Fag: NORAM 4505 Movies and American Culture

Oppgavetype: Semesteroppgave

Tidspunkt: Høsten 2003

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Career: The Life and Films of Frank Capra

 

Popcorn: “Maize of a variety with hard kernels that swell up and burst open when heated and are then eaten as a snack.”1 To most moviegoers, this is an indispensable companion. Capra corn: “Hollywood slang for the heartwarming, tear-inducing stories of ordinary decent people that were the speciality of American director Frank Capra.”2 To most film historians and critics, this is a term used to describe the essence of one of the most distinguished directorial careers in the history of the American cinema. Having a film term named after oneself is a rare honor. Capra must have touched upon something truly American to achieve this. I believe this “something” to be his portrayal of the American notion of individualism. In this term paper, I will, after having described the history and the meaning of the term “individualism”, give a summary of Capra’s career, and by focusing on three of his efforts (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life), describe in what ways he dwelt on the subjects of the individual and the individual’s relation to society. I have chosen these three films because they are among his most celebrated3, and regarded as typical of his special auteur style4. Their plots and themes are largely centered around one individual, which makes them relevant to the discussion of this paper.

            The term “individualism” was first used in the early 19th century, in the context of the French counterrevolutionary critique of the Enlightenment. It was filled with negative connotations, as French thinkers of the day thought individualism would undermine society and produce egoism and anarchy. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the Americans were only able to avoid these consequences because of the free institutions and the tradition of active citizenship found within American society.

            In America, “individualism” was to denote an entire set of social ideals and exercise enormous ideological influence. These ideals were largely incompatible with the ideals of the collectivism, socialism and communism of the Old World. According to Steven Lukes, it referred to the imminent “realization of the final stage of human progress, an order of equal individual rights, limited government, laissez-faire, natural justice, and equality of opportunity, and individual freedom, self-development, and dignity.”5 Although it was imported from Europe with negative connotations, the term acquired a positive meaning in the USA and was a new way of understanding the American past and ideologies. Notions of individualism had been developed under the influences of New England Puritanism, the Jeffersonian tradition and various other schools of thought. Both Emerson and Whitman embraced and developed the idea. A more business oriented version of it was adopted by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clews. According to James Bryce, “individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possession.”6

            So what constitutes individualism? Dictionary of the History of Ideas lists eleven component ideas, or aspects, of the ideology of individualism7. First, the moral principle of the supreme and intrinsic value of the individual human being. This is described as the great contribution to individualism by Christianity, reaffirmed by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century and discussed by Kant in the 18th century: An individual human being is an end in itself. Second is the notion of individual self-devlopment. Man is supposed to cultivate his gifts and powers in as many directions as possible, thereby becoming all he can be. This can happen in an either anti-social, extra-social or highly social manner. The third idea is that of self-direction or autonomy. The individual should critically evaluate any norm he is confronted with and reflect independently and rationally in order to reach practical decisions. Element number four is privacy. This means a part of an individual’s life where he is cut off from the rest of the world, and is free to do and think as he pleases. The individual is sovereign in matters concerning only himself, his own body and mind. The fifth unit is the abstract individual, which implies that society is an artificial entity, responding only to the requirements of different individuals with certain capacities, wants and needs. These features are seen as given, and independent of social context. Idea number six is methodological individualism, which claims that all explanations of social phenomena are useless if they are not expressed entirely in terms of facts about individuals. Social phenomena are nothing but the results of what individuals have said, done, thought and decided. The seventh theory is political individualism, a doctrine which assumes that the grounds and sources of political authority can be found in the purposes of individuals. Thus, such authority is not derived from divine or natural law. This theory is related to economic individualism, the eighth idea. It is a belief in economic liberty which holds that a spontaneous economic system, unregulated by the Church and the government, based on private property and the freedom of production helps provide maximum satisfaction for individuals and inspires progress. Religious individualism, idea number nine, is the view that the individual believer is not in need of intermediaries (such as priests and bishops). He is entitled to, and sometimes obliged to, establish and nurture his own personal relationship with God. This view implies the ideas of spiritual equality and religious self-scrutiny: All individuals are equally connected to God, and they must all take responsibility for their own religious life. According to the tenth idea, ethical individualism, the individual is also the one who creates the criteria of moral evaluation. This, then, excludes the existence of objective universal moral principles. Idea number eleven, epistemological individualism, asserts that the very source of knowledge is to be found within the individual itself. As individuals, we know nothing more than what we experience subjectively. I will now show how these different aspects of individualism are expressed and treated in the life and work of Frank Capra.

