Frank Capra

You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.

Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.

Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.

Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).

Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.

Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.

Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.

All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).

Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.

Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.

And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.

Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.

Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.

Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.

You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


Meet John Doe (1941, Frank Capra)

There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.

At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.

There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.

The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.

Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.

Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.

It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.

Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.

Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr.; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gary Cooper (John Doe), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), James Gleason (Henry), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon), Irving Bacon (Beany) and Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett).


A Hole in the Head (1959, Frank Capra)

The first hour of A Hole in the Head is slow going. It shouldn’t be slow going, not with everything the film has going for it, but director Capra is real lazy. He’s lazy with his composition, he’s lazy with his actors, he’s lazy with the pace. It’s amazing how the film’s pluses are able to turn things around in the second half.

The script’s a very stagy adaptation of a play, with original playwright Arnold Schulman doing the adapting. Capra takes the easiest approach possible to everything in the first half of the film, which takes place almost entirely at lead Frank Sinatra’s hotel. It’s not a nice hotel, Sinatra’s not a good hotelier, but there’s something interesting about a little bit of a rundown hotel amid otherwise glamorous Miami Beach. Capra is indifferent to that possibility, unfortunately. Instead, he plops the camera down and shoots almost everything in medium shot, two characters in profile. It’s beyond boring.

Sinatra’s not just an unsuccessful businessman, he’s a widower with an eleven year-old son (a likable Eddie Hodges) and a twenty-one year-old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones). Between Schulman’s script and Capra’s direction, none of the actors get much favor, but Jones easily gets the worst treatment. She’s actually got a character and she does well. Schulman’s just lazy. She lives in Sinatra’s hotel, they’re not discreet, yet Hodges never gets to acknowledge her. Not really. When the film finally does try, it cops out. Worse yet, it cops out with one of editor William Hornbeck’s awful fades. Terrible editing in Hole. Not sure if it’s Hornbeck or just Capra refusing to take the time to get solid coverage. I’d assume the latter.

But Sinatra’s also unlikable in this first part of the film because it’s about him being a deadbeat dad. When redemption does arrive, in the film’s deftest move, it doesn’t come in the shapes of Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter (Robinson’s Sinatra’s successful, if miserly, brother and Ritter’s Robinson’s very patient wife) or Eleanor Parker (as the widow who Robinson wants Sinatra to marry), it comes because Sinatra finally gets a character to play.

By not shooting his actors in close-up, except as comedic reaction shots, Capra never asks them to act. He never asks them to try. I guess Hodges does get close-ups, but it’s so he can be likable, which is probably worse.

Sinatra and Parker have a very nice, very grown-up scene, with Sinatra leaving the hotel and going somewhere not shot in front of rear projection for once. Hole definitely shot on location in Miami, but not enough. At least not when none of the studio-shot inserts come close to matching. (Again, Capra’s clearly checked out).

After that scene, the whole thing starts to turn around. Schulman and Capra take Sinatra (and the viewer) outside the hotel, the script gives Hodges something to do besides be cute, Ritter and Robinson aren’t just playing for laughs anymore.

And, in the last half hour, A Hole in the Head gets quite good. The cast has a whole lot of goodwill banked from the first half, when Capra and the script clearly waste them, and it all pays off towards the end. The actors save A Hole in the Head. They save it from Schulman’s unsteady script, from Capra’s unimaginative visualizing of said script, from Hornbeck’s jarring cuts. They even save it from the awful Nelson Riddle music.

Capra asks everyone to do movie star acting in a story needing a far more muted approach. Sinatra, Parker, Ritter, Robinson. They’re all good enough actors to know what their characters need. Would better direction improve the film? Definitely. But it does all right without it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Arnold Schulman, based on his play; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Nelson Riddle; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (Tony Manetta), Eddie Hodges (Ally Manetta), Carolyn Jones (Shirl), Thelma Ritter (Sophie Manetta), Edward G. Robinson (Mario Manetta), Keenan Wynn (Jerry Marks) and Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Eloise Rogers).


