poetry may not be of the cerebral variety (he writes mainly for greeting cards, and as a hobby); nonetheless, his not being allowed to assimilate with fellow writers is tantamount to cruel rejection by the culture at large. “A man oughta know where he fits in,” Deeds says at one point. “I just don’t fit in around here.” He acts out his most childlike pixilation in privacy, sliding down the banister of his mansion when no one’s looking and encouraging his servants to shout into the ceilings with him in order to hear their echoes. When Deeds decides to give away his inherited fortune to those Depression-affected people less well-off than he, society declares his insanity — his public pixilation — to be reflected within his actions.

Throughout the film, Cooper wears a face that reflects repeated, dull astonishment that his seemingly harmless character instigates such a public uproar. As the surrounding culture’s playful disapproval becomes fervent denunciation, Cooper’s performance — tethered, as it is, by the malleability of his eyes — moves further inward; soon, in the courtroom, his eyes reflect neither surprise nor disappointment, but nothingness itself. Though known more for his roles in the Western High Noon (1952) and the Lou Gehrig biopic The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Cooper’s Deeds remains a resonant figure in American cinema; a man whose individualism is his singular anonymity, oscillating between violent expression and pitiless introversion.

Beginning to Act Quite Human

You Can’t Take It with You, Capra’s expanded adaptation of a popular stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is an intricate unveiling of long-suppressed pixilations in otherwise “compliant” citizens of society. Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), the patriarch of the extended Sycamore family of free-thinking and loose-living artisans, is the enlightener, so to speak, the one who helps accountants (such as Mr. Poppins, who hides his creative “inventor” side in shame) and Wall Street financiers (the Kirbys, reluctant representatives of corporate dehumanization) transcend the banality of their fixed existences. Though he’s loved by an inordinate number of friends and neighbors, Grandpa is vehemently noncompliant with the demands of the world: he refuses to pay income tax and won’t sell his family’s house to the big-business interests who need it for their neighborhood redevelopment.

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and his son Tony (a young, relatively unknown James Stewart, acting in his first of three Capra films) represent the smarmy Wall Street establishment intent on acquiring the Vanderhof’s property; as fate (and good writing) would have it, Tony falls in love with his secretary, Alice (Jean Arthur), who just happens to be Grandpa’s granddaughter. A collision of idealism and realism ensues: the Sycamore household — dancers, painters, xylophonists, explosive manufacturers, and other eccentrics — and the stiff, snobby Kirbys are caught up in the pair’s romance.

Tony used to be an idealist, but as he explains to Alice, a role as an idealist wasn’t exactly in the cards: “What’s my excuse? ‘The Kirbys have been bankers for 900 years.’ That line has been pounded into my head.” A.P. Kirby’s attitude is even more stifled; when Grandpa invites him to rediscover his past love for harmonica playing, Kirby answers, “I’m too busy a man to fool around with harmonicas.” The fallacy here is that things like harmonica playing are less important than pressing concerns of monetary gain and otherwise esteemed existence, including identity-eliminating careers. Grandpa’s harmonica is, like Deeds’s tuba, a manifestation of his pixilation; it also proves to be instrumental in wooing Kirby back into rediscovering his own hidden individualism. “Mr. Kirby,” Grandpa tells him as his urbane façade melts away, “you’re beginning to act quite human.”

This kind of feel-good conclusion, where everyone relearns how to embrace their peculiarities, isn’t easily reached. Grandpa is, inevitably, broken down by society’s imposing demands: his idealism threatened, he does concede to the sale of the Sycamore house shortly before the film’s resolution. Capra’s protagonists all have their idealism tested in similar ways; Deeds, for example, gives in to society’s judgment and renders himself mute in court, and in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Smith reacts to the opinion of his peers by refusing to defend himself in the meeting of the Committee of Privileges and Elections. Living a life of self-governed idealism, it would seem, leads to crises of identity and struggles with futility, not effortless happy endings.

A Man’s World

Stewart’s second film with Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, proved to be his breakthrough. As Jefferson Smith, the idealist junior senator fighting a corrupt government intent on keeping him as its “honorary stooge”, Stewart found the iconic screen language that would define his career: an aw-shucks, guiltless demeanor occasionally compromised by turbulent internal struggles that would manifest themselves on his every limb. Smith is brought to the Senate to fill the seat of a recently deceased senator; more importantly, he’s nominated because his crooked fellow senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, playing the same sort of sickly sweet weasel he’d make famous in Casablanca) and political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) need a decorative “simpleton” to allow their land-robbing dam bill to pass unchallenged. Smith’s own bill, a proposal for a boys’ camp that will eventually reimburse the government’s investment, intends to use the same land (for much nobler intentions), a conflict of interest that exposes Smith to the widespread corruption behind the political curtain.

Washington, Smith is told, “is a man’s world.” Clearly, Smith is in over his head; a man’s world — secretive, self-serving, morally fraudulent — is no place for the naïve leader of the Boy Rangers. “You’re halfway decent — you don’t belong here!” Smith’s assistant, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), insists, and Smith’s actions only reinforce her sentiment. When the press takes advantage of his vulnerable friendliness to paint him as an idiotic bumpkin (shades of the media’s equally mocking treatment of Deeds), Smith loses his cool and proceeds to punch the daylights out of any reporter he can get his hands on (again, shades of Deeds’ violence towards the poets who openly mock him). His hair plummeting across his face and desperation seething from his eyes, Smith is restrained by a group of reporters led by Diz (Thomas Mitchell) who call him “Tarzan” and laugh at his demands for the truth. Stewart plays the scene incensed and aggressive, pulling his body every which way in a futile attempt to make this man’s world recognize his incompatibility.

Smith’s idealism (and, consequently, his frustration with the corrupted man’s world) doesn’t prompt him to initiate change within the government; his idealism stems from a preexisting faith in the government: that it’s as principled as it’s purported to be and he, consequently, is able to act in accordance with his own desires. When he retreats to the Lincoln Memorial for the second time, Smith’s one-time sanctuary of democratic ideals has been rendered a shadowy place capable of concealing lies and deceit. On different days, the meanings of things change. Perhaps this is why Capra’s protagonists are so surprised when they encounter resistance from the masses: they never expect such cold and cruel opposition. It’s a man’s world, yes, but a man’s world is regressive and standoffish. It’ll embrace you as one of its own as long as you remain an undetectable part of the whole. Capra’s films, then, are infiltrations of enlightenment into the shared spaces of unenlightened life, testaments to those whose fragmented selves find no fit in the collective’s architecture.