Frank Capra and the Cinema of Identity

Celebration and Interrogation

by Malcolm Scott (Author)
Monographs XII, 288 Pages


This study proposes a new definition of Frank Capra’s work as a cinema of identity, focusing on his reflection on American national identity as well as his own positioning as a US immigrant. The interplay of celebration and interrogation is used to show the two poles of his films’ narrative structure, placing in a new critical light the supposed «happy endings» of this complex filmmaker. All of his films are discussed, including his feature films (both silent and sound, grouped thematically and in broad chronological order) and wartime documentaries. There are separate chapters on controversial works like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life. Not intended as a biography of Capra but as a study of his career and ideas on film, the book takes into account the views of numerous earlier critics and writers and offers a fresh appraisal of this celebrated director and his often problematic films.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Identities
  • Identifying Capra
  • The Auteur and Others
  • Capra and History
  • From History to Identity
  • Two Hours in a Dark Room: Capra’s Discovery of Cinema’s Power
  • The Dialectics of Film Narrative
  • Chapter 2: Beginnings
  • The Tricks of the Trade
  • Capra’s ‘Baby Face’
  • A Time of Experiment
  • A Glimpse of the Future
  • Chapter 3: American Passions
  • American Women
  • Sex and Love, American Style
  • Forbidden Love
  • Mixed Blessing for Capra
  • A Racing Certainty
  • Chapter 4: Haves and Have-Nots
  • Names and Places
  • Princes and a Pauper
  • Road to Success
  • Chapter 5: Fables of Depression
  • Bankers, Gangsters and Other Mobs
  • Capra’s New Deal
  • Depression? What Depression?
  • Fable and Reality
  • Chapter 6: New Horizons
  • West Meets East
  • Prisoners of Utopia
  • Chapter 7: Celebration Interrogated
  • Mr Smith and Mr Kennedy
  • Introducing Smith
  • In the Light and Shade of Monuments
  • The Lions’ Den
  • Jefferson’s Creed
  • Chapter 8: American Fascism
  • It Could Happen Here
  • Masked Identities
  • The John Doe Message
  • Endings
  • Re-evaluation
  • Chapter 9: Informing Wartime America
  • Mr Capra goes to Washington
  • Knowing the Enemy
  • Shocking by Showing
  • Causes
  • A War of Identities
  • The Elephant in the Room
  • Chapter 10: Capra’s Christmas Carol
  • Recommitment
  • A ‘Great Gift’ for Capra
  • From ‘Culmination’ to Innovation
  • Capra’s Angel
  • George, Prisoner of Bedford Falls?
  • Potter
  • Bedford Falls, Oasis or Desert?
  • Alternative Readings
  • Chapter 11: Two Faces of Decline
  • A Last Tango in Washington
  • The Spirit of the Age
  • Remaking Capra
  • Chapter 12: Legacy
  • References
  • Influence
  • Reflections in a Pool
  • ‘Capracorn’ and ‘Capraesque’
  • Identity and History
  • Filmography
  • Capra’s Films
  • Bibliography
  • Memoirs
  • On Capra and his Films
  • On Cinema, Society and Identity
  • Index

| ix →


Figure 1: Harry the immigrant (The Strong Man).

Figure 2: Baby Face (Long Pants).

Figure 3: Florence in the lions’ den (The Miracle Woman).

Figure 4: Florence with Al and John (The Miracle Woman).

Figure 5: Dan and friends (Broadway Bill).

Figure 6: Derby day (Broadway Bill).

Figure 7: Annie’s demon drink (Lady for a Day).

Figure 8: Transformation (Lady for a Day).

Figure 9: The Walls of Jericho (It Happened One Night).

Figure 10: Ellie shows the way (It Happened One Night).

Figure 11: Mad house (You Can’t Take It With You).

Figure 12: Two fathers in prison (You Can’t Take It With You).

Figure 13: Yen and Megan (The Bitter Tea of General Yen).

Figure 14: Megan’s dream (The Bitter Tea of General Yen).

Figure 15: Shangri-La (Lost Horizon).

Figure 16: Conway meets the Lama (Lost Horizon).

Figure 17: Smith on the National Mall (Mr Smith Goes to Washington).

Figure 18: Jeff meets Abe (Mr Smith Goes to Washington).

Figure 19: Smith and the Capitol Dome (Mr Smith Goes to Washington).

Figure 20: Meet John Willoughby (Meet John Doe).

