The man who sold Utopia

Matthew Wells on the early days of Hollywood and Frank Capra: Mr America

by Jennie Kermode

Frank Capra: Mr America
Frank Capra: Mr America

One of the special things about the Glasgow Film Festival is that as well as featuring premières and industry programmes which reflect on the future of cinema, it takes the time to look back to the past. This year, alongside retrospectives, it screened Matthew Wells’ new documentary Frank Capra: Mister America, which offers an enthusiastic yet challenging take on one of the industry’s most influential early contributors. Watching it, I told Matthew when we met, I had expected to get an interesting history lesson, but what I hadn’t anticipated was just how relevant the film feels today.

“Yeah, it’s incredibly relevant today,” he agreed. “We should get on to that. The idea was suggested to me by the producer, Nick Varley. I'd seen a load of Capra films and I liked them. But as I started reading more about him, I found that he was so contradictory and complicated. There was some discomfort in that at first. And then I realised that, actually, that's the film: that's what’s interesting. That's what I need to lean into. So that's when it clicked into place for me.”

Some of the stuff that comes out about Capra at the end of the film is quite uncomfortable, but I it ties back to the start, when the film explores his status as an immigrant and the shame he felt about that.

“Yeah. I mean, he's a fascinating and very complicated guy. I think he was seen at the time to stand for America and the American dream. His life and his movies embody this. And as you dig into it and it all becomes more complicated, that idea of America becomes more complicated with it.”

And it's interesting, again, because of the whole idea of utopianism in his films, which we don't really see anymore. A lot of people, when they think of Capra, they think of his work as quite sentimental and maybe don't remember the darkness in it.

“It's so odd,” he concurs, “but you just remember the frothy side, the sweet, sentimental, warm side of it. And you forget that, actually, the reason that punches so hard is that it's got this incredible darkness beneath it. You see it most clearly in It's A Wonderful Life, but then you look back at the other films and it's there as well.”

I explain that some of Capra’s early work at Colombia was unfamiliar to me. Does Matthew think that’s the case more generally?

“Definitely, yeah. We think of Capraesque and the Capra touch, and it's a very particular kind of movie that's been so influential on how movies get made since – but his roots were in visual comedy, the early action movies, melodramas, things that you don't associate with him, but then actually, you can see it there. Not so much action sequences, maybe, but certainly the visual comedy and his handing of drama.”

It seems like a difficult subject to approach and a difficult story to tell, given that it’s established early on that one can't trust what Capra himself said about it his life. How did Matthew determine what was real and what wasn't?

“Well, a lot of credit goes to Joseph McBride and his book about Capra, which is a really impressively researched biography. I think when that came out, that was revelatory, and what we're doing really is building on his discoveries.

“There aren't that many people to talk to about Capra. There's no primary sources. We depended a lot on our brilliant interviewees, who are very knowledgeable people. We had great luck in the archive too. As you said, he's this unreliable narrator of his own life. He was always mythologising himself, and what I wanted to do was find ways to peek around that and see what was he concealing and why was he telling these lies. Why was he presenting himself in this way?

“We found some candid interviews, which I really didn't expect to find because in everything I'd seen he was telling his mythologised version of himself, but we found a few where he is more unguarded and he's a little more honest. We're very glad we did. A lot of the events of this happened a very long time ago so we don't have the kinds of archive that you hope to on other films, but we use every frame that exists.”

People are obviously going to expect clips from the films, but there's also quite a bit of illustrative material, like footage of the studios at the time, of the streets and so on. How was that selected and checked for accuracy?

“Research,” he says. “Lots and lots of research and testing everything. With Capra, you have to interrogate every claim. And to be fair as well, some of the claims go the other way. I mean, some of what has been written and said about him since, I don't think holds water, and it didn't make it into the film. For me, you've got to check everything, and you've got to be able to corroborate it.”

