In the emblematic, all-American town of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it takes an act of divine intervention to stop a pure-hearted altruist from committing suicide. George Bailey’s struggle to remain a moral paragon in a climate of corruption and failure is presented as a Herculean effort—the film shows that without Bailey’s superhuman power the town would devolve into a modern-day Gomorrah. The hero’s sudden outbursts at his uncle Billy and his own children are surely some of the most wrenching moments in U.S. cinema, as James Stewart draws on feelings of self-loathing and paranoia buried deep beneath the lovable everyman persona with which he became synonymous. I never watched Life on TV as a kid, coming to it only as an adult, so I never developed a sentimental attachment to the film as most of its fans do. For me, experiencing hundreds of people cheer and hiss at the characters, as they do every December at the Music Box, is a bit like seeing a crowd go wild for Melancholia.
I’d say that the film’s evolution from box office flop to popular classic is one of the great flukes of movie history, but that would deny its irresistible emotional force. The ending of Life is genuinely cathartic, presenting a good man saved from utter despair by a community’s love. The movie’s depiction of American society as composed mainly of weak-willed individuals and corrupt institutions suggests that this sort of victory is impossible, yet that makes the conclusion feel all the more glorious. Capra’s most beloved films—the subject of the current weekend matinee series at the Music Box Theatre—hinge on triumphs like these, which gain in power because they’re made to seem so unlikely. In that regard, they aren’t so different from such recent hits as The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, which acknowledge the implausibility of Hollywood-style uplift but encourage us to take pleasure in it anyway.
According to Joseph McBride’s 1992 biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, the director was a self-aggrandizing cynic who was nonetheless tormented by feelings of self-hatred. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Reader essay on Broadway Bill provides a useful synopsis of how Capra’s life influenced his filmmaking.) One doesn’t have to look very deep into Capra’s movies to see evidence of this persona—it shapes the very premises of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which pit honest souls against hordes of opportunists and demagogues. The Miracle Woman (1931), which screens this weekend, presents a variation on this formula. Here Barbara Stanwyck plays a true believer who turns her back on religion after becoming disillusioned by church politics. Acting on her cynicism, she goes into business as a phony miracle worker, demonstrating how Christian rhetoric can be used to fleece gullible people. Stanwyck’s highly theatrical services were reportedly based on those of famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Contemporary viewers will likely find parallels with the work of present-day TV preachers and motivational speakers.
Stanwyck ends up changing her ways after she falls in love with a blind man who responds to her preaching in earnest—a typically Capraesque triumph of sentimentality over cynicism. That this turn feels satisfying rather than egregiously manipulative speaks to the director’s talent as a storyteller as well as the way he conveyed cynicism and naivete with roughly equal conviction. Capra’s naivete translated to an infectious sense of wonder with Hollywood magic. Movie stars are superlatively starlike in his movies, larger than life and beaming with charisma. (The four features he made with Stanwyck in the early 1930s were crucial in launching her career, and his work with Stewart and Gary Cooper helped turn those stars into icons.) But everyone in Capra’s 30s pictures speaks with greater eloquence, confidence, and rhythm than we hear in life, thanks in large part to the sparkling dialogue by his regular screenwriter Robert Riskin. (Capra and Riskin would part ways after Meet John Doe in 1941, and many regard the split as contributing to both men’s decline in popularity.) Capra recognized that Hollywood spectacle was the product of communal effort, and by showcasing the work of his collaborators he managed to undercut his own bitterness.
The director’s most wonderstruck film may be Lost Horizon (1937), closing the Music Box series on February 7 and 8, which takes place in the otherworldly paradise of Shangri-La. (The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), playing next weekend, takes place in a studio-built dream version of China that’s almost as ravishing.) The setting of Horizon is a place out of time, undefiled by modern society, where peace reigns and people don’t need money. Its most Capraesque quality is that it’s patently unreal.