Figure 21: John’s speech (Meet John Doe). ← ix | x →

Figure 22: The extent of George’s ambition (It’s a Wonderful Life).

Figure 23: Clarence and George dry off (It’s a Wonderful Life).

Figure 24: Nightmare in Pottersville (It’s a Wonderful Life).

Figure 25: A merry Christmas (It’s a Wonderful Life).

| xi →


I express my gratitude to

Professor Robert Burgoyne
(Department of Film Studies, University of St Andrews)
for encouraging the writing of this book

Natalia Biletska
(School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews)
for producing the film stills

Laurel Plapp, Laura-Beth Shanahan and Jasmin Allousch
(Peter Lang Ltd)
for their invaluable guidance

Martin and Joanna
Sophie and Freya
for sharing my love of film

| 1 →



Identifying Capra

This book is about the cinema of Frank Capra and its imaginative reflection of the national identity of his adoptive country, the United States of America. It will follow the ways in which Capra’s films, from his silent-era beginnings, through the great films of his maturity, and until his inevitable decline, projected an enduring image of American society and of the American character. ‘Identity’, as the subject of this book, does not stop there. Understanding America also raised for Capra the questions of his own identity and of his self-reconstruction, from his origins as an impoverished immigrant from Sicily, into a fully fledged American. America’s identity as a nation, and Capra’s personal identity as self-made man and celebrated filmmaker, are themes that intertwine in the course of this book. This, however, is not a biography of Capra; rather than relating his personal life, it describes his career in American cinema, the evolution of his ideas about film, and the films themselves. Nor is it a book about American national identity per se, which is too vast a subject to be treated in this place,1 but rather about how Capra imagined America and gradually projected his imagining into film: into what this book chooses to call his ‘cinema of identity’. ← 1 | 2 →

Capra’s America corresponds to Benedict Anderson’s description of nations as ‘imagined communities’2 – imagined and accepted as a common social construct by the people who live in them. Imagination, however, is one of the highroads to truth, and Capra’s immense popularity in his heyday testifies to his audiences’ discovery in his films of a recognizably true image of their country as they experienced it. Their sense of what it meant to be an American was in many cases an element of their birthright; for others, immigrants like Capra himself, it was the fruit of a hard-earned apprenticeship in the ways of a new social environment. In whatever way the sense of belonging to this environment had been bequeathed to them, Capra’s projection of Americans’ collective identity was universal enough to speak meaningfully to them all.

In their unfailingly entertaining, dramatic and often darkly comedic way, Capra’s films reflect the substance and tenor of American society between and beyond the two world wars. They are thought-provoking films, increasingly so as Capra’s art matured, which leave as their heritage a picture of the values and counter-values that united or divided social classes in a nation which, theoretically and legally egalitarian, was riven socially, economically and ethnographically. Capra, aware of a multitude of different American experiences and outlooks, shows us the extremities of rich and poor in an ostensibly democratic age, the existence of an American aristocracy in all but name, the suffering of the middle and lower classes through the Depression, the aspirations of many Americans to rise higher in financial and professional terms, the counter-aspirations of others to stay outside the economic rat-race. They testify to the power of national traditions and of the legacy of great Americans of the past, but also to the awareness of non-American options, to the threat of decidedly un-American attitudes and of undemocratic ideologies, to dangers from both within and without to the probity and security of the nation. Capra’s cinema celebrates what is good in America’s twentieth-century identity and interrogates its negative aspects, especially the failures of many Americans to live up to the good. Whilst identity is the principal focus of this book, ← 2 | 3 → celebration and interrogation are also among its foremost concerns, for they constitute the two poles of Capra’s narrative art. They can alternate and exchange places, but they can also become at times two sides of one coin, two faces of a dialectical process of evaluation in which the positive and the negative are sometimes difficult to separate one from the other, so that his reputedly simple films can in reality divide opinion because of the legitimately different interpretations that they inspire. It is no coincidence that his most problematic films are also among his best.

