Frank Capra's 1920s Immigrant Trilogy: Immigration, Assimilation, and the American Dream
Cavallero, Jonathan J., MELUS
"I'm Proud of Being a Dago, and I'm Proud of that Wheel Gag."
--Capra, after Mack Sennett called him a "dago" and insulted one of his gags. (1)
Although almost every author who writes about Frank Capra's films mentions the famed director's Italian ethnicity and his immigrant origins, few delve into how these identities influenced his work. Most feel that the immigrant filmmaker, in an attempt to distance himself from his lower class, ethnic, immigrant origins, made films about white Americans (not ethnic others or immigrants) as a way of assimilating into American culture (see McBride). In analyses of this vein, Capra's ethnicity is reduced to something the director wished to deny, repress, or transcend, and Capra himself frequently denied that his ethnicity had any effect on the films he directed. In 1978 Dominic Candeloro wrote to Capra asking him to be a speaker in the Italian American program that Candeloro was overseeing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Capra denied Candeloro's request in a lengthy letter:
Many times intellectual people ask me if my Italian heritage had anything to do with my work. And frankly, I don't know what the hell they're talking about. The word heritage evokes memories and spiritual experiences with the cultured heroes of the past. I never had such experiences. I am very proud to have been born an Italian, very proud of all the great men that Italy has produced in the arts and the sciences, very proud of the giant Italian intellects that created the Renaissance. But only as history, and as great men who contributed to making history. I admire Shakespeare and Tolstoi [sic.] and Dante with equal reverence.
In that same letter Capra described himself as a "10-90 Italian-American," saying that he immigrated to the United States at such an early age that he had little memory of the land he left. (2) Such remarks would seem to place Capra, who arrived in the US at the age of 6, firmly within the tradition of what Werner Sollors has labeled "consent." By effectively denying his "descent" identity as an Italian, Capra consented to a new identity as an American (Beyond Ethnicity 4-6).
Despite Capra's claims, three works in the vast body of Capra scholarship have argued that Capra's immigrant and ethnic identities are, if not a strong influence, then at least an important issue to consider when evaluating his work. Lee Lourdeaux's Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America." Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese (1990) was the first work to devote itself to arguing that Capra's artistic vision was significantly influenced by his Italian heritage. By doing so, Lourdeaux lent credence to Michael Novak's contention that our "emotions, instincts, memory, imagination, passions, and ways of perceiving are passed onto us in ways we do not choose, and in ways so thick with life that they lie far beyond the power of consciousness (let alone of analytic or verbal reason) thoroughly to master, totally to alter" (xvi). Lourdeaux's willingness to treat Capra as an ethnic artist uncovered a far too often ignored aspect of his oeuvre and initiated a new and important vein of research for scholars of ethnic studies.
In recent years, Robert Sklar and John Paul Russo have followed Lourdeaux's contribution with works of their own. Sklar focuses his essay on For the Love of Mike, a lost film (3) directed by Capra in 1927, and The Younger Generation, a film Capra directed in 1929, and argues that at least in Capra's rarely discussed 1920s films, an ethnic element is clearly present. Russo provides the first serious consideration of Capra's 1959 film, A Hole in the Head, the only Capra-directed work to take Italian/Italian Americans as its main characters. However, while A Hole in the Head is clearly the focus of his essay, Russo does include a noteworthy consideration of Mike. By arguing that the two ethnically focused films, separated by 32 years, share similar themes, Russo implicitly contends that an ethnic vein is present in select films throughout Capra's career. These essays, like Lourdeaux's work before them, frame Capra as a "descent" artist and may open up similar avenues of research on other authors and filmmakers who disavow their ethnic identity and who have not yet been treated in ethnic terms.
Further, it seems to me that expanding the scope of Lourdeaux's, Russo's, and Sklar's essays to include the more general label of "immigrant" would reveal a cohesion not just between Mike and The Younger Generation, as Sklar contends, but also Capra's first feature film, The Strong Man (1926). These three films can thus be seen as a trilogy (though they may not have been conceived that way) that takes immigrants and immigrant families as its subject. Each film features a main character who has ethnic ties and/or an immigrant identity, and, as will be shown, the characters' "otherness" complicates their lives because it becomes necessary for them to negotiate constantly between their ancestral roots and their professional and social aspirations.
