A man is hunched at a bar, alone in the midst of a raucous holiday crowd. Tears trickle down his cheek; his sweaty hands are restlessly locking and unlocking. He bows his head and prays for help. But when that help takes an unexpected form he angrily rejects God's messenger, and bitterly proclaims that it would have been better if he'd never been born.
Very few scenes in movie history are as powerful—or unforgettable—as this one from Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.
Voted the Most Inspiring Film of All Time by the American Film Institute, the movie tells the story of George Bailey: a big dreamer in a small town who has watched life, as he perceives it, painfully pass him by. Sacrificing his dreams as he looks out for others, his hopes ebbing as the years slip past, George ultimately reaches a dark night of the soul in which both his hope and strength fail. But when all seems lost, God miraculously intervenes. And an hour (and a lifetime later), George's eyes have been opened to the countless ways God has touched his life—and other lives through him.
Master of the eucatasrophe
Few directors have touched as many lives as Frank Capra, who was raised Catholic and never failed to attend Mass on Easter—"to contemplate the miracle of the Resurrection," as he once said. Capra's vision was of goodness and innocence victorious in a selfish and calculating world, of the "little guy" triumphant—not because he was little, but because he represented all men everywhere.
Never ducking the facts of human suffering or the everyday struggles of life, Capra often placed his characters in situations of trial in which their faith was sorely tested. Then he would make things right with what J. R. R. Tolkien would later come to describe as eucatastrophe: a miraculous salvation in which good is victorious, faith is rewarded and God's wisdom affirmed.
Tolkien wrote that eucatastrophe "can give to child or man that witnesses it a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears"—and this renewal of hope, this inner strengthening that affords a new grip for our tired hands, was Capra's goal, a goal he believed he'd been given by God.
In his autobiography The Name Above the Title,Capra recounted how he'd been visited by a stranger while hospitalized with tuberculosis, shortly after his first big hit. The little bespectacled man—who he was, Capra never learned—made no introduction. He simply sat down across from the director and, after a moment or two of silence, accused him of cowardice.
Before the sickly (and flabbergasted) Capra could react, he continued: "Do you hear that man in there?" From a radio in an adjacent room issued the voice of Adolph Hitler. "That evil man is trying to poison the world with hate. But to how many can he talk, and for how long? Fifteen million? Twenty minutes? You, sir, can talk to hundreds of millions, for two hours—and in the dark. The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose."
The little man stood, bade Capra goodbye and walked away down the stairs, never to be seen or heard from again. But his words turned the life of the director upside down—in very Capraesque fashion, we might add. Capra arose, checked himself out of the hospital and drove his family far from Beverly Hills and Hollywood. His tuberculosis miraculously cleared, his creativity and vigor returned and a new goal—to use his gifts to entertain, engage and encourage his fellow man—energized his films.
This vision combined with Capra's mastery as a director and writer to create an unforgettable body of work, full of images that—like that scene from It's A Wonderful Life—leave us heartened and uplifted.
Capra is generally remembered as "a practicing Catholic" who may have converted to Christian Science at one point, according to the website adherents.com.
Here's a closer look at three more of Capra's finest—and the spiritual/biblical imagery within.
'Each is a piece of his Maker'
Lady for a Day(1933) is a New York City fairytale about Apple Annie, a "gin-sodden old haybag" who sells apples on the street corner and shakes down the unwary—all to provide for the illegitimate daughter she gave up at infancy.
The daughter is being educated in a European convent, and believes her mother to be a glamorous patron of high society. Her letters are the one bright spot in the old woman's life. But Annie's fantasy begins to crumble as she reads of her daughter's engagement to the son of a Spanish count—and it falls with the news that the three are sailing to New York to meet her.
We see Annie stagger out into the street. Her eyes unseeing, her rags trailing behind, she is mocked by passers by and police angrily shoo her away. All hope seems lost.
But God's hand is at work, and in steps the most unlikely of angels: Dave the Dude, a gambler who considers Annie's apples to be good luck charms. In an outpouring of grace as hilarious as it is rich—with gamblers' donations, speech lessons from con artists and the makeup skills of nightclub dancers (publicans and sinners all) figuring into the mix—Annie is transformed and transfigured.