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is astoundingly (and rightfully) confident. Director Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin don’t shy away from anything in the film–Capra’s more than willing to go with sentimentality, but the film isn’t often sentimental. Even when Jean Arthur’s world-weary reporter breaks down, she doesn’t get sentimental.

Most of the film involves Arthur deceiving Gary Cooper’s titular Mr. Deeds–he’s a small town guy who’s just inherited twenty million dollars–for her story. He becomes infatuated, she starts to regrow her heart. Riskin’s script runs these two subplots parallel to one another, but somehow not concurrent. Deeds maintains three perspectives throughout–Cooper’s, Arthur’s and, in the beginning, Lionel Stander’s.

Stander is sort of Cooper’s sidekick (a rich man’s press agent) but he’s also the first one to come around to Cooper’s way of doing things. Capra and Riskin take the Hollywood norm–the New York newspaper picture–and mix in the social commentary of the Depression, while bringing in a big question of town vs. country values. It’s a very tricky combination and they always do it perfectly; Deeds is a marvel of filmmaking construction. The way Capra uses sound–Cooper and Arthur are romancing in a picturesque New York landmark, the hustle and bustle around them, but the sound just has them. The lovely Joseph Walker photography just adds to it. Lots of quiet moments for Cooper and Arthur, who both give marvelous performances.

Everything about Mr. Deeds is fantastic. It’s an exceptional motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Babe Bennett), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter), Ruth Donnelly (Mabel Dawson), George Bancroft (MacWade), Walter Catlett (Morrow), John Wray (Farmer) and H.B. Warner (Judge May).


Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925, Del Lord)

Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies explores the dangers of electric cars. Basically, they can be taken over by radio waves and made to do crazy things. If it weren’t for the gasoline dealer (John J. Richardson) being the villain, one could almost see it as twenties gas company propaganda.

The short is a special effects extravaganza and director Lord does pretty well with it. There are all sorts of car effects, some okay wirework and a few other things. Sadly, the rampant racism overshadows any of the short’s positive qualities.

At one point, co-writers Frank Capra and Jefferson Moffitt posit blacks are actually not living creatures. Where’s Robert Riskin when you need him….

There’s also some anti-Semitism, but it might be from title card writers Felix Adler and Al Giebler.

The first half is mildly amusing with the special effects. But the second half makes it Lizzies unpleasant overall.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Del Lord; screenplay by Frank Capra and Jefferson Moffitt; titles by Felix Adler and Al Giebler; directors of photography, George Spear and George Unholz; edited by William Hornbeck; produced by Mack Sennett; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Billy Bevan (Hiram Case), Andy Clyde (Burbank Watts), Lillian Knight (Minnie Watts) and John J. Richardson (T. Potter Doam).


Saturday Afternoon (1926, Harry Edwards)

Even though Saturday Afternoon is astoundingly bad on every expected level and a few unexpected ones, I guess I’m glad to know there were always terrible comedies. It’s not some recent invention, post-television. There was always tripe.

The story is pretty simple. Harry Langdon is a moron married to an evil witch of a wife, played by Alice Ward. There’s also this very interesting inference Ward has been around a little and picked Langdon because of his stupidity.

Oh, I forgot to mention, writers Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra slather on the misogyny (not just Ward) with a wide brush.

Except Langdon’s trying to step out on Ward and the audience is supposed to sympathize. But he’s so stupid, it’s impossible.

Technically, Langdon’s performance is bad. He doesn’t have any timing. His sidekick, Vernon Dent, is worse. Edwards’s direction goes beyond bad to incompetent.

Afternoon‘s an unbearable 1,800 seconds.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Edwards; written by Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra; titles by Al Giebler; director of photography, William Williams; edited by William Hornbeck; produced by Mack Sennett; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Harry Langdon (Harry Higgins), Alice Ward (Mrs. Harry Higgins), Vernon Dent (Steve Smith), Ruth Hiatt (Pearl), Peggy Montgomery (Ruby) and Leo Willis (The Rival).


