Though More Than 60 Years Old, Films of Frank Capra Stay Fresh

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Critics who complained of `gee-whiz, optimism waged a losing battle against the talented director, whose aptitude for comedy acquired an incurable social optimism during the Great Depression.

Now that we're into the second century of movie history, centennial retrospectives are becoming a fixture of archival programming. The American Film Institute, or AFI, in Washington has offered one of the first of the year: Frank Capra in the Thirties.

Born in a Sicilian village near Palermo on May 18, 1897, Capra rose from humble origins to achieve international fame as a Hollywood director in the 1930s. During that period, his rapport with a vast moviegoing audience proved so exceptional that aspiring "populists" still envy it and struggle to update the most beloved Capraesque hits: It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The first three allowed Capra to sustain a near-monopoly on the Academy Award for best direction between 1934 and 1938. It Happened One. Night and You Can't Take It With You also won Oscars for best motion picture.

Mr. Smith, the beginning of a richly ambivalent relationship between Capra and official Washington, met a wall of hostility from insiders, much of it deserved. But the movie's defects didn't interfere with popular affection for its patriotic fervor and James Stewart's impassioned sincerity as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic freshman senator scorned by established opportunists and cynics.

There's really no getting away from Capra's influence. There were echoes of Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith in the recent topical flop Mad City. Hearings on campaign fund-raising last year by Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Re-publican, also recalled Mr. Smith with eerie frequency, especially when Sen. John Glenn, Ohio Democrat, seemed to be reincarnating the painfully compromised Claude Rains character.

The fictional romance in James Cameron's Titanic borrows obviously from It Happened One Night, as does the current farce For Richer or Poorer with Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley. Moviegoers also can be forgiven for detecting traces of Lost Horizon in Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun.

It's a Wonderful Life lands outside the time frame of the AFI series, but it sustained Capra's influence long after his retirement as a film director. Released in 1946, Wonderful Life was Capra's first Hollywood production after his return from World War II service as a government propagandist (principally as producer of the Army indoctrination series Why We Fight). Emotionally and thematically, the movie had plenty in common with You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith, earlier pictures costarring Stewart and Jean Arthur. Indeed, Capra attempted to revive this match but couldn't talk Arthur out of a Broadway show.

Capra, who died in 1991, regarded his own rags-to-riches chronicle as a ringing affirmation of American optimism and opportunity. In an exuberant 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title, he invoked a sentimental journey to the East Los Angeles neighborhood where his parents had settled after immigrating to the United States in 1903.

"My goal," he wrote, "was to leap across the tracks -- to rise above the muck and meanness of peasant poverty. I wanted freedom from established caste systems; and from where I took life's jolts on the chin, freedom could only be won by success.... If doors opened for me, they can open for anyone."

The industrious Capra graduated from high school at age 15 and earned a degree in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. A stateside instructor in ballistics for the Army during the First World War, Capra found himself unemployable for several years after the armistice. …