Tag Archives: frank capra

The Greatest Films of Christmas #3 It’s a Wonderful Life

wonderful life.jpg“Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

Besides the fact this movie has Capra’s usual bizarre caricature of rich people (anyone with Potter’s attitude and traits would not stay wealthy for very long let alone George Bailey’s entire life) this is a great film.

Long before cheap sci-fi took up the concept of the butterfly effect, this story asked how much do we affect the lives of those around us. And George Bailey seemed, even in his less happy moments, to always be a force for good in life.

If I really have to summarize the plot for you…well, that’s just sad. If you haven’t seen this movie go out and see it right now.

The point you are supposed to get out of this film is not only that life is precious and worth living, but that we all improve the world around us. Every little choice, when made with the right frame of mind, looking for the long term rather than the short term (as George did in trying to stop the run on his bank), thinking of others equal to how much you think of yourself, of standing up for what it right and opposing what we know to be wrong, and forgiving ourselves our mistakes when we are less than perfect—every little choice affects the lives of others in ways we can never see and with results we can never know. Now, the very lives of everyone in the town we live in probably doesn’t depend immediately on what choices we make…or at least we think it doesn’t…but does it need to be a whole city before we worry about our choices. What if the choices we make only affect a dozen, or half a dozen, or even only one other person (although I doubt any of us have such little impact)? Even if only one, think about the power that our choices have, think of how much we are worth if we can make the world better for only one other person.

Let me go off on my New Age tangents for a second. An often overlooked point of George Bailey’s life is how important his antagonist, the cartoonish Mr. Potter was. Without Potter George would have left Bedford Falls, he would have gone to college, probably been a mid-level architect, never married Mary, never been the person who fought to help those around him, never been the great man he was. Destiny put in his path a force that would bring out the best in him rather than let him steer toward the mediocrity of what is considered success by the standards of the hoi polloi. So next time you run across someone you really hate…ask yourself, have they been placed there to bring out something good in you…and are you letting that good portion come out?

On the other hand, while not a major point, I just need to point out that this movie perpetuates one of the worst spiritual lies of all time. It suggests that humans become angels when they die. I believe angels do exist, but in no religious or serious spiritual belief on Earth have angels ever been human.

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The Best Films of Christmas #13 Meet John Doe

meet_john_doe_70th.jpg

“Why can’t that spirit, that warm Christmas spirit, last all year long?”

It’s kind of a Christmas film, it talks about Christmas a lot…it’s more an anti-fascist film (which in 1940—and 2011—is a relevant issue)…although I’m not a fan of Capra’s preference for socialism, not that there is any difference between the two systems other than PR (Capra’s understanding of politics was infantile at best, but after all I’m talk about a man who adds a scene into Lost Horizon that praises pacifism and appeasement as the only way for society to move forward…which for a movie made in 1937 comes off as first rate thinking…I wonder how that policy would have turned out if put into practice?)

After being fired from her job at a paper Barbara Stanwyck writes a fake letter about someone so upset with the state of the world during the depression that he will jump off city hall at Christmas in protest, signed John Doe…just when printed it will embarrass the idiot who didn’t check before publishing.  But rather than embarrassing them, it generates a massive amount of interest…so much that the paper has to hire Stanwyck back to make sure she keeps her mouth shut…and the paper decides to hire a man to pretend to be John Doe.  Enter Gary Cooper.

Now the paper that is running this story is led by a wealthy businessman who Capra has an American stand-in for Hitler/Tojo/Mussolini/ Franco.  And as they publish Gary Cooper’s picture they publish it next to an article protesting the sorry state of the world.  Capra is clever enough to put it with sometimes valid complaints but he chooses the same complaints that Hitler and Goebbels used to gain populist support in Germany:

Against businesses owning politicians, against entitlement programs not providing enough, against there not being enough free health care to the poor, that the rich had too much, that they’re not paying their fair share (I know Capra chose this list of complaints because it’s what the Nazi’s used…but it sounds very familiar, I just can’t place it, I’ll have to let it Occupy my thought for a while and maybe I’ll realize where I’ve heard this list before) until mobs of people join in protest.  Anyway let’s leave the politics behind because they quickly become a secondary theme.