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)

Arsenic and Old Lace has to be one of the finest–if not the finest–film adaptations of a stage production. Nothing about the film, save the knowledge it’s from a play, suggests its theatrical origins… not the one night present action, not the one set. It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, down to what has to be Frank Capra’s most inventive direction. Capra’s confined to that one set for the majority of the film and he keeps things very interesting. He reveals the house gradually, not even exploring the full size of the main room–where around seventy percent of the story takes place–until well into the third act of the film.

The film’s full of fantastic performances, but the story’s split between Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Grant disappears for a while and Massey takes over, but filling a completely different role than Grant. The film sort of goes without a protagonist for a while in Grant’s absence (Massey isn’t really an antagonist at this point) and the story accelerates into a different area without him. When he returns, he doesn’t inhabit the film in the same way. For the first half, watching Arsenic and Old Lace is watching Grant. Sure, lots of good stuff is going on around him, but his performance is captivating. It’s unlike anything else (Grant hated the performance) and it’s wonderful. Maybe because it so perfectly matches the viewer’s expectation of a reasonable person’s response to the film’s fantastic situation. The romance between Grant and Priscilla Lane–which has a lot of texture independent of the main action’s two plots (the aunts and their gentlemen and Massey’s return)–is wonderful too. Lane and Grant play great off each other; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Massey has the film’s most difficult role, since it’s so incredible. I wonder how much Arsenic and Old Lace did for Boris Karloff’s name recognition, as Massey has to personify the idea of Karloff (and the unmentioned Frankenstein) from his first moment on film. But Massey has to go further–he has to be both menacing, dangerous and silly. The viewer has to be scared of Massey and what he might do, but also has to be able to laugh at him. By the time he’s ready to go after Grant, the viewer’s already had a chance to laugh at him a little, but Massey brings it all around to present real danger.

Peter Lorre has a similar position. He has to be funny–Lorre’s performance is one of film’s great comedic performances–but also endearing and a little disturbing. He’s still Massey’s partner in crime, even if he’s incredibly likable. There isn’t a weak performance in the film or even one less than stellar, but Lorre still stands out.

The rest of the supporting cast–Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the two aunts are great–is all exceptional. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those flawlessly casted films.

My wife had never seen the film before, which made the viewing even more entertaining. It’s least like the rest of Capra’s films of the period, but that dissimilarity somehow makes it more exciting to see from him. It’s as close to experimental as Capra ever got with his style. It might even be his most impressive work as a director; he’s essential to the film, which has such a strong script, it’s easy to think he could have gotten lost somewhere.

I’m hard pressed to identify my favorite part of the film. I love the sequences with Lane and Grant in the graveyard, but Grant’s long stretch of discovering what’s going on–where he’s the whole show–is fantastic too. But then there’s Lorre….

There’s just too many great things about Arsenic and Old Lace to narrow it down.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Herman Einstein), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), John Alexander (Theodore Brewster), Jack Carson (Officer Patrick O’Hara), John Ridgely (Officer Saunders), Edward McNamara (Police Sgt. Brophy), James Gleason (Lt. Rooney), Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon), Vaughan Glaser (Judge Cullman), Chester Clute (Dr. Gilchrist), Edward McWade (Mr. Gibbs), Charles Lane (Reporter at Marriage License Office) and Garry Owen (Taxi Cab Driver).


State of the Union (1948, Frank Capra)

Capra tries for another entry in his humanist series (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and John Doe) and fails miserably. Two of the principal ingredients–Robert Riskin and Gary Cooper–are missing, but since State of the Union is from a play, it’s questionable if Riskin could have helped (Union‘s problems are fundamental). As for Cooper… Spencer Tracy’s excellent and the film’s failings aren’t his fault. The film’s also something of a technical failure, plagued by some terrible editing from William Hornbeck, during the first half.

The movie moves well enough–the first half hour until Katharine Hepburn shows up goes at a lightning fast pace–usually thanks to Van Johnson. Johnson’s cynical but affable reporter is Union‘s best part. Margaret Hamilton’s put-upon maid is also a lot of fun, but Capra tends to misuse actors here more than not. Adolphe Menjou gets saddled with one of the big bad guy roles and he’s way too passive for it. Charles Dingle, in a smaller part, would have had the volume. As the primary villain–corrosive both as a newspaper publisher and Tracy’s mistress–Angela Lansbury is out of her depth. She doesn’t have the skills to pull it off as believable, not just in terms of her villainous scenes, but to convince anyone Tracy would want anything to do with her… much less leave Hepburn for her. (Hepburn in the Lansbury role would have been interesting). There’s the major problem with State of the Union… Tracy’s a bad guy too.