            Capra was born in Italy in 1897, but moved with his family to California at the age of six. After trying out a variety of different jobs with less than moderate success, Capra got his start in the movie business in 1922. He talked his way into directing a one-reel film called Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House for a small company based in San Francisco. Capra knew next to nothing about the film medium, therefore he acquired a job at a small film lab. The next twelve months, he printed, dried and spliced amateur films. He then got a job processing daily takes for Hollywood comedy director Bob Eddy, later moving on to work for Eddy also as a propman and film editor. Later, after six months as gagman for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” comedies, Capra was fired. In 1925 he found new employment as gag writer for comedian Harry Langdon. Capra co-authored and co-directed the classic Langdon comedy Tramp Tramp Tramp, then went on to direct The Strong Man and Long Pants, both successful Langdon vehicles. Nonetheless, an ungrateful Langdon fired Capra and spread the rumor that he alone was the creative mind behind these films. Not being able to find work elsewhere in Hollywood, Capra went to New York in 1927 and got a job directing For the Love of Mike, introducing Broadway actress Claudette Colbert to the silver screen. The movie flopped, leaving Capra unemployed yet again. He returned to Hollywood, where he was able to get a job churning out two-reel comedies for Mack Sennett.

            The turning point in his career came when he signed a contract to direct for Harry Cohn and Columbia Pictures. This event was to exert a dual influence in the film world of the thirties, as it turned Columbia into a major studio and Capra into a leading Hollywood director. Contrary to the general rule in Hollywood, Capra was given total creative freedom on his films, and was thus able to develop his own auteur style. According to Katz, this style’s “recurrent theme was that of an idealistic individual, an improbable hero bucking all odds and thwarting the antisocial schemes of materialistic cynics.”8 Two factors were central in allowing this style to flourish: First, Capra’s access to actors like James Stewart, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck helped him project the earnest commonness and individuality that dominated his films. Second, screenwriter Robert Riskin worked with him for more than a decade and helped to define the Capra film.

            The first Capra films of particular interest were American Madness, a melodrama about how a bank failure is averted because of the intervention of small savers, in 1932, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a miscegenation story in which an American female missionary in Shanghai falls in love with a Chinese warlord who has captured her, and Lady for a Day, a sentimental comedy in which an old apple seller by the help of gangsters poses as a rich woman because of a visit from her daughter, in 1933. Then in 1934 came Capra’s first all-out success: It Happened One Night won all top five Academy Awards (picture, director, actor, actress, screenplay) and was a huge moneymaker. It’s a romantic comedy dealing with a runaway heiress who falls in love with the reporter who is chasing her across the country. It was followed the same year by the more moderately successful Broadway Bill, a romantic comedy about the fortunes of a business man turned horse trainer.

            Another giant upswing came in 1936 with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which provided Capra with his second Best Director Academy Award. Deeds tells the story of a small town inhabitant called Longfellow Deeds who inherits $20 million and ends up in a sanity hearing by giving it all away to those more in need. On a personal-professional level, the film signified a new direction for Capra. He wanted to make every film from that point on “his own”. In his autobiography, he tells about how he, when confronted and criticized by other cinema luminaries for his choices of hero and subject matter, stood firm and trusted his decisions. His emphasis on the importance of individualism is obvious in his description of his “one man, one film” idea. This development is, naturally, apparent in Capra’s work. As he said: “Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, my films had to say something.”9 It was the first in a cycle of films that were to typify his auteur style described above. His films became more occupied with individuals and their relation to society. Perhaps more than anything else, Deeds deals with the subject of the individual getting lost in the mass of the contemporary world. This is what Deeds is about, in Capra’s own words:

 

          And what was the great “message” of Mr. Deeds? Nothing earth-shaking. Just this: A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach deep down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment. That theme prevailed in all - except two - of my future films. It was the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled to an ort by massiveness - mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.10

 

This quotation shows how Capra, through Deeds, approves of the idea of the supreme value of the individual, as well as ideas of self-development, self-direction and privacy. Some symbolic scenes from the first half of the film serve to illustrate this approval. An uncomfortable Longfellow Deeds is being outfitted in new clothes by tailors. Meanwhile, Mister Cedar tries to persuade Deeds to make him his power of attorney. His time and opinions are requested by various visitors and servants. All this only serves to invade Deeds’s privacy and threatens to undermine his own individual personality. He is confronted with the dangers of being molded and transformed (literally tailored) into someone else and of being controlled. But the autonomous Deeds resists the pressure and denies Cedar the position, at least until he has further acquainted himself with the financial matters. In another scene in the same room, as McBride points out, his idea of egalitarian individual value shines through when he refuses to let his valet help him put on his pants.11 The opera board also tries to control Deeds, but he remains able to act on his own and think for himself. Another symbol of Capra not letting Deeds be “compartmentalized” by the agents of conformity is the hall of the mansion which, with all its impersonal, colorless, stone-cold enormity, is the antithesis to Deeds’s colorful and playful personality. By letting him slide down the banister, play around with a nude statue and later play with the echo of his voice, Capra shows us that Deeds has not lost his stamp of originality. Locking up his unwanted bodyguards is Deeds’s way of refusing to let anybody infringe on his privacy. His originality is constrasted with the conformity, inhumanity and insensitivity of the law officers of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington. Their rigid and confined physical movements are analogous to their rigid and confined mental movements, also an antithesis to the protagonist. Futhermore, Deeds is unwilling to compromise his identity when made fun of by the authors in the restaurant.

            Another theme is introduced when he is confronted by the starving farmer. Whereas the protagonists of Capra’s earlier thirties pictures were ultimately removed from “real” society, from Deeds onwards, the individual had to express itself within a complex, extended society. No man was an island any more. According to Carney, even though It Happened One Night was a transitional film in many ways, “[W]ith the films that follow - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life, and State of the Union - Capra embeds the individual in a social matrix...”12. This becomes evident when Deeds decides he wants to share his newly found fortune with those less fortunate. In his sanity hearing, Deeds uses a kind of parable, about how similar cars are not always able to make it to the top of the hill outside his house, to explain why he wishes to distribute his fortune in this way: “And I say the fellows who can make the hill on high should stop once in a while to help those who can’t. That’s all I’m trying to do with this money - help the fellows who can’t make the hill on high.”13 This wish, however, does not make Deeds a communist. Rather, as McBrice points out, he is a plutocrat in the tradition of John D. Rockefeller, and distributes wealth in the same way as Roosevelt’s New Deal programs14. This demonstrates how Capra argues in favor not only of the ideas of political and economic individualism in the tradition of Andrew Carnegie15, which claims that an unregulated economic market provides the individual with maximum satisfaction, but also of the idea of self-direction. Deeds’s decision is an individual one, opposing the wishes of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington.

            To elaborate on Capra’s depiction of the idea of self-development, the two major transitions in the film, those of Babe Bennett and Longfellow Deeds, must be considered. Bennett eventually sheds her unhealthy, cynical world view and comes up with a truer, more authentic version of herself. She is able to understand her love and admiration for Deeds and expresses this newly found understanding in the courtroom scene. Although it is clear right from the start of Deeds’s New York stay that he is not as innocent and naive as he appears when he is first encountered in Mandrake Falls, it is just as clear that he has gone through a process of transformation when he decides to speak in his sanity hearing. Carney argues that “[H]is incontrovertible accomplishment is to shed every vestige of whatever innocence he might originally have had ... Deeds becomes a kind of literary-textual critic par excellence...”16. He is able to fully understand the “text”, meaning the social reality to which he is confined. He systematically discusses and dismantles the pieces of testimony that have been used against him. Carney goes further in this analogy of Deeds as a literary critic, calling him a deconstructionist, meaning an analyst who emphasizes the “internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.”17 He is able to avoid being dominated by the text, the rules of the social context. It should be obvious, then, that both Bennett and, in particular, Deeds have been able to “triumph over their environment”.

