Frank Capra | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style

Films: The Strong Man | Rain or Shine | Platinum Blonde | Lady for a Day | It Happened One Night

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Frank Capra

Frank Capra was a Hollywood film director.

Frank Capra: Subjects

Some common subjects in the films of Frank Capra:

Characters:

Imagery: Transportation: Advanced technology:

Frank Capra: Structure and Story Telling

Alternatives

Frank Capra: Visual Style

Camera movement: Costumes and Appearance:

The Strong Man

The Strong Man (1926) is an endearing comedy.

The story situations in The Strong Man have links to later Capra films:

The heroine is posed in romantic surroundings, in the Capra tradition, with trees and roses.

Rain or Shine

Capra's early sound film Rain or Shine (1930) deals with a circus. Most of the first hour of the film is a chance for the team of Broadway comics led by Joe Cook to run amok. They are the poor man's equivalent of the Marx Brothers. Joe Cook is fast talking like Groucho, and one of the other three is largely silent, like Harpo. Mainly this bunch is not that skillful, and makes one appreciate the Marx Brothers more. They do well however, in their circus finale, when they do comedy acrobatics.

Camera Movement

Capra's set-ups through much of the film are fairly static, in line with early talkies. However, there are some fine traveling shots, that were apparently filmed silent, with sound added later. One shows nice young man Bart entering the circus, during rehearsals. He is filmed from the rear, as he walks forward, with the circus in front of him, in spectacular long shot. This forward movement, sometimes twisting to left or right along the curves of the circus and its rings, is a splendid traveling shot. It conveys much of the excitement of the circus. Since Bart is filmed from behind, he can talk and say hi to people in the circus without any need to synchronize his voice to his lips. The people speaking to him are often just unidentified voices coming out of the crowd. This made it easy to add these voices later, after the scene was shot.

Bart is dressed in a brand new suit and hat; everybody feels he looks splendid, and comments on it. This gives a party feel and celebratory tone to the shot. In 1930, apparently everybody agreed that suits looked great. Today, American men want to look casual, and often rib anyone who's shown up in a suit. Times have changed...

Later in the film, Joe Cook also enters the circus during a similar traveling shot. It is not as elaborate, but it is still good.

Entrances and Paths

Capra likes entrances. His characters weave their way through a country club dining room in one graceful shot, which is repeated from the same angle, framed by palm trees, when the characters leave.

There are also many long shots of the circus tent itself during performances. One can see the entire geometry of the tent in full view, with audience, circus rings, entrances and paths between them all laid out in detail. The camera seems close enough to make everything seem large, vivid and easy to follow. It is very graceful filming. One can also see the tent as well, the flag poles that support it, and every circus performer in the background.

Crowd Scenes

Capra's scenes include the audience in detail. You can see each individual person in the crowd. At first this seems heart warming, with the audience laughing at the performer's antics. Later in the film, when the crowd turns ugly, they seem like an overwhelming menacing presence. There is a claustrophobic effect, and a sense that everyone is trapped together in one shot, and that no one can escape the ugly dynamics of the situation.

Capra often made a crowd a protagonist of his films. In addition to the circus finale of Rain or Shine (1930), there are the music hall audience of The Strong Man (1926), the panicked bank customers of American Madness (1932), the horse race crowds of Broadway Bill (1934), the people assisting the Senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and the residents of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

These crowds undergo mob psychology. They are whipped into emotions, and are a raging torrent, filled with out of control behavior. The hero usually tries to direct them, control them, and turn them from evil, catastrophic or self defeating ends. These scenes are often very long, such as the whole last half hour of Rain or Shine. The crowd scenes are carefully organized, with a steady escalating excitement in the crowd. There is a progression through many different stages and emotional levels in the mob of people. It is like a piece of classical music, with each bit playing a progressive role in the overall plan. However, these scenes are drenched in anxiety.