As a result, the American immigrant experience becomes the general subject of these films, but the specific conflicts of each narrative confront a different aspect of that experience. The Strong Man tells the story of a first generation American, who is a naif, ignorant of American customs and only half-aware of American citizens' frequent attempts to take advantage of him. Conversely, For the Love of Mike and The Younger Generation focus on second generation Americans (4) who seek to reconcile their ethnic status with their drive for American success. Despite these differences, in each film Capra castigates an American Dream (5) corrupted by materialism and looks to the characters who have maintained their immigrant innocence and/or ethnic standing to recoup the mythic ideal that drew so many to the US.
The Strong Man
In the first frames of The Strong Man viewers are plunged into the chaos of war. A title card announcing, "Where once a Belgian Orchard Bloomed" is followed by shots of a Belgian countryside that is populated by soldiers and peppered by explosions, gunfire, and warplanes. This would seem to be an odd place to find our innocent hero, Paul Bergot (Harry Langdon), but it is just that innocence that the film is highlighting. Private Bergot is not in the trenches like his higher-ranking officers, and he is not manning an anti-aircraft battery or a cannon. Instead, Bergot is alone, in World War I's infamous "No Man's Land," but instead of confronting the harsh realities of war, he is passing his time by taking target practice on a tin can. Bergot is unable to hit the can with his submachine gun, but when he pulls out his trusty slingshot, he does not miss. Thus, the film sees Bergot not as a man, but as an innocent and naive boy who experiences war as a childish game. Indeed, the film suggests that Bergot would not be involved in the War if his country had not been invaded by another nation.
Soon, a German soldier, who we later learn is named Zandow, is seen lurking nearby. Zandow begins taking shots at Bergot with his pistol, and after being nicked twice by bullets, Bergot realizes he is under attack. Bergot sits in the open, pulls out his slingshot and food rations, and defends his country against an armed enemy invader that takes cover in a trench. Eventually, Bergot uses onions as his ammunition and is able to chase away a crying and gas mask-wearing Zandow. Naive innocence has triumphed, offering an implicit anti-war statement and establishing the Bergot character as kind, gentle, and capably lucky. (6)
Soon after, a Red Cross letter arrives for Bergot, and we learn that he keeps up a wartime correspondence with a "Yankee" girl named Mary Brown (Priscilla Bonner). Mary seems equally goodhearted: her letters label Bergot "a brave soldier of another nation" and inform him that his English has improved. Mary writes, "Because an ocean rolls between us, and we are never to meet I find the courage to put my whole heart on paper and to tell you, I love you, I love you, I love you." Bergot stares longingly at the photographic portrait Mary has included and is so flattered that he seems to forget where he is. As a result, he becomes an easy target for Zandow, who has returned and now takes Bergot prisoner. If the prior scenes have showcased the attractive aspects of Bergot's innocence and naivete, this scene displays how the opportunistic nature of other individuals victimizes innocents like Bergot and Brown.
After the war, Zandow brings Bergot to America as his assistant, (7) where Bergot will encounter many other treacherous people who will try to take advantage of him at every turn. Since they are removed from the battlefield environment featured early in the film where traditional morality is often suspended, these American characters appear even more reprehensible than Zandow. Rather than being engaged in a perilous struggle that encourages them to exploit Bergot for their survival, they target Bergot for their own amusement and financial well-being. In effect, the film demonstrates that this naive, innocent immigrant poses less of a threat to American ideals and institutions than many of the American citizens who surround him. By the end of the film, it will be Bergot who redeems these institutions and ensures their continued existence, not by assimilating, but rather by maintaining the attitudes he is shown to espouse from the beginning of the narrative.
A brief Ellis Island sequence reveals the hopes that Zandow and Bergot have for their new lives in the US. As Zandow promotes his plan to perform a "World's Strongest Man" act, Bergot sits by himself, staring at his picture of Mary Brown. After being admitted to the US, Zandow is quickly dismayed …
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Publication information: Article title: Frank Capra's 1920s Immigrant Trilogy: Immigration, Assimilation, and the American Dream. Contributors: Cavallero, Jonathan J. - Author. Journal title: MELUS. Volume: 29. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2004. Page number: 27+. © 2007 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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