Capra is interesting as a historical figure, going beyond that, because he was quite fundamental in inventing the romcom and that side of cinema. Does that make him a subject people should be looking back to if they're interested in film generally?

“Yeah, definitely. I contend he is the most influential film director that there's ever been. And I don't really mean that because of his influence on films. I mean it because of his influence on people – on how we think of America and how America thinks of itself. He did so much to shape that myth, which has been so defining for the last 100 plus years. But also, like you say, rightly, what he achieved on film is extraordinary. He's there from the early days. He comes in at the end of the silent period, learning his craft, but he's there for the transition, and he handles the transition where a lot of people don't. He makes it work.

“He takes to sound film beautifully, and the films that he made in the 1930s, his biggest hits – films like It's A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – they really shape how we make movies now. There are the romcoms, but also you can find other Mr. Smiths. Just look for anything with somebody plucky overcoming the odds, and it's the Capra model.”

The documentary addresses the Second World War and how Capra worked in propaganda – but was he conscious of his films as a kind of propaganda before that, maybe in a positive way, in that he was trying to help create a certain type of society?

“It's hard to know, because he certainly talks about it in those terms, and we have him talking about it in those terms in the film. But I don't know whether it was retrospectively he came to see it that way or whether he believed it at the time. I think what's interesting about him is that he is at the top of his game when the world is waking up to the power of film, right? And this all happens in the run up to the war, as the establishment starts to realise that film is a tool that it can use. And so the film community goes from being this band of outsider hucksters, upstarts, which is very much how it begins, to being this culturally important, politically important, very central industry, respectable like it is now. That transition happens over the course of Capra's heyday in the 1930s. And the capstone of it is Hollywood being asked to help sell the war, and Capra's part in that.”

We have dystopias as opposed to utopias most of the time in films today, and there's a lot of negative propaganda out there now, particularly with social media and so on. Maybe Hollywood has something of a role to play in that, the way that Capra saw it.

“I think so. And I think you can see a sort of similarity in the kind of movie landscape today, as there was in the people then. They were living through the Great Depression. There was all this political instability, and people were looking to the movies as escape. And you see that in his films. I think that's why his career clicks into gear when he starts making films that work as escape. Movies didn't really offer that in the same way that It Happened One Night offers that. You can see a similar thing in the world today, where there's so much turmoil, so much darkness, that actually what we want is some comfort and some escape. And I think you can see that in some of the movies that end up being a big hit.”

Something else that’s interesting is Capra’s work around the Great Depression, when the dominant idea was that everybody was focused on money, and he stepped aside from that and said ‘there are other ways to be a good person,’ and set up an alternative model of that, which also seems very relevant now.

“Yeah, definitely – and this is back to contradiction! There's such warmth, there's such a wonderful way of looking at the world that he's offering people. It's got its limitations and it's of its time, and that's all absolutely true. I think there's still real value in it. But at the same time, he so didn't live out his ideals in the rest of his life. It just absolutely contradicts with what he's evangelising in his movies.”

Obviously Matthew had read the book when he started working on the film, but what did he discover that was new to him?

“I was sort of getting to know him,” he says. “It’s a strange thing to say – he's been dead for a long time – but to the extent that you can. I spent a lot of time with these recordings, some of the long interviews that he did, the material that he's got in his archives, notes and letters and things like that, and you do get a sense of the man that starts to come through. Hopefully we've put that across.”

How does he feel about the film being picked up by Glasgow now?

“Happy. Very happy.” He smiles warmly. “It's lovely to be screening it in the UK. Glasgow feels like a bit of a homecoming. The film's producer is based here and lots of our team are based here.”

Finally, what would he recommend that people go and watch to get to know Capra's work if they leave this film wanting to find out more?

“Oh, great question! I mean, It Happened One Night is a perfect movie. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's so good. But for someone who's maybe seen a few of them and is wondering where to go next, one we didn't particularly touch on in the film is Lady For A Day, which I would also highly recommend. But with the big movies, you can't go far wrong.”

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