In trying to get away from the pessimism of the initial campaign Stanwyck writes a speech for Cooper that deals with the positive in life.  And when drafts that rely on meaningless platitudes don’t work (although in reality just uttering meaningless phrases tends to work for a while)she decides to write a speech about caring for each other and helping each other and seeing the best in ourselves and others…and uses as its key point that this behavior is evident at Christmas.

(Notice how there is no mention of government in this speech).

The movie continues with Cooper’s character realizing he is being used for something evil.  He ends up feeling that the only way to prove that the words he said in that speech were true is by fulfilling the original John Doe letter by jumping off the building.  At the last minute he is talked out of it by Stanwyck telling him that he can recover his faith and credibility:

Please don’t give up. We’ll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn’t too late. The John Doe movement isn’t dead yet. You see, John, it isn’t dead or they wouldn’t be here. It’s alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That’s why they came up here. Oh, darling!… We can start clean now. Just you and I. It’ll grow John, and it’ll grow big because it’ll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. Oh please, John… You wanna be honest, don’t ya? Well, you don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don’t you see darling? This is no time to give up.

Honestly this movie has a lot more flaws than most on this list (the heavy handed politics borders on farce at times, but I’ll admit Capra had an enemy to deal with where subtlety was not called for).   But if you ignore those weaker aspects of the movie and focus on Stanwyck and Cooper it is a very moving and powerful tale.

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The Most Patriotic Film Ever: State of the Union

“I can be interested in the county, without being interested in politics.”

State of the Union?  Haven’t heard of it have you?  (If you have you have to admit you’re in the minority on this).  Which is odd—it’s Tracy and Hepburn!  How can you miss Tracy and Hepburn?  And in a Capra film too!  It also stars Angela Lansbury as the woman trying to break our eternal couple up, and control Tracy…Lansbury always plays the villain, be it the communist mother in Manchurian Candidate or the weekly serial killer who always frames others for her crimes in Murder She Wrote (there’s no other way to explain the body count), she always plays the villain…

So since you probably are not familiar with the plot, let me quickly sum up. Estranged husband and wife Grant and Mary Matthews are thrown together when Grant decides to move from a highly successful business career to taking a chance at running for President in 1948.  But first he has to get the Republican nomination.  At first he speaks from his heart…but when swayed by Lansbury’s Kay Thorndyke, the other woman, and a W.R. Hearst-esque media baron, he begins to play the games of politics he had previously hated.  Here we see Capra in full swing detailing the cynicism of voting bloc politics, of playing one minority off against other, of making deals for votes.  This nearly destroys him, and his chances for election, until he’s brought back to his senses by his loving wife. Whether he wins or not, the movie doesn’t cover.

It’s a good story, but what makes this film so patriotic is that Matthews at several points makes comments on what does and doesn’t work in America. The character of Matthews is actually given to making some very detailed speeches, (which I sadly could not find clips of on youtube, found a couple edited to seem to benefit liberal positions alone, but not the full speech).  It is in these speeches that you see the virtue of America praised, and our flaws acknowledged and combated.

Matthews: Well the next time you’re up there, Mr. Conover, look down.  Look down on Pittsburgh, for example, what do you see?

Spike: Smoke

Mathews: That’s right, smoke.  From the steel mills.   Miles and miles of steel mills.  But you see something else, too, don’t you?  Farms, factories, lumber, mines, railroads, business, management, labor.  Not one able to exist alone, but together, working together with courage and imagination.  That makes America.  That’s a great picture from the air.  Yeah but come down to Earth and walk into one of those meetings like that one in Cleveland, and what do you find? Farmers, cattlemen, lumbermen, business, labor, they were all there.  All working together?  In a pig’s eye.  All scared to death, all fighting each other.  Each out for the biggest bite in the apple.  Well, there aren’t that many bites in the apple.