The lightest hearted of the crowds is in Broadway Bill. Here there is a sentimental, sympathetic portrait of an excited crowd at a horse race. This crowd is entirely benevolent and up beat. Yet even here, there is an undercurrent of menace. The race fans form an genuine dynamo of energy. They are a powerful force that is turned on, and one cannot help but wonder what would happen if they turned nasty.

One sees what would happen in Rain or Shine, which is the most negative of the crowd scenes. Usually the hero manages to control what happens. Here however, he unexpectedly fails. We get the Apocalypse. These are the most terrifying scenes in all of Capra. The final Potterville sequence of It's a Wonderful Life might be more despairing, but it is not more frightening or more out of control than Rain or Shine.


Platinum Blonde

Platinum Blonde (1931) seems to be one of the first of Capra's screwball comedies. The comedy deals with character, and the relationships of the rich and poor.

Capra Themes

Elements of Platinum Blonde form the seeds of later Capra works.

A poor man meets a bunch of rich people. They try to transform him into a Society gentleman. This anticipates Lady for a Day (1934), in which everyone collaborates to make Apple Annie a society woman temporarily. It recalls the Gary Cooper films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941), where ordinary man Cooper is manipulated into being a celebrity, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), in which the unknown Jimmy Stewart character is changed into a US Senator. Lady for a Day is much more light hearted than the other films. Apple Annie's transformation is only going to be for a brief period, and does not involve a life wrenching permanent change. Also, no one tries to change her inner psychology: her personality is not under attack. By contrast, these other Capra films look at the long range personal effects of such a transformation, and the difficulties they impose on their hero. Platinum Blonde lacks the political dimension of these later films: the character is not trying to influence public life or social mores. However, the hero of Platinum Blonde is thrust into the public spotlight, just like the later characters: everything he does becomes the subject of newspaper stories, something that echoes surrealistically throughout the film. Gary Cooper's characters will also be the subject of much media exposure, an effect that is even darker and more sinister in those films.

The early, more comic sections of Platinum Blonde depict the romance of a poor man and a rich woman. These are the most enjoyable sections of the film. This subject will reappear in It Happened One Night (1934). Here this romance will be the entire subject of the film, in one of Capra's most wonderful works. Once again, the hero of It Happened One Night will be a reporter, just like the leading man in Platinum Blonde, and the heroine a Society heiress, one with a stuffy family. One will see a similar poor man-rich woman with family pair in Capra's less successful Broadway Bill (1934).

Platinum Blonde anticipates It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Both are films in which the hero is coerced by his family into giving up his personal dreams, and living a life imposed by them. In the later film, this is presented as having its good side: James Stewart helps everyone around him. In Platinum Blonde we see only the negative aspects of the situation. The life lived by the rich characters is snobbish and futile. Both films explore with sadness and bitterness the horror of living such a life. Platinum Blonde starts out as a comedy, but eventually it turns into one of Capra's saddest and most poignant pictures. The life the hero wants to lead is that of a creative writer. This is entirely admirable. Unlike the life of travel and adventure James Stewart wants in It's a Wonderful Life, which is a bit of a pipe dream, albeit a pleasant one, the creative life of the hero here is a wholly good aspiration, one that is genuinely productive. It is very close to the real lives of Capra and Riskin as well: the hero wants to write plays. One might note that the hero is not living this life at the start of the picture either, when he is merely a poor newspaper reporter. But at least his milieu seems to be encouraging him in his dreams.

It is easy to be annoyed with Robert Williams' treatment of Loretta Young. He orders her around and exploits her labor. This is a mild version of the obnoxiousness that will later sink the hero and whole film of Broadway Bill (1934). This is a Capra tradition, but not a good Capra tradition. The film does not worry about her creative outlet. Just as long as she helps the man, she is presumably fulfilled. On the other hand, like most of Capra's women, she is a person of amazing ability, coping on equal terms with a man's job and a man's world: she is a successful reporter herself, and as the film keeps repeating, regarded as "just one of the boys" on the newspaper. In this sense she certainly is a feminist role model.

