“A great man and a great American, Frank Capra is an inspiration to those who believe in the American dream” John Ford
“The megaphone has been to John Ford what the chisel was to Michelangelo…..Ford Cannot be pinned down or analyzed. He is pure Ford–Which means pure great” Frank Capra
Frank Capra and John Ford have directed many classic movies and it is unfair to only view two of their works and summarize all there is too say about their styles, so I won’t. Instead, I will be discussing different styles and conventions that Frank Capra and John Ford used in the four movies I viewed. These movies are Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Mr Deeds goes to Town both Capra, films and The Informer and Grapes of Wrath by Ford.
America in the 30’s was a time of hardship economically, politically and socially. If you have taken an American history course you know all about the depression and the crisis that it bestowed upon the land. Hollywood, the movie making capital of the world tried its best not to reflect the problems of the country in its products. Instead of the grim realities of world, Hollywood lured in the audience with escapist movies. The classic thirties genres like screwball comedies, glamourous musicals and fantasy movies, were mere ploys to divert the sad reality of the time and in doing so Hollywood firmly defined its role as entertainer not critic. Capra and Ford can also be accused of following this pattern too, with other movies they made. The 30’s were also a time of the great studio system and one had to work under the control of these institutions, although both directors managed to achieve enough fame and power that they could create their own visions. With this power and fame, Capra and Ford were able to turn out movies that went against the usual Hollywood style; critical of society, authority, government, newspapers, the police and political rebels. These men where able to make movies about the injustice in the world and they created simple folk yet(much like Forrest Gump in Capra’s case) complex enough to deal and in some cases win against the evils of the world. Although they deal with similar topics and understands about society and man, they have different ways of delivering their message. Capra used humor, fantasy, splendor, and a quick moving camera. Ford on the other hand used gritty realism, harsh environments, and a static camera, with slower cuts and movements. They both can be considered anti-establishment directors, but I would say that their movies go beyond simple anti-establishment attitudes and actually try to and establish a new more righteous establishment. Ford and Capra believed so much in America that during her time of great crisis in WWII, they left Hollywood and all the money to work for the U.S. Forces. Ford became an Admiral in the U.S. Navy and Capra a Colonel for the Army.
Of the four movies by Capra and Ford, The Informer is the only one that was not a box-office smash at its time of release, however all four movies carry the prestigious titles of being called some of the greatest films of all time. All these films can be enjoyed on a simplistic entertainment level, but there is so much hidden between the texts that makes them great, therefore they were obviously made for more than just enjoyment.
There are strong issues being dealt with about man and his relationship within the society he lives in. From the most basic problems about individuals suffering from lack of shelter and starvation to mass starvation and political corruption. There also seem to be the tone in Capra’s and Ford’s movies that man was doing fine until society interfered with him, not just society in general but more city society. There is a feeling that city people are corrupt and infect all that they touch, while the simple country folk are pure and good. This point is proven over and over again, it is not the individual that is corrupt it is the society that corrupts the individual. Deeds and Smith both from there respective self titled movies are happy and fine living quiet sheltered lives in their small town. As soon as city society comes knocking on their door trouble begins. Whereas when we meet Fonda in Grapes of Wrath, society has already beaten him down and now he must rise again or perish. Gypo too in The Informer has been defeated by society and he too must rise or perish. So as Capra’s hero’s are virginal, Ford’s have already been around the block a few times but insist that they are still virgins.
The character’s in Ford and Capra’s movies are microcosms for all that is happening and these movies are mainly character centered and driven so it is a fair way in dealing with their idea’s. Capra’s characters are modeled on the belief that one man can make a difference and help society, while Ford’s characters are almost incapable of helping themselves. (although Fonda in Grapes of Wrath speaks of wandering the earth to bring truth and justice to the world,) Fonda will only effect small minorities of people, while Capra’s characters change the world. Yet both styles of character are modeled on the simple and common folk. They are naive to the world and as the movie progresses, they and we, the audience learns how corrupt the world is, but whereas Capra gives you the golden ending, (believable and happy) Ford takes a much more cynical look. Gypo the main character is killed while the Joad family future in Grapes of Wrath is not that much better than when they statred out.
Capra’s heroes come from small town, happy middle America and are the epitome of the common man. They are well liked and respected in the community that they live in. Capra’s men have greatness thrust on them by luck, while Ford s characters have trouble thrust upon them. Both Smith and Deeds achieve their honored positions by the misfortune of someone else. In both cases it is the death of a famous individual who perishes and Deed’s and Smith are called up from the ranks of the common people to eventually achieve greatness. However, their call is based on pure luck. Deeds luck was due because he was an heir of a wealthy relative, and Smith because a coin toss ends with the coin standing erect. Ford’s men come from the outside of society, Fonda from prison and Gypo had been kicked out of the IRA. They have been disgraced and are at low points in their lives, while Fonda tries to redeem himself in a society that keeps dropping him down. He is released from prison, finds out the authorities have taken his home and starts out with nothing. Fonda tries his hardest not to become a “Mean Man”.(Ma Joad’s name for what happens when you go to prison and become evil) Gypo also wants redemption but is so lost in a society that rejects him. The society in this case is the IRA and once Gypo is kicked out he has no money and becomes lost. He wants to do good but is helpless until the end when he begs and is granted forgiveness and dies redeemed, religiously speaking.
