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 was a Hollywood film director.
The story situations in The Strong Man have links to later Capra films:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is based on the once hugely popular work of comic short story writer Damon Runyon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.