For Reel


Lost Horizon (1937)
December 13, 2015, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Frank Capra
3 Stars
Lost HorizonLost Horizon begins as a rebuttal to critics who speak of director Frank Capra’s stodginess, choreographing an exciting rescue sequence in which a noted British diplomat (Ronald Colman) helps evacuate westerners out of war-torn China. When the three key refugees are aboard a plane that’s been hijacked by a kidnapper, a sense of paranoia and dread begins to sink in–these characters at the mercy of a pilot whose motivations are entirely unclear. Unfortunately, when our heroes settle down in the famed Shangri-La, Capra perhaps dwells too excessively in the day-to-day happenings of this utopia, with the running time seeking justification that it never finds. Only with a tuberculosis-ridden prostitute (Isabel Jewel) does the drama of the fantastical reprieve have significant emotional resonance. If Capra’s desire to ponder this land of peace seems unfocused, where he succeeds is in the bookending sequences that revel in the chaos and confusion–emotions the director rarely dealt with in this period, save for short bursts (such as the bus scene of It Happened One Night). While the final image of the film makes Colman’s journey more palatable than it needs to be, there is a great poetic beauty in watching a man battle the elements in search of the happiness he made the mistake of failing to trust.



Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
January 1, 2014, 6:09 pm
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Director: Frank Capra
5 Stars
Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonLong before it became fashionable to rag on corruption within the American government, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington emerged as a force of nature–as cynical a depiction of congress as audiences had seen in years, and also a call-to-arms for a new breed of politician. Its wild success can be attributed to its hopeful, naive optimism which argued that an honest country boy could make things right because, dammit, that’s what a democracy is. Even if director Frank Capra is oft-criticized for his sentimentality, just as important to his craft is his recognition of despair–even in It Happened One Night (hardly a political film), Capra takes a moment to consider the effects of the Depression on a small town. What makes the contrived ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington serviceable is that it is simultaneously a transcendent moment of victory and also one of almost surreal darkness. What other film has a happy ending that includes a suicide attempt and a full-scale nervous breakdown? Although the shocking contrivance services the sentimental vision of democracy that Capra so dearly believed in, it is also a nod to the realist notion that the government can’t change until there is a full-scale resurrection. Senator Joseph Paine’s (Claude Rains) botched suicide is in fact a death of his ideals, marking a radical transition for the character’s sense of morality and suggesting the need for a similar governmental rebirth.



The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
July 6, 2012, 6:34 am
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Director: Frank Capra

The Bitter Tea of General Yen was, at the time of its release, Columbia Pictures’ most expensive production to date. Its assumed success would never come – though it had the honor of being the first picture to be screened at the famed Radio City Music Hall, the theater chose to remove it earlier than the expected two-week minimum run due to poor attendance. Star Barbara Stanwyck was baffled at the result, blaming (and perhaps rightly so) the racism of the movie-goers, who weren’t quite ready to see eroticism suggested between an Asian man and a white woman. Frank Capra’s career would lead him in a wildly new direction the following year with It Happened One Night, but one can’t help but wonder what could have come of him had he continued to make pictures like this – it is his most thoughtful effort, touching on issues of religion, class, and race with great daring and uncharacteristic ambiguity. Stanwyck plays a Christian missionary who is held captive by a Chinese warlord, played with relative sensitivity by Danish-born Nils Asther. Late in the film, Stanwyck begs mercy on behalf of Asther’s traitorous concubine, which he grants and inevitably is forced to regret. The final sequence, without dialogue, is Capra’s most evocative sequence – the warlord now abandoned by his men, he poisons himself with tea as Stanwyck, ashamed to have cost him everything, obediently mourns him by his side. While miscegenation is often addressed as the film’s prime controversy, equally challenging is this conclusion, which makes the audience empathize wholly with the warlord as Stanwyck becomes forcefully aware of the harm caused by what could be described as her Christian naivete.



The Miracle Woman (1931)
July 6, 2012, 6:27 am
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Director: Frank Capra

One of Barbara Stanwyck’s most interesting performances of the pre-Code era was as an opportunistic evangelist preacher in The Miracle Woman. Her co-star, David Manners, plays a blind man who, on the day that he was to commit suicide, hears Stanwyck’s disingenuous preachings on the radio and finds a new lease on life. When the two meet at a particularly eccentric ceremony (Stanwyck performs in a cage of lions), they strike a relationship that makes Stanwyck question the ethics of her line of work. Despite apparently being born again, there is little to suggest that Manners has become a holy man – he speaks little about his faith or any of the fundamental Christian concepts. Instead, his ideology is best summed up when he ponders, “I never thought much about God before but I do now. He must be fine and wonderful if she believes in him.” The woman is his God – in fact, at an early moment in the picture, he receives a life-size statue of her head in the mail. Though he possesses it for the purpose of “seeing” her (that is, feeling the curvature of her face), one can’t neglect the supposition that it serves as an icon of worship. In this assessment, one can see the film as not only a condemnation of blind faith (no pun intended), but as a suggestion of a woman’s ability to turn a man into a zealot. That the woman is Stanwyck makes the theme all the more palpable – one might interpret The Miracle Woman as a precursor to The Lady Eve, in which she similarly has control over the ever-so-obedient Henry Fonda.



Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
May 1, 2012, 9:56 pm
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Director: Frank Capra

Near the end of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a Freudian psychologist suggests that the title character possesses the qualities associated with manic depression, demonstrating the considerable highs and lows in Deeds’ outlook over time through the use of a chart. The graph, of course, is eventually dismissed (psychiatrists were rarely heeded in Hollywood until after the war), however one might make the case that it accurately represents the tonal qualities of a Frank Capra picture. A cloying sentimentalist in the eyes of some, his pictures often dwelled in the murk of a corrupt civilization before a single hero comes and speaks on behalf of a common cause, thus achieving harmony in the community. One of the very best of these predictable endeavors is this 1936 romantic comedy about a humble small town man who inherits twenty million dollars from the uncle he never knew. Gary Cooper is Deeds, and at the time he was cast-against-type – in pictures like Design for Living, Cooper was a smoldering, sexual figure who would likely be associated with high society. At first, his Deeds is numbingly dull, but that is the intention. Through the eyes of a reporter played by Jean Arthur – who romantically pursues him for the benefit of her journalistic career – the audience gradually warms up to the “simple” man, whose childlike enthusiasm at seeing a fire engine is infectious in its warm-hearted naivety. While the film begins to feel overlong once the all-too-familiar court case is underway, Capra’s charitable message is appealing if not radical, and the relationship between Cooper and Arthur really sings thanks to their great on-screen chemistry. Arthur, who would finally find stardom after the success of the picture, is a joy, as the audience watches her false, opportunistic smile slowly transform into something more authentically affectionate as her relationship with Deeds progresses.