            The idea of Deeds as a deconstructionist is further related to the idea of the abstract individual, an idea that implies the artificiality of society, as Carney argues that

 

          Deconstruction...is thoroughly consistent with, and eminently convertible into an all-American assertion of freedom ... Deeds’s activity of deconstruction is a prototypically American way of levering himself outside of all texts, of asserting the artificiality of all systems, institutions, and codes of understanding ... To be able to play this way in a courtroom, one has to recognize that a social institution like a court, and the discourse that is admissable or speakable within it, is...artificial and arbitrary ... If Capra’s heroes no longer attempt to flee from the repressive forms of society into a world of romance or imagination, it is because for the first time they recognize that the society they flee from is itself an artificial, arbitrary creation of the human imagination...18

 

You cannot run away from society and its codes, but you can understand them, and thus play with them and manipulate them as you see fit, which is exactly what Deeds does. Rather than choosing what Carney considers to be European responses to this recognition of society’s artificiality, such as the initial nihilism of Babe Bennett, the opportunism of Cedar and his kind and the alienation of the farmers, Deeds offers a uniquely American option of optimism and creativity19. But it is also important to remember that this option is not one which Deeds automatically chooses. He goes through a phase in which he flirts with a fifth kind of dealing with this awareness of society’s artificiality, which is that of a retreat into stillness, silence and passivity. This last-resort plan of self-preservation is almost impossible to distinguish from self-annihilation, and fortunately, Deeds finally rejects this option. This aspect of the movie is an example of how Capra believes in the idea of the abstract individual.

            Carney also seems to tie this artificialness of society to the ideas of ethical and epistemological individualism as he argues that “Deeds...learns to become a performer in an entirely more modern, marginal and challenging sense...” because “[T]here is no possibility of simply reimposing order from on high as a kind of father, ruler, or god. That sort of authority is not availible in the world he inhabits...”20. I would like to disagree with Carney on this, however, as I see Capra’s view as being more in the tradition of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who rejected the notion of ethical relativism. Kant’s categorical imperative (“You shall act in such a way that the principle of your act can be transformed into a universal law.”) applies to Capra’s portrayal of the actions of Longfellow Deeds, as he depicts them as desireable, whereas the actions of Cedar and his kind are portrayed as reprehensible. Thus, Capra still believes in an objective difference between right and wrong.

            Mr. Deeds was followed by Lost Horizon in 1937. It is a Utopian story of a group of people who escapes a Chinese revolution only to be kidnapped by their pilot and taken to an idyllic civilization in a Tibetian vally. Although it is somewhat atypical of Capra’s auteur style, it is still interpreted by some critics as a variation on the theme of individualism. In 1938, You Can’t Take It with You was another smash hit for Capra, giving him Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. It concerns the story of the clash between an eccentric family and a rich family and dwells, among other things, on the theme of the individual pitted against big business.

            Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was another jewel in Capra’s crown. Released in 1939, it received eleven Oscar nominations, yet was only given one Award, for Lewis Foster’s original story21. It tells the story of a boy scout leader turned senator who discovers and fights corruption in the US Senate. Treated at first almost as a sort of sequel to Mr. Deeds, the film is a continuation of Capra’s concern about the individual. The world Capra presents us in Mr. Smith is even more threatening to and oppressive of the individual than the one in the former film. The impersonality of technologies, systems and institutions have utterly peripheralized individuals. Whereas the protagonist faced the danger of being “tailored” into someone else in Deeds, he faces the danger of being “Taylored” in Smith. Boss Jim Taylor seeks only an easily controllable puppet as a new senator for the benefit of his “machine”, which controls individuals to the extent that they are mere pieces of a puzzle. Both Senator Paine and Governor Hopper have erased their identities to create corporate, machine-controlled identities. The relationships between these politicians and Taylor are not filled with any emotion or personal allegiance. To quote Carney, “[T]here are no permanent enemies and no dependable friends in this impersonal world; there is only a network of shifting power relations...”22. Individuals come and go, the machine is a constant. Capra employs the image of the telephone system to symbolize this impersonality: It is a model of human interaction in which voices are disembodied and stripped of personal and biological associations. Once individuals have become part of a system like this, they are no longer unique and irreplaceable. They have become components of a larger, impersonal system, and can easily be substituted. In the beginning of the film, we observe three phone calls between four of the important characters. This is done so fast, however, that we are barely able to recognize any of them as a person. This, of course, is Capra’s deliberate way of showing us not “the presence of people, but the power and inclusiveness of an elaborately coded and hierarchical system of relationships...”23. The way the main character of the story is introduced is also indicative of how decentralized the individual is: After a web of relations, pressures and influences has been spun, we know what piece of the puzzle is missing, and when we encounter Jefferson Smith, he is treated only as the “someone” who is to fill this position. Fueling the theme of the alienation of the individual is the fact that not only is Smith unable to affect these systems already in place around him, but he is not even able to be aware of them at this point. Another element in the film showing how the strength of the individual has been set aside, is the fact that the discourse is mediated. Deeds was able to adress his accusers directly, and as a person. What Smith says in the Senate must be processed through newspapers and radio stations before it reaches its outside audience, and he must act as Senator, not simply as citizen Smith. Even the enormous Capitol building itself can be seen as representing an impersonal, anti-individualistic institution.

            All this constitutes a world that Smith, after he has come to learn how it functions, refuses to be a part of. Smith, of course, is Capra’s mouthpiece in the movie, as he stresses the importance of individual value, individual effort and self-direction. When discussing his bill in his office with Saunders, Smith says that “[L]iberty is 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.””24 Capra, through Smith, wants us to rediscover the personal feelings and beliefs for which there are no room in Taylor’s world. By sympathizing with Smith, we must reinstall the individual at the center of the social reality.

            A film like this, naturally, cannot avoid touching upon the subject of political individualism, an idea which claims that political authority is not derived from divine or nautral law. It is most often used about ideologies that aim to confine the functions and the authority of the state within fixed limits25.  In the USA, democratic elections have always been the way to distribute political offices, and limitation of the government’s authority has been a perennial ideological and political issue. The idea, then, has a long and solid historical background in America. There is a scene where Smith visits the Lincoln memorial and is obviously inspired by a little boy reading out loud the famous line “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Adress. This was something that actually happened to Frank Capra when he was in Washington, and he wanted to include the scene in the film and anchor the film in Lincoln’s ideals because he felt the people of the world needed “a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals”26. This is an example of how this film, and thus Capra, advocates in favor of the American tradition of political individualism.       Capra’s embedding of the individual in the social matrix mentioned earlier is evident in a couple of statements Smith makes in the Senate. Faced with the bureaucracy of political life, he says, “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness - and a little looking out for the other fella, too”, and in his last appeal to Paine he says

 

          I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust.27

 

Capra insists that the social responsibility of the individual must not be forgotten and neglected. One does not live in this world alone, each and every one of us must take care of the people around us. The allusion to The Gospel According to Matthew chapter 22, verses 34-4028, is quite obvious in Smith’s statements, which reveals Capra’s adoration for Christian social ethics.

            Capra’s support for the idea of self-development is once again found in the personal transformations that occur in the film. Saunders and Paine started their careers in Washington with attitudes quite different from those displayed at the beginning of the film. Saunders says: “When I came here, my eyes were big, blue question marks. Now they’re big, green dollar marks.”29 Paine says: “Thirty years ago, I had your [Smith’s] ideals. I was you. ... I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball.”30 They have become more cynical and they have compromised their identities. They have constructed a shell of detachment around them. Eventually, they are able to crush this shell, Saunders when she and Smith discuss his boy camp bill and Paine after Smith’s last appeal to his honesty and integrity in the Senate. Both of them more or less regain their original status, as they are able to be honest with themselves and right the wrongs they have committed. Smith is the archetypical idealist who, after he has been betrayed by the one he most trusted, starts doubting himself and his ideals: “You sure had the right idea about me, Saunders. ... Just a simple guy, you said, still wet behind the ears. A lot of junk about American ideals. Yeah, they’re certainly a lot of junk, all right. ... What are you gonna believe in?”31 Saunders lifts his spirits by pointing out that all great Americans who ever tried to do things, including Lincoln, have had their Taylors and Paines to fight. Smith is able to overcome his doubts and learns how to express himself in the Senate in order to attain his goals. All three are able to reach into themselves and come up with an authentic individual identity that can triumph over its environment.

