A film-maker filled with contradiction

FRANK CAPRA: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS. B Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster. 768 pages. $27.50.

JOSEPH McBride saw the contradiction first during an interview with Frank Capra at a country club near Palm Springs, Calif.


Capra had been telling the author how he hated rich people NTC when the manager of the country club walked over and gave Capra a picture of him playing golf with President Gerald Ford. "Ah, wonderful," Capra said. He looked at the picture for a moment and then said, "Where was I? Oh, yeah, I was telling you that I've always had a hatred of rich people." Mr. McBride says he knew at that moment that "there was a contradiction between the image and the man."

Indeed, almost every page of this superbly insightful and comprehensive biography underscores that contradiction. There is Frank Capra, the dominant filmmaker of the 1930s, admitting he was so terrified of failure he wanted to stop making films. There is Frank Capra, a three-time Academy Award winner, jealously refusing to share the credit for his success with talented screen writers and technicians. And there is Frank Capra, whose films about "the little man" gave expression to a depressed country struggling to find its footing, confessing he hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Capra, who died in 1991, lonely and embittered, managed to fool just about everyone, including his wife, Lu, who wasn't entirely sure of his political convictions, and Katherine Hepburn, who starred with Spencer Tracy in Capra's 1948 film, "State of the Union," and who thought Capra "quite liberal." Still others, including many of his long-time associates in the motion picture industry, assumed Capra was a Democrat. The Russians, who praised the 1936 Gary Cooper-Jean Arthur film, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," (translating it "Mr. Dietz Goes to Town") reportedly hailed him "a comrade, a world improver, a Red propagandist."

Yet Capra was a life-long Republican who never once voted for Roosevelt (he fumed over what he saw as an encroachment on his own wealth by the social and economic policies of the New Deal). He admired Mussolini and Franco and believed Soviet authoritarianism was "part of the price of progress" in the Soviet Union. He became an FBI informer during the McCarthy hearings. And he admired -- and even defended -- Richard Nixon.

Capra began his career in movies writing gags for Hal Roach (who created the Our Gang series), Mack Sennett (father of the Keystone Kops) and former vaudeville comedian Harry Langdon, whom Capra later directed in his first feature, "The Strong Man" (1926).

In October 1927, he went to work for a small but ambitious studio, Columbia Pictures, headed by the fiery (and fearsome) Harry Cohn and his partners, Jack Cohn and Joe Brandt. Columbia, at the time, was just beginning to engage the major studios in serious competition, and Capra soon became Columbia's most successful director.

It was not without help, however, including the work of cameraman Joseph Walker. Capra and Walker made 20 pictures together, including all of Capra's classics at Columbia and "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) at RKO.

Capra's autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," published in 1971, not only expunged Walker's contributions, it gave short shrift to the work of dozens of others. His biographer calls the book "largely a work of fiction" and says the most amazing thing about it is that Capra succeeded in passing it off as fact. He made it believable, Mr. McBride adds, "by mingling self-serving episodes with ones that gave the impression of ruthless candor toward his own failings." Everyone thought, "If Capra was so harsh on himself . . . his harshness toward others must be equally deserved."

Although Capra's film-making stretched into the 1960s (his final feature was "Pocketful of Miracles," an anemic 1961 remake of his 1933 hit, "Lady for a Day"), for all practical purposes his Hollywood career was over after his 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life." Capra blamed it on Hollywood's post-war low budgets and standards. His biographer is more inclined to blame Capra himself, specifically, his fear of "any project or collaborator whose political views might get him in trouble."

Capra launched the careers of several of Hollywood's biggest female stars, including Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, he created a sex symbol in Clark Gable, and he coaxed two great performances out of Gary Cooper as John Doe and Longwood Deeds.


Moreover, he could work with anyone who could contribute to the success of his pictures, even those on the far left, and he knew, despite his baser instincts, that identifying with the common man against the selfish rich would play well in Depression-era Peoria.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.