Costumes

Like Bart in Rain or Shine (1930), the hero gets new suits, as part of his social transformation. Even as a poor man, he aspired to dress respectably. His new suits are genuinely spiffy. Although the subject of good natured ribbing from his old friends, everyone clearly feels his new clothes are an improvement. Capra might not approve of the rich, but he, and probably his audience too, felt their clothes were definitely a good thing.

Even at his best, it is not quite clear if his suits are as good or as fancy as those of Jean Harlow's playboy brother.

However, they are plainly to be preferred to the formal morning clothes of the lawyer in the film. Suits are a democratic form of dress, suitable to all social classes, whereas such formal clothes are suitable only for such upper class twits as the lawyer.

Acting styles

Loretta Young and Jean Harlow are both the sort of naturalistic performers that one associates with mid-1930's screwball comedy.

Leading man Robert Williams is another matter. He is partly naturalistic, and partly like the vaudeville performers who dominated much of early talkie comedy and musicals (1929 - 1931). Like them he has a snappy line of patter, and a unique, highly individualistic delivery. Unlike them, he is restrained in his physical movements, dressed normally, and functions as a conventional leading man. He seems poised halfway between two schools of film and film acting.

Camera Movement

Platinum Blonde is a beautiful picture. It is full of graceful camera movements which follow the characters around. Such movements are sometimes comic trips through the huge mansion that dominates much of the film, emphasizing its endless dimensions. They also use Capra's device of following a character in motion through rooms of people who are standing more or less still: often party-goers or diners in a restaurant, as well as office workers and attendees at public events. These are typically long takes, that twist and curve graciously around the rooms.

It is a critical fashion today to call such tracking of the actors "invisible camera movements". Such camera movements, when used to follow small adjustments in the heroes' positions, can indeed be inconspicuous in some films. However, this is not true in Capra's case. It is hard to imagine anything more noticeable than the camera following Jean Harlow as she sweeps hurriedly through a mansion filled with party goers. It is about as inconspicuous as Niagara Falls.

Composition

Platinum Blonde is full of beautiful compositions. These often exploit the background architecture for their shape, framing the characters against doors, windows, staircases, arches and other architectural features, especially of the mansion.

Capra also pays special attention to transitions. One sequence late in the film has an actor enter the hallway of the mansion. After greetings, a second shot from the interior of the living room has him turning and entering there. Capra has positioned him in the hallway so that when he turns and enters the living room, the second shot is beautifully composed and framed, with the actor the center of a composition focusing on the doorway. In both cases his position seems completely natural. It just seems to give rise to this beautiful composition by magic. This sort of gracefulness is found throughout the picture.

Capra's compositions tend to have a streamlined look. I am not entirely sure how this is achieved. Such streamlining was at its peak as a cultural ideal in the 1930's, and was found in every sort of graphic and industrial design. For one thing, there is very little bric a brac in the mansion or other of the sets. There is just the characters, and the architecture: nothing more. There is little of the sumptuousness of a Sternberg picture.

Capra rarely employs masking effects: objects do not enter the foreground of the picture and overlap the edges of the frame, in other words. Characters do stand behind architectural features on occasion, such as a grill work, or in the spectacular love scene, the fountain. However, even here these objects are more straightforward than the masking found in say Ophuls.

The actions of the characters contributes to the mood. The actors show a snappy energy, not the sensuous languorousness of Sternberg. In general, Capra shows the visual style of the pictorial tradition, but not its mood. Pictorialist directors such as John Ford, Josef von Sternberg and Kenji Mizoguchi, often linger over their beautiful shots. Many scenes are included in their films purely to set a mood, and because of their visual beauty. Capra tries never to do this, except in brief scenes marked as "romance". Scenes are staged and shot to reflect comedy rhythms. Naturalism is emphasized in the acting and dialogue. The beauty of the visuals of the film is presented just as a happy accident or addition. If a film goer wants to pay attention to these, Capra provides them as a bonus. If a paying customer wants to ignore them, Capra's film will be paced and staged like a typical 1930's comedy. Nothing in the staging will urge him to pause and soak up atmosphere or a beautiful visual. However, Capra does often stage his scenes at the "dawdling" pace fashionable in 1930's comedy. This allows him to linger over the beautiful images as well.