[…]

Because you politicians instead of helping pull the country together are helping to pull it part, just to get votes.  To labor you promise higher wages and lower prices.  To business, higher prices and lower wages.  To the rich you say, “Let’s cut taxes”.  To the poor, “Soak the rich”.  To the veterans cheaper housing.  To the builders uncontrolled prices. [Italics added]

Notice that here the win-win mentality of rational self-interest and capitalism is stated.  That capitalism is dependant on numerous individuals working together, out of their own rational self-interest, but together.  Rather than the greed and irrational, short-sighted self-interest of “what’s in it for me politics” of promising this group or that group something.  Notice this is in 1948, before the post-war boom, before the boom of the early 60’s before the boom of the 80’s and 90’s…and yet it foresees that our “courage and imagination” are the things that will bring about this great prosperity.  It subtly implies the truth, that while socialism simply divides the apple between this group or that, it is capitalism and capitalism alone that creates wealth (not just distributes it) so that there is actually an apple for everyone.

Or when he goes to see the White House while considering his run, a man chides him for bluntly stating the White House needs a new paint job:

Bystander: Do you know who lives in that historic mansion [the White House]?

Matthews: Yeah the spirit of all those who fought for human dignity lives there.  Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Paul, St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Plato, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Pasteur, Newton, Galileo, Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette, Garibaldi, Bolivar, Kosciusko.  The martyrs, the saints, and the poets.  Civilizations past and present. Man’s whole history. His evolution from worm to animal to Einstein, his long search for God, all those things live in that noble dwelling, but I still say it needs painting.

And of course the central point of the movie is when after giving an off camera speech filleting big labor he prepares to give an equally harsh speech against what would be called big business then, but now we use the more correct term cronyism. (Please note that in 1948 almost everything he says is the action we should have taken…from a man this principled however, the speech would be different on a few points, so please keep the times in mind as you read it).

Matthews: Those men [labor bosses] in there are the kind of men who are responsible for the wildcat strikes.  If I can make them see something bigger than their own jobs as head of their own locals and what little power they get from that…Why? What did I say to them? I just said that when the members stop running the unions, the unions start running the members.

[…]

Matthews: I’m going to tell them they do a lot of yapping about communism but as long as they think about high profits instead of high production, they’re playing the communist game.  High production is the way to kill high prices.

Conover: They want high prices.

M: High prices means inflation. Inflation today means depression tomorrow.  And a depression in these United State is exactly the ace card Moscow is waiting to draw.

C: They don’t want to hear these things.

M: They’re gonna hear them.  They’re going to hear that capitalism itself is being challenged.  If it doesn’t survive, it’s because men like themselves haven’t the guts or the imagination to make it survive.

C: You can’t talk to that crowd this way you’ll antagonize them.

All right.  So what?  So I’ll antagonize them.  I yelled my head off about labor, didn’t I, and its responsibilities.  Well, I’m going to lay it right on the line about industry too.  Now look here Jim, you know just as well as I do that there are men at that banquet who’ll be rooting for a depression, just so they can slap labor’s ears back.

C: And I suppose you have a few well-chosen words to say about tax reduction.

M: You better not worry so much about tax reduction until we accomplish some of the things we have to accomplish.  I’m going to tell the wealthiest nation in the world it is a failure unless it’s also the healthiest nation in the world.  That means the highest medical care for the lowest income groups.  And that goes for housing, too.  The one thing this nation is not rich enough to afford is not having a roof over our heads.  And I’m going to tell them the American Dream is not making money.  It is the well being and the freedom of the individual throughout the world from Patagonia to Detroit.  We can’t be an island of plenty in a world of starvation.  We have to send, food, clothing, machinery, and money to the bitter, impoverished people of the world.  Try to recreate their self-respect.  Give them the desire again for individual freedom.  And I’m gonna tell them that as long as dictatorships remain in the world, we better remain well armed.  Because the next time we’re not going to get two years to get ready.  They’re gonna jump us overnight.  And I’m gonna tell them that there’s only one government which is capable of handling the atomic control, world disarmament, world employment, world peace, and that’s a world government.  The people of thirteen states started the United States of America.  Well, I think the people of that many nations are ready to start a United States of the World.  With or with out Russia.  And I mean a “United” States of the World.  With one Bill of Rights.  One international law. One international currency.  One international citizenship. And I’m gonna tell them that the brotherhood of man is not just an idealistic dream, but a practical necessity if man is going to survive. [Italics added]

Here he correctly realizes that there are two sides to both labor and business.  In labor there are actual workers, and there are the corrupt union bosses who fleece their members, pad their pockets, and make ungodly campaign contributions to politicians who allow them to repeat the cycle. A bit prophetic in his critique of labor isn’t he?  I would never advocate for ending unions (except for public employees and professional), they serve an important function, but today they have become worse than the caricatured robber barons they were supposedly formed to end.

