From the Masters at the Movies column in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
Masters at the Movies, Take 21: Michael Kazin Offers a Paean to Frank Capra's Populism
Robert Brent Toplin, March 2013
The AHA's "Masters at the Movies" series invites distinguished scholars in the history profession to comment on the impact of film in their lives, teaching, and research. In this issue, Michael Kazin reflects on the work of Frank Capra, the creator of several notable Hollywood movies. Some have claimed that the popular moviemaker delivered mostly saccharine melodrama, but Kazin questions these charges and recognizes contradictions in Capra's biography: the famous director celebrated virtues of the common man in his films, yet Capra's politics sometimes allied with America's rich and powerful. Nevertheless, Kazin believes Capra's oeuvre contributed substantially to the nation's populist traditions and democratic ethos.
Frank Capra had an extraordinary career. Poor and from an immigrant family that did not value education, young Capra nevertheless managed to graduate from Caltech. After holding a variety of jobs, he faked his way into the movie business by pretending to be a director. Later Capra served as a gag writer for the popular Our Gang comedies, which depicted the adventures of poor neighborhood children. Eventually Capra achieved fame as the top director at Columbia Pictures. Columbia had been associated with Hollywood's "poverty row," but Frank Capra's appealing movies soon made the studio a major competitor.
Capra achieved much of his early success with comedies, but beginning with American Madness (1932) he took on more serious topics. Several of his productions addressed major societal problems such as the Depression, corruption, and totalitarianism. Frank Capra garnered several Oscars in the thirties and ranked as one of Hollywood's most acclaimed artists. During World War II, Capra enlisted as a major and directed Why We Fight, a series of seven documentary films. The U.S. army screened Why We Fight for thousands of soldiers, and Winston Churchill requested that all films in the series be shown to the British public.
In the late 1940s and beyond, Capra lost favor with movie audiences. His uplifting themes, which appealed to Americans in the thirties, no longer resonated. Some journalists labeled his sentimental films "Capra-corn." Then Frank Capra found a new career as a thoughtful commentator on the history of American cinema. His autobiography, The Name above the Title (1971), became a bestseller. The book's popularity created numerous opportunities for Capra to lecture at universities. In those meetings he argued that successful filmmaking required a director's firm control over production.
I had the good fortune to hear numerous stories about Frank Capra from a Hollywood producer who knew him well. Capra's son, Frank Capra Jr., came to Wilmington, North Carolina, to serve as president of Screen Gems Studios. He and I partnered as instructors in courses on film and history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. When we planned class meetings, Capra related many stories about his father's life and work. Each year Capra Jr. delighted Wilmington audiences by introducing a December screening of It's a Wonderful Life. That film represents just one example of the senior Capra's lasting influence. Viewing It's a Wonderful Life is now a holiday tradition in American culture, like trimming a Christmas tree or singing a Christmas carol.
This issue's commentator on the movies is a professor of history at Georgetown University. Michael Kazin's scholarship focuses on U.S. politics and social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kazin's most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011). Among his other publications are A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006); America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, co-authored with Maurice Isserman (2000); The Populist Persuasion (1995); and Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (1987). Professor Kazin is co-editor of Dissent, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2010), and co-editor, with Joseph McCartin, of Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (2006).
Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board. He edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized and developed.