            When it comes to the issues of ethical and epistemological individualism, Carney takes an approach different from the one in his discussion about Mr. Deeds when he argues about Mr. Smith that it “teaches a viewer, however unfashionably, that there are real and important alternatives in life that are within our power as moral agents to decide between. Life is not all gray. There are absolute sides and issues and causes to be defended”32. In Smith, as I argued he also did in Deeds, Capra still resists the idea of ethical individualism.

            During World War II, Capra made a series of patriotic documentaries collectively called Why We Fight, another film about individualism, Meet John Doe (1941), in which a tramp is hired to embody the common man in a phony political drive and almost commits suicide, and a black comedy farce about a homicidal family called Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

            Capra’s first film after the war, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), was the one he would later be most closely associated with, and would remain both his and James Stewart’s favorite film33. Considering that Capra believed it to be his best film to date and knowing how well-loved this majestic film is now, it is strange to recognize that it was not particularly well received by the audience and the critics of the day (it was nominated for five Academy Awards, but did not win any). The formula that clicked so well with Depression era audiences was regarded as somewhat simplistic by the postwar cinema public. Only after it became standard Christmas fare on TV in the 70’s did the film get the acclaim and adoration it deserves. It tells the story of a man, George Bailey, who feels that his life has been a failure and wants to commit suicide, but he is saved by divine intervention. More than anything else, and more than any of Capra’s other films, Wonderful Life concentrates on the importance and the supreme value of the individual. Capra says that it was “[A] film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned ... that no man is a failure! ... that each man’s life touches so many other lives. And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.”34 He later said that “in a sense, it epitomises everything I’ve been trying to do and trying to say in the other films. ... The importance of the individual is the theme that it tells. And that no man is a failure.”35 That every person is worth the same and that every person matters are central points of individualistic ideology, contributed by the Judeo-Christian religious and cultural traditions of the West. And these points are most certainly apparent in the film, as Clarence tells George “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”36  Bailey is no saint out of this world, he is an ordinary man that experiences grief, bitterness and sadness as well as joy and happiness. Yet, as he finds out in the sequence of the film where he experiences how the town would have been if he had not been born (the “unborn sequence”), his life has had a tremendous impact on other people. Among other things, he has saved his brother from drowning, prevented Gower from poisoning a patient and kept the town from becoming the den of sin, crime and corruption that Pottersville would have been. He feels like a failure beacuse he has not travelled the world and built bridges and skyscrapers like he wanted to, but instead he has contributed to the building of a strong community of independent, secure citizens.

            But he has not been able to do this without facing resistance. More than the two other films discussed, Wonderful Life explores the inner life of its protagonist. There is a constant internal psychodrama concerning Bailey’s personality in the film. He wants to live up to the self-sacrificing ideal of conduct represented by his father, but he also wants to live the life of his imagination and desires, as Violet Bicks and Sam Wainwright do. He is torn between the attempt to affirm the childlike values of his uncle Billy and his recognition of necessary compromises in the “adult” world. This ambivalence is something that he must deal with all through the film. The continous threat to undermine Bailey’s identity is most clearly personalized in Potter, who is in many ways an evil reflection of Bailey. They have approximately the same job and function in the community, yet they are on the opposite sides of the scale of caring for this community. Potter does not really have to confront George or intimidate him in order to threaten his self-preservation. In fact, he only needs to remind him of his own doubts and personal conflicts. Carney points out that “it is not accidental that halfway through the movie Potter’s most threatening gesture to George is not an attempt to destroy him but an offer to merge with him...”37. Bailey resists this offer, however, and maintains his individuality and path of self-direction throughout the film.