Ford used religion in both movies as turning points and a way to reflect the inner struggle of characters, the death of the preacher changes Fonda forever and Gypo’s redemption in the church where he has at last found peace. Capra on the other hand uses real American monuments in the same way. Grant’s Tomb and the Capitol building are seen by Deeds and Smith as great American institutions that symbolize the truth and greatness of their nation. During the monument scenes we learn a lot about the inner emotions of the characters. No one else see’s the beauty and ideological importance of these monuments as we are told by supporting characters but this reflects that twentieth century man has lost his faith in the institution. Although Capra’s movies can be considered to show American society and authority in poor light, he on the surface can be considered anti-establishment or anti-American, but on a deeper level he is more pro-establishment and American because he wants the institutes to work and mean something, not just to be hollow houses to be used by the wealthy and cunning to swindle the land. Smith actually argues these point when he is holding the filibuster and is trying to explain why kids must learn to understand an appreciate the Constituent. So when they grow up they hold them of value and the principals of the founding father actually meaning something. Ford too shows the same if not even stronger anti-establishment views. At the same time as tearing down the institution they support but not in its present corrupt form making these directors super-patriots, they are willing to go against something they believe to be wrong in the hope it will get better. In this way both Ford and Capra can be seen as Caprasque heroes both men somehow achieved enough luck that they where in a position to change the world and they did.
Ford and Capra also make comments on the society of the educated man and the written word. In fact the written word is used by both directors in various forms, it motivates, destroys and can redeem. The written word is always paralleled with money or prosperity but, once unmasked is usually wrong or bad. Gypo sees a poster of his friend that reads reward 20 pounds, Gypo out of confusion turned to this poster and betrays his friend and his society for the money. The Joad family is of on a quest to California on account that they read a pamphlet, this could be compared to the newspaper clip Ma Joad has of her son’s imprisonment. In both these Ford movies the news or the written word is somehow a motivation for people to do something. But the written word always leads to misfortune. Comparing the pamphlet with the article on Fonda’s imprisonment could symbolize and verify that nothing good ever comes from the written word. Ford way of secretly criticizing the learned man. Perhaps he is commenting on the fact that we pay to much attention to what is written, which could lead to our downfall. Don’t just believe what you read investigate to find out the truth. Later on in Grapes of Wrath we find out that the pamphlet is actually a tool of the rich man to lure lots of workers out to California so they can offer really low wages. The wealthy man controls the news and will always use it to his advantage, even though most common folks believe what they read they must learn not to be so blind.
The use of newspapers and written words are more obvious in the two Capra films. They not only affect the characters but they also help explain the story to the audience. In the Capra films we learn that news is subjective to mistruths and when silly stories appear of Deeds in the paper we know they were not meant in the context that they were printed. Yet it seems that in Capra’s films the society believes without question everything they read in the paper, yet as spectators we learn the truth about the media. Babe the reporter who loves Deeds says in the court room she colored the articles to sell more papers. Finally when we are introduced to Taylor in Smith we realizes how corrupt the news actually really is. Taylor’s name can be used as a metaphor for tailor as someone who alters something. Although control of the paper is done in typical Capra fashion, by the power of one man. The newspaper is another institution that must be unveiled because it has the power to confuse and corrupt people. Taylor is the ultimate in corruption and when Babe was working for the paper she too cheats. Anyone associated with the written word is portrayed in a cynical or devious ways.
Finally the most destructive theme in Ford’s and Capra’s movies is money. Money is used in many ways in these four films sometimes their is plenty and some times their is not any. Money ends up playing a big role in each of these films, money is also used as a device to show how characters behave when serious matters occur.
Deeds and The Informer are very similar in their dealing with money. Both movies begin with a large written banner about money. Gypo is faced with a poster claiming reward money, while Deeds begins with the newspaper proclaiming millionaire heir not found yet. In both cases death is the cause that there is the transfer of money to the main characters. Gypo becomes paranoid and drunk indirectly due to the money. Deeds also misuses his fortune at first, getting drunk and running around New York naked. With money comes responsiablity and both Gypo and Deeds in the beginning are not capable of handling responsesablity. It takes them many lesson to learn the real value of money and when they firgure it out they end up givening their money away to help someone less fortunate. Deeds gives his millions to the out of work people, while Gypo gives his money to a lady in need of transportation home. Both cases the money is used for the purpose of good. In Deeds the twenty million dollars brings many leeches, the same happens to Gypo with his 20 pounds. Gypo starts to spend money more and more frequently as the night wares on. He attracts leeches who care little about Gypo but a lot about his money. These leeches end up guiding the character into deeper and deeper trouble. Wheras Deeds has professional leeches like lawyers, because Deed lives in the world of high fainace the thief where suits and have offices. Both films end up using money as a test of a persons strength in the case of Gypo he fails at first but eventually learns right even though it is too late. Deeds on the other hand passes the test at first easily, but there are moments when he is close to failing.
Smith and Grapes of Wrath are also very similar with the use of money potrayed in these pictures. Both are centered on the fact that society through money is being abused and the little guy can not fight these odds. The big buisness men who smoke fat cigars and buy up land and kick off the farmers in Grapes of Wrath are the same men that work in the Senate in Smith. These men the wealthy are extremly greedy whereas the Joads just want enough money to feed the family and live. These rich land owners are willing to starve children just to make more of a profit. coincidently while the rich steal and make illegal deals to become richer the Joads do not even try to steal a loaf of bread. Which is the point of these moves that there is more important thing than money, even thought are society is based on it.
Capra and Ford worked very hard to achieve the positions in society they did, both grew up in poor large families and hence started at the bottom and worked their way to the top. They lived the American dream yet they were not so blinded by their success that they did not see the misfortune of others. They knew the American system was corrupt and unfair and set out to criticizes and even help change it. Either men cannot be labeled as liberal or socialist because there political allegance was not towards a party or a theory, it was rooted in simple and obvious universal truths. And because their movies deal with universal themes and truths I believe there movie do not or will not ever appear old or dated.
American Film I
“FORD & CAPRA”
DEC 3 1996
Category: Music and Movies