Lady for a Day

Lady for a Day (1933) is Frank Capra classic.

Lady for a Day is based on the once hugely popular work of comic short story writer Damon Runyon.

The Crowd: Decent Common Man

The crowd in the street tries to help the heroine when she faints. These are "ordinary people". The are far more respectable than Dave's friends, and are perhaps middle class in dress. But still, they immediately try to provide assistance. They are not class conscious like the hotel workers. They try to help a human being in trouble, rather than worrying about class lines.

This is a portrait of the Common Man as good and helpful to those in need.

This is also one of Capra's crowd scenes. Unlike some such scenes, this crowd is not "out of control" or panicked.

Pierre: A Gay Man

Pierre is a sympathetic gay character.

At first Pierre is the subject of humor. But the humor is fairly gentle.

Then we see what Pierre can do. He is hard working, highly competent at his job, and effective. Of all the people trying to help the heroine, he is the most dramatic and practical at his help. This is a portrait of a gay man who really knows his stuff.

Unlike some screen gays, Pierre is not snooty either. He treats the heroine and other characters with respect.


It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night (1934) is one of Capra's finest films.

Transportation

It Happened One Night is full of transportation. This goes way beyond the needs of the plot, showing Capra's love of such vehicles: The working people on such vehicles get some of the film's spiffiest uniforms: the officers on the yacht in white mess jackets, the bus driver (Ward Bond) on the first bus. The bus driver is both a working class man, and a person of genuine glamour. Capra's flying pictures had his military pilots in sharp uniforms. The civilians running vehicles in It Happened One Night also get good uniforms.

Storms

A rain storm plays a key role, stopping the bus and getting the couple into the auto court. This is not as drastic as the storm which ends Rain or Shine. But is does transform the life of the pair, getting them alone in a bedroom with each other.

The night and rain scenes in the first auto court are among the most beautiful in the picture. They show gleaming rain through the windows. It is a lovely effect of light.

The city editor's office gets a wonderful display towards the end, when translucent images are seen through its windows.

Social Control

The detectives the father hires look formidable. They are middle-aged men in good suits. They look like people who are running many institutions, and the country as a whole. They are serious and lack humor.

The father also gets the police to do his bidding. They offer his car a motorcycle escort. This is a highly visible sign of his social power, one suitable for the film medium. Motorcycles are often linked in Capra to the power of the upper classes.

Running

The heroine vigorously leaves the scene twice: once by diving and swimming away from the boat, once by running. The running is especially invigorating looking.

The wedding guests break into a run too, following the heroine. This is another Capra film in which a crowd erupts at the end. This wedding crowd is not rioting though: just understandably chasing after the bride.

Camera Movement

The hero and reporters cross the station near the film's start, in a long take camera movement. They hail him as a "king".

The heroine takes a long walk across the motor court, to get to the showers. This scene shows a broad panorama of working class life.

Tracks follow characters down the aisle of the bus.

Costumes

The hero's suits are a symbol of his working for a living. They are a democratic ideal in Capra.

At one point the hero wears a sweater under his suit. In the movies, this is often the symbol of an intellectual. It Happened One Night stresses the hero's skill with words, both orally and as a journalist. The hero mocks the bus driver's inability to say more than "Oh yeah?". The hero's pipe smoking was also symbol of intellectualism.

The groom's daytime formal wear at the wedding shows him to be a member of the upper classes. It is a costume that is condemned in Capra, symbolizing the idle rich.

The groom's mustache was also a film signal of Society men, returning in such rotten Society types as Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945).

The groom's clothes emphasize his slimness. His long coat drapes a long slim figure. Slimness was considered an upper class virtue: Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem Richard Cory (1897) describes its wealthy protagonist as "imperially slim". The groom's sheer slimness marks him out as aristocratic. It is both authentic looking - the groom is indeed a Society upper class man - and also condemns him as part of an idle class. He forms a contrast with more muscular working men as the hero or Ward Bond.