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Frank Capra
The Catastrophe of Success

By Joseph McBride

 

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BOOK REVIEW

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success
By Joseph McBride

Simon & Schuster : New York, New York : 1992
ISBN 978-0-671-73494-7 : 768 pages : hardcover : $27.50

[ Revised Edition ]
St. Martin’s Griffin : New York, New York : 2000
ISBN 0-3122-6324-4 : 799 pages : trade paperback : $24.95

University Press of Mississippi : Jackson, Mississippi : 2011
ISBN 978-1-60473-838-4 : 800 pages : trade paperback : $40.00

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
It may be easy to assume that we know who Frank Capra was — certainly the character of the man if not the details of his life. We may feel that his films cannot help but reveal his nature; that of a pragmatic, empathetic, egalitarian proponent of the practical small-town man and the heart-of-gold everyday woman. The great films among Capra’s output paint a portrait of a self-confident artist, who was determined to acknowledge and raise the stature of common American folk to the level held by the rich and powerful. Yet, Joseph McBride’s portrait is a sometimes shockingly different one; one of a self-doubting, self-effacing and frequently bitter man, who was a life-long Republican and a supporter of conservative political and creative causes. And while the book may crumble our iconic preconceptions of who Frank Capra was, it does a greater justice to him in its documenting the life of a complex man, who struggled for respect from his peers and family, but never received it on his own terms or to his own satisfaction. The title of the book originates from comments by Tennessee Williams on the hollowness of creative success.

While the years leading to Capra’s full-time cinematic work were likely exceedingly difficult to reconstruct, McBride has assembled enough facts and documents possible leads to tentatively piece together more than just a timeline that traces Capra’s movements from technical college into the studios of Hollywood. Along the way, Capra worked in the San Francisco Bay area, Reno and Los Angeles in a small number of motion picture related jobs that included film processor, film editor, writer, film extra, assistant director and director. McBride uncovered information about films from 1915 through 1924 that Capra did work on, and also may have worked on, that had not been included in Capra filmographies before the book’s original publication in 1992. (One film noted by McBride, a 1921 documentary on an Italian battleship visiting the Bay area and Capra’s very first directorial effort, was recovered intact by the Library of Congress in 2002.) And, in his retracing of Capra’s footsteps, McBride had to evade the flak of apocryphal misinformation sent up over the years by previous biographers, studio public-relations writers, and even Capra himself — in his autobiography and in countless late-career interviews. McBride has, nonetheless, done a superior job of his reconstruction of Capra’s early years, but enough information has been lost to time to make a definitive biography of Capra’s pre-Sennett-Roach career tentative, at best.

McBride’s coverage of Capra’s silent era years is complete enough to be an excellent standalone biography, with more than 200 pages covering Capra’s childhood through the end of 1929. And the silent era portion of McBride’s Capra filmography is the most complete to be found in print.

It is when the book reaches the 1930s, and Capra’s monumental successes, that the picture of Capra becomes complex and psychologically resembles Poe’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. His films collectively presented one handsome but superficial image of the man as the quintessential cinematic artist, while hidden from public view there lurked a dark, brooding and, ultimately, achingly incomplete man. At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Capra was suspicious of the motivation of those in power and dismissive of the acolades of the public. Capra wrestled with feelings of guilt and feared exposure as a creative fraud, while continuing his manic-depressive pursuit of success. Longing for the respect he felt was lavished on others around him in Hollywood and in life in general, Capra bitterly wondered, ‘Is this all there is?,’ with each rising success and discredited his accomplishments until his high-minded and unconsciously-deliberate creative failure of Lost Horizon (1937), only to — in his twilight years — expend a great deal of energy bolstering public perception and historical evaluation of the house of cards that he saw as his artistic accomplishments.

Capra’s later interviews were intended to mold public opinion to his own revisionist evaluation of what his artistic life had amounted to, by overstating his own contributions to his films and, surprisingly, to diminish the contributions of others who had helped shape and craft ‘the Capra touch’ in his films of the 1930s and 1940s — writer Robert Riskin in particular. While Capra had honed his talents as a director (interview quotes sited often in the book portray Capra as masterful in his handling of a film set and actors), he was generally not the man to make the changes in source material or in characters that made his classic period films great. Much like the billious boasting of director Allan Dwan (who took advantage of naive and generally poorly-informed interviewers to overclaim his artistic innovations), Capra not only took credit for his true accomplishments, but also often added those of others, manipulated timelines, and omitted factual details that might cast a suspicious eye on his newly-found stature as a liberal-minded early cinema auteur. Any acknowledgement by Capra of Riskin’s contributions to their films together might lead to the discovery of Riskin’s hand in bringing a liberal sensibility in the height of the Depression to conservative Capra’s films, and would undermine the auteur concept. To be fair, Capra’s great skills as a film director made those beloved worlds a celluloid reality for audiences, but it took a Riskin to map the way.

Also covered in great detail in McBride’s book are Capra’s WWII years, his few years as an independent motion picture producer in the 1940s, his artistic decline back in the shrinking Hollywood studio system, and his struggles to sort out his adopted country’s own political assessment of Frank Capra, American. This 2000 revised trade paperback edition of McBride’s 1992 book adds an extensive appendix section documenting recently-declassified government papers on Capra’s status as a trusted member of the American war effort and his political discrediting during the McCarthy years. Always yearning for the trust and respect of authority figures, Capra shrilly resented any implication that he was in any way associated with a Communist movement in America and was anything less than 100 percent a trustworthy American.

Altogether, Joseph McBride has assembled the most complete and, seemingly, most doggedly honest biography of a complex and beloved man. The sheer mass of the biography, with its nearly 800 extensively-documented pages, is superficially impressive at first glance, but is substantively impressive when the reader treks through its meticulously-written chronicle of Capra’s life. The reader is likely to be left with a compassionately-balanced understanding of what was both good and bad about Frank Capra as a human being and artist, and also a great appreciation of the mammoth work turned in by McBride.

 
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