Capra’s films, sometimes dismissed as light romantic comedies or ‘populist melodrama’3 – a label that takes no account of the dark seriousness of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe or It’s a Wonderful Life – pose important questions about American national identity. Were Capra here with us now, and reading these words, it is possible that he would recoil from them in puzzlement. ‘Identity’, a familiar term to students of culture today, might have struck him as too abstract an idea to apply to the world of film in the period during which he worked.4 Capra was uncertain in general about the role of ‘ideas’ in films and about his ability to grasp and express them, no matter how great his desire to do so. This was a dilemma to which he returns repeatedly in his book, The Name Above the Title. The latter is regarded by many writers on Capra as unreliable; there are certainly many disconnections between his films and the book which, he admits, was ‘not truly an autobiography’ but rather a compendium of ‘random recalls’,5 imperfectly remembered conversations that took place, if indeed they ever took place, years or even decades before. This has not always deterred some of the book’s fiercest critics from using it in the absence of other biographical sources. It will be often quoted in ← 3 | 4 → the present book, but it is always made clear that these references record essentially Capra’s own words, and that they must be read with a degree of caution, though also with respect, especially when the evidence of the films themselves lends support to them.

The foregoing observations are necessary in the context of Capra’s self-defined struggle with ‘ideas’, which often centres on his reported conversations with his devoutly Catholic Boston–Irish friend Myles Connolly. Initially a journalist, Connolly was recruited by another Bostonian Catholic, none other than Joseph Kennedy, father of John, Bobby and Ted, who had entered the motion picture business by acquiring a studio called Film Booking Offices of America, which developed through mergers and takeovers into RKO Studios, one of the leading film factories of the 1930s and 1940s. Connolly became a film writer and producer with more than forty films to his name; he also wrote several literary works with strong moral and Catholic meanings. According to Capra, Connolly, whom he befriended after making two or three of his ‘talkie’ films, urged him to raise the intellectual ambition of his work (not that Connolly’s own scripts, from a biopic of Jerome Kern to Tarzan’s New York Adventure, were particularly ambitious in this sense). ‘Commit yourself,’ Capra records him as saying, ‘open up your mind to the immortals – the prophets, the poets.’6 Connolly apparently saw this as a route by which Capra could rise above the level of the profitable catering for the masses that was prioritized by Columbia Pictures and its boss Harry Cohn. ‘Stinkpot Harry Cohn’, Connolly called him, to which derogatory epithet Capra added the mock aristocratic title ‘His Crudeness’ in a caption to a photograph of Cohn in his book.7 He writes that his instinctive reaction was to reject Connolly’s advice on the basis that his films were successful enough without it: ‘Damn that Irishman and his “ideas”. Wasn’t success the biggest idea of all?’ Despite this, and while pretending to resent his friend’s advice, he describes how he rose to his challenge. ‘Ideas! Ideas!’ he writes. ‘I’d show that needling Connolly I could handle an idea.’8 An account of a later discussion with ← 4 | 5 → Connolly has Capra admitting that he would have liked to ‘say things’ in his films, but that ‘this director doesn’t know what the hell to say. Am I going to give up entertainment and bore people stiff with “message” films? You know what Howard Hughes said: “When I want to send a message, I use Western Union.”’9 But Capra also told an interviewer: ‘It’s the basic tale that counts, and by that I don’t mean that the screen can’t convey a message.’10 The ‘debate’ with Connolly may have been, in reality, an exteriorization of uncertainties grounded deeply in Capra’s mind and rising periodically to the surface.11 Whatever the truth of this, he seems, at least in the relatively early phase of his career, to have felt intellectually ill equipped to match the demands of serious cinema. What he may not have realized was that his technical innovations – his experimental use of group shots and innovatory methods of shooting close-ups, his building of ingenious sound stages, his creation of visual effects, gags and pratfalls included – embodied a type of visual idea that deserves no lesser recognition than the intellectualism promoted by Connolly. Capra, led to believe that literature and philosophy were of a superior order to which he could not aspire, perhaps did not recognize with full and lasting self-confidence that his films did, emphatically, have ‘things to say’ and that they said them eloquently in their own filmic language. In this present book, ideas of both sorts, the visual and, for want of a better word, the literary, will be discussed in the context of the films that embody them; for identity, the theme that concerns us here, can be seen as well as heard. Importantly, two of the best-known Capra scholars have no hesitation in situating his work within a broad intellectual tradition: modernism and transcendentalism ← 5 | 6 → in the case of Ray Carney12 and, in that of Leland Poague,13 classical comedy from Aristophanes to Shaw. More recently, James Chandler has pursued an affiliation between Capra’s work and the English ‘sentimental’ novel of the eighteenth century.14 None of these writers claims that Capra had read, or even necessarily heard of, the writers to whom they refer, but the parallels that they suggest are convincing in evoking Capra’s instinctive sensitivity to the cultural legacy of the past.