Meanwhile in business there are real businessmen like Matthews who enjoy making a great product and enjoy making profit off that great product (the heroes of an Ayn Rand novel) and there are those who like cronyism, who as this movie makes clear are very un-capitalistically for high tariffs, anti-free trade, protectionist legislation against competition from new inventions, and low taxes ON THEIR INDUSTRY (GE, GM, Google, Goldman Sachs, and basically all the biggest Obama contributors).  And I’ll forgive Matthews’ statement about not lowering taxes before we have paid for what we need to do, at least he’s advocating balanced budgets, and 10 years before Rand, 15 before Goldwater, 20 before Milton Friedman, and before Laffer and Reagan it’s forgivable to not know the truth and facts of supply-side economics (at least implicitly he understands the heart of supply-side economics by putting the focus on high production).  And before anyone thinks I’m giving up my conservative roots by praising his call for the healthiest nation and housing for all…go back and read your Hayek and Friedman…you need a safety net, it just should be at the local, not federal level (and in 1948, I can assume a Republican defines “the lowest income groups” as the bottom 5% not the modern Democratic definition of the “the lowest income groups” as the other 99%).

And I have to love the admission that America is not a nation of isolationists, as some would now have you believe.  We are the beacon of freedom in the world and that comes with a responsibility to spread freedom.  There’s a throwaway joke early on “After all Senator Fosdick was an isolationist.  I think he should be isolated.”  This was the correct view of isolationism: it doesn’t and can’t work.  Not just on pragmatic reasons, but on ethical ones.

And you’ll also notice that the ideal world government presented is one of a union of free nations, that will advocate and push for liberty around the world, not just throwing everyone into one body and being run through with corruption.

This is close to the kind of speech I want to hear now. Praising America’s greatness and condemning those who see it only as a way to make a quick buck for themselves and screw everyone else.

The movie is also quick to condemn the evils of identity politics and condemn those who trade in it (I’m looking at you Democratic Party).  It is expressed best by “Spike” McManous, a reporter sent to keep an eye on Matthews, “In Conover’s eyes a lazy people, an ignorant people, a prejudiced people are not free.”  And he’s sadly right; people who are lazy, ignorant, and prejudiced are always slave to those who would exploit those flaws.  And that is why it is the responsibility of Americans to keep themselves informed and reasonable…but it is also the responsibility of politicians to not to play to such disgusting habits.

And at the end of the film, when, after making a dozen crooked deals, Matthews realizes his sins, he takes to the air and gives an impromptu speech baring his soul and again showing what is great about this nation.

I had the right idea when I started to talk to you people of America. The idea that you voters, you farmers, you businessmen, you working men, you ordinary citizens of whatever party, are not the selfish scum that venal politicians make you out to be. I thought I could speak my peace straight out and forward. I thought I could tell you that this country of ours is young, it’s not old. That we’ve just begun to grow. That all we need is courage, and from out of that courage will come a greatness greater than we ever dreamed. I wanted to tell you that we Americans are the hope of the world, and the secret of our great plenty is freedom, and we’ve got to share that secret and that plenty with the other nations of the world. And I wanted to tell you that we face a great problem, because when people are cold and hungry and scared, they gather together in panicky herds, ready to be led by communists and fascists who promise them bread for freedom, and deliver neither.  [Italics added]

A sobering reminder we still need to this day.

As he says, we are a young nation.

Today we are 236 years old. 236 years old…just for comparison at 236 years the Roman Republic had managed to come up with a crappy constitution, get the city burned to the ground by Gaul’s and conquer most of Italy (which sounds impressive until you realize that France was once able to conquer most of Italy, and if France can do it, well…) and at 236 England had done…well…um….nothing. Same story for France. Certainly none of them were the center of the world at 236. Oh and before you ask none of these countries had art at 236 let alone jazz, rock’n’roll, Frank Lloyd Wright, almost all film, Faulkner, Twain, Hawthorne, Frost, Gibran, Whitman. Not bad for only 236 years.  None of these others were economic powerhouses, or beacons of any ideal. And that’s at 236 for nations that would leave an undisputed mark on history.  We’ve already begun to make our mark and it is one of spreading liberty, freedom, capitalism, and all that speaks to the best in human nature.