            The individual’s relation to society is a very important aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey makes sacrifice after sacrifice in order to ensure the welfare of the people of Bedford Falls. He takes over Building & Loan after his father dies instead of going to college and he spends his honeymoon money on saving the business. But these sacrifices pay off, as the end of the film shows how grateful the people of the little community are to him. This causal relation  is found in Christian social ethics, particularly the golden rule of The Gospel According to Matthew chapter 7, verse 1238. Capra’s unquestionable approval of Christian social ethics also rule out the ideas of ethical and epistemological individualism, as these two sets of ideas are opposites.

            The film concerns itself with the question of economic individualism, as it presents two diametrically opposite approaches to capitalism. There is the perverted, egoistical version represented by Potter, and there is the responsible, almost altruistic version represented by George Bailey. There is no doubt, of course, which version Capra portrays as more desireable than the other, and Bailey’s is also the version that fulfills the ideal of “maximum satisfaction of individuals” mentioned earlier.

            To focus on how Capra portrays Bailey’s self-development, it must be said that his phase of self-doubt is far more extreme than the ones Deeds and Smith undergo. George Bailey has lived his whole life in a world of compromise, of conflict between imagination and desire on the one hand and reality and practicality on the other. It has not been the life he pictured and wished for when he was younger. It is only after he has seen how Bedford Falls would have been without him, that he learns to understand that it is not an inferior way of life. He has learned to live with the limitations that be. Once again, Capra’s ideal of “triumphing over one’s environment” is expressed in the development of his protagonist.

            Wonderful Life also gives support for the idea of religious individualism. When George’s friends and relatives pray in the beginning of the film, they don’t act through intermediaries. Nonetheless, their prayers are undoubtedly heard and answered. Clarence is sent to Earth to show George what a wonderful life he has had. However, it is only after he has said his own personal prayers ending with “[P]lease, God, let me live again,”39 that order is restored in George’s life. This shows how Capra believes that everyone must take responsibility for one’s own religious life through the establishment and nurturance of one’s own personal relationship with God.

            Except for State of the Union (1948), the films that followed It’s a Wonderful Life were generally of little commercial or artistic interest, and Capra retired from the movie business in 1961. He wrote an autobiography in 1971, which was a boastful, but entertaining, account of his life and career. He died in 1991, at the age of 94.

            In this term paper, I have shown how Capra, through the selected films, treated the American concept of individualism. He embraced ideas like self-direction, self-development, religious, political and economic individualism, the supreme value of every individual and the theory of the artificialness of society. On the other hand, he refused the ideas of ethical and epistemological individualism. Thus, Capra was not a relativist. This places him in the tradition of individualistic philosophers, writers and thinkers like Hume, Kant, Emerson, Whitman and Carnegie. Furthermore, Capra did not allow his individualist protagonists to be removed from society. They had to find their place in the social matrix and accept their social responsibility.


1 Pearsall. 1999. p 1113

2 Corey. 2002. p 305

3 It’s A Wonderful Life ranked 11th and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 29th on The American Film Institute’s list of the “Top 100 American Movies of the Last 100 Years” in 1998, a list to which also Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was among the four hundred nominees; Deeds and Life are on Leonard Maltin’s list of the “100 Must See Films of the 20th Century” printed in his 2000 Movie & Video Guide; all three films recieve excellent ratings in Maltin, Craddock (VideoHound), Walker (Halliwell’s), Fox (Virgin) and Nash (Motion Picture Guide)

4 Corey. 2002. p 305; Craddock. 2002. p 508-9; Katz. 1998. p 217; Walker. 2000. p 417, p 546

5 Lukes. 1973. p 596

6 Lukes. 1973. p 596

7 Lukes. 1973. pp 597-604

8 Katz. 1998. p 217

9 Capra. 1971. p 185

10 Capra. 1971. p 186

11 McBride. 1992. p 340

12 Carney. 1986. p 262

13 Gary Cooper, performer. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

14 McBride. 1992. p 341

15 Andrew Carnegie. 1900. From The Gospel of Wealth in Breidlid. 1998. pp 192-4

16 Carney. 1986. p 289

17 Pearsall. 1999. p 373

18 Carney. 1986. p 290-2

19 Carney. 1986. p 292-3

20 Carney. 1986. p 296

21 1939 is generally regarded as the best year for Hollywood cinema ever. It saw the premiere of such über-classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, as well as other strong classics like Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka and Wuthering Heights, a display of competition which makes it easier to understand why Mr. Smith was not the Oscar grabber some of Capra’s other films were.