Ideas, even in the traditional sense, are certainly expressed in Capra’s films, sometimes in throwaway snatches of dialogue that move from dismissive satire to homespun expressions of patriotic belief. A good example of this occurs in the 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, in the scene where the crusty old Grandpa Vanderhof advises a would-be playwright, his daughter Penny, to write about ‘Americanism’, which he exemplifies by reciting a list of great American figures, from the worlds of politics, science and literature, who represent the national values in which he believes. Their effectiveness here relies on Capra’s simple connivance with audiences that would understand Grandpa’s surface skimming of exemplary names and not question its validity as a chapbook of American values. They may have recognized the notion of Americanism as central to what Huntington identifies as the ‘American Creed’, a founding ideology of identity that combines Jeffersonian commitment to inalienable rights and self-evident principles with allegiance to the American flag.15 In his book, Capra, like Grandpa Vanderhof, lists distinguished intellectual pioneers of human progress, but without venturing beyond their names. His nominees include pre-American figures like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, ← 6 | 7 → Aquinas and Galileo,16 but what real knowledge he possessed of them is open to question. Another list includes precursors or exponents of early cinema – Daguerre for his ‘photographic emulsions’, Muybridge for his ‘sequential still photos of a running horse’, Eastman for a ‘celluloid base for emulsions’, the Lumière Brothers for their ‘film projection machine’, and for everything else Thomas Edison, ‘the Wizard of Menlo Park’17 – of all of whom one suspects he could have said much more. Capra’s education at ‘Caltech’ (California Institute of Technology) had given him a scientific bent rather than a literary one.

Capra was a man of film, not a philosopher, although he profoundly respected the latter species. He sought to entertain, but also to inform whenever he could, audiences that consisted in large part of people from social backgrounds as unprivileged as the one from which he sprang: the so-called common people or ‘little men’, his warmth and sympathy for whom were further factors in his enormous popularity. He offered them, and continues to offer us, through television, DVD and the internet, films that allude to the concerns, interests, passions and anxieties of ordinary Americans: men–women relations in and outside marriage; family conflicts and inter-generational divisions; religion; leisure, including sport and the ambivalent pleasures of gambling; the power of newspapers; economic pressures and social differences; banks and their dubious reliability as custodians of what little hard-earned money modest savers had; small town but also city life, in both their warming and chilling guises; the trustworthiness or otherwise of political leaders; the menace of politically ambitious and unscrupulous men. These are the principal subjects of Capra’s films; they are approached by him, not in a sociological perspective, nor as an investigative journalist might approach them – despite the numerous journalists in Capra’s films and his frequent recourse to newspaper headlines as shortcuts to narrative – but are dramatized or become subjects for comedy, albeit black comedy in which dreams can turn into nightmares. Shining through them is his instinctive defence of the common man, especially of those who seek, as he did, to improve their lot, and of the popular values, ← 7 | 8 → often inherited from the nation’s history, by which people without intellectual pretension sought to live their lives.

Capra’s audiences found in his films their country, their society and a reflection of themselves. Whether they found a reliable image of Capra himself is a more complex question. For a written account of Capra’s early life in America and his responses to his immigrant status, they had to wait until far into his retirement from filmmaking, and even then had to confront, if they were so inclined, the hazards of The Name Above the Title. There, he expresses his sense of scandal on discovering that his parents could not read, and his anger, not at them but against a society that could allow such educational deprivation.18 He voices also his resentment of an America in which he was classified, as a poor Italian, along with ‘the riff-raff of Dagos, Shines, Cholos and Japs’ – the words mean, respectively, Spaniards, African-Americans, mestizos or half-breeds, Japanese (and by extension Chinese) – and assigned to a school situated far from his parental home, where the educational fare was more manual than academic.19 He confesses, looking back at these unpromising beginnings, to ‘a childhood hate for America’.20 He adds, however, just two pages later, that his adopted country gave him ‘a road to climb’, and urges his readers: ‘Drink in its spirit; breathe deep its freedom. And take a special look at “We the People” who made this country great.’ He describes his wish to reward the American public by offering them an affectionate picture of who they were. This is the closest Capra comes to defining his great subject as the ‘identity’ of Americans, but without using that word, the intellectual currency of which lay at some point in the future:

I knew what I would try to bring to them: films about America and its people, films that would be my way of saying, ‘Thanks, America.’ I would sing the songs of the working stiffs, of the short-changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted. I would gamble with the long-shot players who light candles in the wind, and resent with ← 8 | 9 → the pushed-around because of race or birth. Above all, I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world. Oh, not as a bleeding heart with an Olympian call to ‘free’ the masses. ‘Masses’ is a herd term – unacceptable, insulting, degrading. When I see a crowd, I see a collection of free individuals: each a unique person; each a king or queen; each a story that would fill a book; each an island of human dignity.21

Capra’s emotional language overtakes him here, as it often does, and obstructs the flow of his argument. His on-screen characters are not the down-and-outs that he describes in the lines just quoted. Several are bankers or, at least, employees of banks, just as several are journalists or politicians. Even those whose horizons are constrained have often planned better futures of which circumstances have deprived them. Some, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, are trapped within a small-town dreariness from which they cannot escape; others, like John Doe, have been forced out of a career by an accident. Even the minor characters do their best to make a living as butlers, valets, taxi-drivers, jockeys, policemen or barmen. Poverty has driven the call girls in Ladies of Leisure into a profession that does them no credit. But, with the exception of the comically self-labelled ‘pauper’ Colonel Pettigrew in Broadway Bill, or some of the passengers on the bus from Miami to New York in It Happened One Night or, most wretched of all, Apple Annie, the central character of Lady for a Day and of its remake Pocketful of Miracles, none is desperately poor. This distinguishes Capra from Chaplin, who depicts grinding poverty in ways that only superb comedy can make tolerable, but which also, by memorializing for ever the plight of the abject poor, underlines Christ’s words, ‘Ye have the poor always with you’.22 Poverty is a state that Capra never celebrates; what is celebrated in his work is the striving of humble people to rise out of poverty. His book describes his parents’ financial plight in their early days in America, but expresses his pride in their determination not to remain poor, and in his own material success, his realization of the social advancement that is part of what is often termed the ‘American Dream’. The social historian Daniel Boorstin, without any reference to Capra, ← 9 | 10 → sees the rejection of a permanent state of poverty as an attitude shared by Americans in general: ‘In America, of all places, poverty should only be a way station to comfort or even to wealth. It was an American axiom […] that only a peculiarly unlucky man could not rise out of poverty if he had the will.’23 Samuel Huntington, too, stresses the work ethic and ‘the responsibility of the individual for his own success or failure in life’ as an essential factor in the ‘dissenting Protestant culture’ that was a defining element of American identity.24

Capra’s wish to thank America for his success is honourable, but in truth it had done little more than to provide an opportunity in the shape of its film industry. John Ford, in a brief foreword to Capra’s book, suggests that a better title for it might have been The Land of Opportunity.25 That Capra seized the lifeline of opportunity is a tribute to his talent and, in Boorstin’s word, his will. It also shows the degree to which he anticipated Huntington’s advice to immigrants: to ‘participate in American life, learn American language, history and customs, absorb America’s Anglo-Protestant culture, and identify primarily with America rather than with the country of their birth’.26 Perhaps he had little option. Huntington records: ‘During the nineteenth and until the late twentieth century, immigrants were in various ways compelled, induced and persuaded to adhere to the central elements of the Anglo-Protestant culture.’27 Although all churches subscribed to Christian precepts of behaviour, their denominational identities were a different matter. Lee Lourdeaux argues that the assimilation of people from ethnic backgrounds was made easier by a shared commitment to ‘hard work, private ownership and success’,28 but that the religious dimension was the most difficult to accommodate. Carroll and Noble ← 10 | 11 → concur: ‘Religious minorities suffered overt prosecution; there prevailed a fervent hostility to the Roman Catholic Church.’29 Even as a very old man revisiting his birthplace, Capra was at pains to deny that he had any identity other than American.30 When asked by students to speak about his Italian heritage, he complained:


XII, 288
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
American national identity American cinema Frank Capra immigrant identity Catholic identity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XII, 288 pp., 25 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Malcolm Scott (Author)

After studying at the Universities of Hull, Montpellier and Oxford (BA and DPhil), Malcolm Scott became Professor of French at the University of St Andrews, serving for twelve years as Head of French and a similar period as Head of the School of Modern Languages, as well as founding the St Andrews Institute of European Cultural Studies. The author of a dozen previous books on French literature and politics, he is a leading authority on the work of François Mauriac and a member of the French-based International Society for Mauriac Studies. He was appointed Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques «for service to French culture». Throughout his career, film, especially American film, has remained one of his great passions, now combined with his interest in identity studies to produce this book on Frank Capra.


Title: Frank Capra and the Cinema of Identity
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
302 pages