The big changeover happens late in the film, so the viewing experience isn’t totally ruined. Hepburn’s got a great drunk scene during the last act, which is painfully slight, and Maidel Turner, as her drinking buddy, helps a lot. But the whole thing, as it wraps, is bad. Tracy’s not even a main character after Hepburn shows up, so no long walks to think or hurt expressions from the witness stand.

Capra’s free of any earnestness here, just treading water. Worse, he’s lost almost all filmmaking imagination, only retaining competence–with the exception of one plane chase scene, which was probably all second unit. Sure, it’s adapted from a play and there’s lots of stagy scenes, but Capra doesn’t even explore that idea.

It’s a sad afterword to the trilogy and a waste of time for Tracy and Hepburn. They both have good scenes, Hepburn having a lot more, but as a narrative, it’s an embarrassment.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly, based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Victor Young; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Grant Matthews), Katharine Hepburn (Mary Matthews), Van Johnson (Spike McManus), Angela Lansbury (Kay Thorndyke), Adolphe Menjou (Jim Conover), Lewis Stone (Sam Thorndyke), Howard Smith (Sam I. Parrish), Charles Dingle (Bill Nolard Hardy), Maidel Turner (Lulubelle Alexander), Raymond Walburn (Judge Alexander) and Margaret Hamilton (Norah).


It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)

There’s something particularly tragic about It Happened One Night: somehow, Capra and Riskin let it get away from them. It’s possible–likely even–the awkward conclusion was a result of not having access to the stars (Gable and Colbert were both on loan to Columbia), but it doesn’t really matter. Riskin went from a deliberate pace–the majority of the film takes place over three or four nights, these days and nights being the film’s content for the first ninety minutes (I suppose the opening scene is an indeterminate period of time before these days begin, but probably not more than seven hours)–to a rushed one… the third act takes place over a week and takes up about fifteen minutes of time. However, were it not for Riskin’s change in point of view, futzing with the pace wouldn’t matter. The point of view change, combined with the pace (and the lack of the main characters) kneecap It Happened One Night when it needs to be its best.

The point of view in the film is, for the majority of it, excessively brilliant. Capra and Riskin create a masterpiece of realism and humanism, while still making a romantic comedy. The viewer is with Gable and Colbert on the road and Capra films it on location a lot (I think except some interiors) and Riskin writes it real. Watching Gable, who I really love as movie star, actually have such a great script to act–he’s fantastic. His performance is incredibly rich and deep and different from anything else I’ve ever seen him do. Colbert’s great too, with her character forming throughout. Riskin just does an excellent job and Capra knows how to direct the script and then loses itself. It doesn’t even lose the realism as much as it loses the humanism. It loses the realism a bit… Walter Connelly, also great, plays Colbert’s father and he’s a little too Hollywood perfect for the film, especially since he becomes the main character for the last fifteen minutes. I understand why–to create a sense of suspense (It Happened One Night, for worse, seemingly created the romantic comedy model still used today)–but it’s totally inappropriate. When the film loses Gable as the protagonist, it’s essentially lost (never to find itself).

Capra does a great job–his composition is particularly exciting, as he plays with tight spaces and open ones. There’s barely any score and it’s all “natural” sounds, which works beautifully. He creates this usually quiet place for the story to unfold. Again, goes towards the realism.

I’ve only seen the film once before and had the same reaction, due to the misfire of an ending, so I wasn’t enraged (because I knew it was inevitable). But I imagine I’d be livid if it were my first viewing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Howard Jackson and Louis Silvers; produced by Capra and Harry Cohn; released by Columbia Picutres.

Starring Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas (King Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blanche Friderici (Zeke’s wife) and Charles C. Wilson (Joe Gordon).


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