22 Carney. 1986. p 303

23 Carney. 1986. p 304

24 James Stewart, performer. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

25 Lukes. 1973. p 601

26 Capra. 1971. p 260

27 James Stewart, performer. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

28

29 Jean Arthur, performer. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

30 Claude Rains, performer. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

31 James Stewart, performer, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

32 Carney. 1986. p 313

33 Nash. 1986. p 1430; Capra. 1971. p 383; Frank Capra jr. in “Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life A Personal Remembrance”; Tom Bosley and Frank Capra in “The Making Of It’s a Wonderful Life

34 Capra. 1971. p 383

35 Frank Capra in “The Making Of It’s a Wonderful Life

36 Henry Travers, performer. It’s a Wonderful Life.

37 Carney. 1986. p 381

38

39 James Stewart, performer. It’s a Wonderful Life.

 

Bibliography

 

·      Breidlid, Anders; Fredrik Chr. Brøgger; Øyvind T. Gulliksen and Torbjørn Sirevåg (editors). 1998. American Culture. Routledge.

 

·      Capra, Frank. 1971. The Name Above the Title. Vintage Books.

·      Carney, Raymond. 1986. American Vision - The Films of Frank Capra. Cambridge University Press.

 

·      Corey, Melinda and George Ochoa (editors). 2002. The American Film Institute Desk Reference. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.

 

·      Craddock, Jim. 2002. VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2003. The Gale Group, Inc.

 

·      Fox, Ken and Maitland McDonagh (editors). 2000. The Virgin Film Guide Ninth Edition. Virgin Publishing Limited.

 

·      Karney, Robyn. 2002. Cinema Year by Year 1894-2000. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.

 

·      Katz, Ephraim (editor). 1998. The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia Third Edition. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

 

·      Lukes, Steven. 1973. “Types of Individualism” in Philip Wiener. 1973. Dictionary of the History of Ideas volume II.

 

·      Maltin, Leonard (editor). 1999. 2000 Movie & Video Guide. Signet.

 

·      McBride, Joseph. 1992. Frank Capra - The Catastrophe of Success. Simon & Schuster Inc.

 

·      Nash, Jay Robert and Stanley Ralph Ross (editors). 1986. The Motion Picture Guide volumes IV and V. Cinebooks, Inc.

 

·      Pearsall, Judy (editor). 1999. The Concise Oxford Dictionary Tenth Edition. Oxford University Press.

 

·      Poague, Leland. 1994. Another Frank Capra. Cambridge University Press.

 

·      Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America. Vintage Books.

·      Walker, John (editor). 2000. Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide 2001. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

 

Filmography

 

·      Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Babe Bennett), George Bancroft (MacWade), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb) and Douglas Dumbrille (John Cedar). Columbia, 1936.

 

·      Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Sen. Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor) and Guy Kibbee (Gov. Hubert Hopper). Columbia, 1939.

 

·      It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch/Bailey), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mithchell (Uncle Billy) and Henry Travers (Clarence Oddbody). Liberty, 1946.

 

·      “The Making Of It’s a Wonderful Life”. Produced and directed by Sandra Moiseeff. Hosted by Tom Bosley. With appearances by Frank Capra, James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard. Raycom, 1990.

 

·      “Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life A Personal Remembrance”. Hosted by Frank Capra jr. Featuring James Stewart and Frank Capra. Bexy Communications, Inc., 1991.

 

·      “Frank Capra jr. remembers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. Produced and directed by Michael Gillis. Hosted by Frank Capra jr. Columbia Tristar, 1999.