This movie, possibly more than any other, reminds me of what a great nation this can be, and what we are capable of.  It reminds me of our greatness that was, is, and will be if we just embrace the best within us and do away with the rest.

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The Greatest Patriotic Films Ever # 3 Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

 

“What do you know about laws or making laws or what people need?”

“I don’t pretend to know.”

“Then what are you doing in the Senate?”

 

Frank Capra has this rather naïve view of humanity.  He sees all life as nothing but a battle of extreme good and extreme evil; a war between the Baileys and Potters; where the rich are seldom if ever wise, where the poor are noble by virtue of being poor.  Any single story has flaws that are forgivable (except maybe for when he added the speech of extreme pacifism into Lost Horizon which never existed in the book, good call Frank, add a call for appeasement and peace at all costs in a 1937 film…let me know how that works out in the real world), but taken together they have revealed a view of the world that is a little off kilter.  But as I said if you just take Capra’s films each on their own merit, and ignore the collective body of his work, they are good films.  And Mr. Smith is no exception.

 

The forgivable flaws?  That our supposed hero, Jefferson Smith, has to be the most seemingly ignorant Senator in the history of the body (I say seemingly, because, as we sadly know that most Senators make Smith, for all his ignorance, look like a Rhodes Scholar).  Still the scene where his aide, the real hero of the film Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), has to explain how a bill becomes law is just so sad.  I fully realize that I currently live in a nation where the majority leader in the Senate, the minority leader in the House, the President, and the Chief Justice put together don’t know jack about the Constitution or how a bill becomes law…but I have a hard time finding heroism in staggering ignorance.  Especially for a man who claims to be a patriot.  If you say you’re a patriot and don’t know how a bill becomes a law, well SHAME ON YOU—ENDLESS HEAPS OF SHAME!  Now they claim Jefferson Smith knows the history of our nation and can quote it quite fluently (although they never show it) if you’re going to be a patriot you need to know something about your country, and I think how a bill becomes law is kind of simple (considering, that with the exception of knowing about committees, it’s kind of part of knowing the Constitution).

 

But enough about the flaws…because the strengths do overpower them.

 You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.

First there is the point in this film that for all the corruption and flaws, this is a nation of laws.  All the money and the corruption in the world can last for only so long against the law when it is enforced. Granted the Senate rules on filibuster may not be our most revered law, but the point is still clear.  Even corruption is no match for the law when it is applied (that caveat being the important part).  And this is why I think Saunders is the real hero of the film.  She is the one who knows the law, and the one who teaches it to Smith.  And it is in knowing the law that gives Smith the power to confront the corrupt in the Senate.  And it is this moral that I think makes this movie the most patriotic that we have had yet: learn the laws of your nation, with them they give you the power to enforce liberty and justice, without them you are the victim of those who do know them.

 

And of course there is the subtle point here that ANYONE can challenge their government.  Smith may have been lucky enough to get to the floor of the Senate, but any and all can peaceably assemble to “petition the government for redress of grievances.”  (More so now in the day of mass communication and the internet).

And then there is a point about this movie that I find ironic, and I find it ironic because it is the reason so many liberals say they love the film.  The film’s villain is a media mogul who uses his clout to control everything the public sees and hears and thus controls their opinion, and who then uses that power for his own avaricious ends.  Capra seems hell bent on condemning the media.  First for their desire to report on trivial nonsense only for entertainment, as when they tricked Smith into looking like a fool on his first day in Washington.  And second for this monopolistic control of information.  Liberals I know who like this film are very adamant at how evil this second point is….and then in the same breath will critique the existence of FOXNews, the Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh.  How dare the media report anything but the left wing talking points! Just a slight irony there.  However, I think it is also this point that will soon date this movie a little out of relevance.  In an age where three major networks, three major cable networks, online journals, blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube, and Wikileaks…in an age where anyone from any strata of society can post a blog that can go viral, where anyone can donate to a SuperPAC that can get the message they believe in out, in a day and age like this is simply impossible to control the message.  Your only option now is to make the more appealing message…and I may be more naïve than Capra, but I feel “the truth will out”, as it did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

 

 

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