Capra's camera slowly revolves as the elderly woman—the gin-soaked hag—turns to face the mirror. It lifts our eyes with hers as she gazes into the glass … and breaks into tears. A street corner beggar, a cynical con artist, her life has been littered with tawdry scams and broken hopes. Now she can't believe her eyes. For looking back at her from the glass is a radiant queen robed in white, her face shining and her hair beautifully coiffed.
Hired muscle Big Mike's dazed response is spot on: "Boss! Lookit! She's … she's like a cockroach what turned into a butterfly!"
Capra was acutely aware of the inherent worth and dignity of each man and woman, as bearers of the divine image. As he later wrote: "Be he saint or sinner, rich or poor, black or white, coward or hero … be he lame, halt or blind … each (man) is a piece of his Maker." This belief suffused all his films. In Lady (and later its remake, Pocketful of Miracles), he draws the veil momentarily aside so that we might see it as well.
A man of good Deeds
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town(1936) was Capra's second attempt—following his hospital epiphany—to engage his audience. As he put it, "My films now had to say something. No more bragging about my powers to shoot the phone book and make it funny . … I was determined to change from 'using' films, to serving them … (instead of) the picture moguls, I set out to serve man and the Almighty."
Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is a classic Capra protagonist, a good man perpetually bemused by life as he pursues his twin loves: playing tuba in his small town's band, and composing jingles for greeting
cards. Then the sudden death of an uncle leaves him fabulously rich. Pulled to New York City to manage the estate, he faces a different world as metropolitan swells attempt to milk him and a sarcastic press ridicules his every move.
Deeds' wisdom initially guides him well. But new girlfriend "Mary Dawson" is actually Babe Bennett, the cynical reporter feeding his exploits to the papers. And his lawyers, at first stunned by his otherworldiness and then angered by it ("Why did Uncle leave me all that money? I don't need it"), are planning to dispose of him. In their angry surprise, Capra reveals the hatred which the darkness of this world has for the light, which it cannot comprehend.
As the movie proceeds, Babe's eyes open to Deeds' purity of heart, and she finds herself falling in love with him. But before she can confess her secret, Deeds finds it out on his own. And as he reels from this news, he finds himself on trial for insanity: with his lawyers leading the charge, and Babe's words being used to convict him.
Cooper was Hollywood's idea of a he-man's he-man—but Capra's eye for casting never failed him, and the scene in which Deeds learns of Babe's deception is profoundly moving. As he takes in the truth, Deeds walks in half-circles, talking in halting, fractured sentences. His face subtly changes, his voice falters … and then stops. Pausing in the shadow of a huge pillar, he begins to weep. It's hard to imagine any comparable scene of male vulnerability in any film of the thirties or forties—or that any director besides Capra who would attempt it.
Disillusioned and betrayed, Deeds stands before his accusers in a tension-filled scene reminiscent of Christ standing before Pilate; his complete silence, his refusal to answer any charges or even utter a word, adds to this impression. In Babe's anguish over her betrayal—her desperate cries for Deeds to defend himself—Capra reminds us of the torment felt by Peter.
Thankfully, Babe will also experience the mercy given to Peter (and all of us). Deeds is ultimately vindicated, and carried out of the trial in triumph … but he returns to whisk a weeping Babe into his arms. Kissing her, he then carries her out into the morning. She who betrayed the man she loved, finds forgiveness—and an invitation to share in her beloved's victory.
Championing the little man
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939) was Capra's paean to democracy, released just weeks after Hitler's invasion of Poland. His love of freedom was intense. Capra writes: "The minions of Big Brother say there is no God, there is no truth, there is no freedom … but as a filmmaker I will champion the little man's renewal of faith, and encourage his freedom."
This intense love of democracy (Capra was the son of Italian immigrants) courses through the film. Ironically, it was initially greeted with howls of protests from Washington—many believing it a blow to America's image to admit the possibility of Senate corruption. Today those fears seem indescribably ignorant.
Mr. Smith begins with the powerful Taylor political machine hitting a roadblock. One of their crooked senators has been killed, at a time when no "substitutes" are available. Their solution? Have the governor send guileless "Boy Ranger" leader Jefferson Smith (perfectly cast Jimmy Stewart) to Washington in his place.
At first Smith's only friend is fellow Senator Joseph Paine, as his idealism prompts scorn from both capitol beat writers and his fed-up-with-politics secretary Saunders. Gradually he wins them over. But then Smith meets Big Boss Jim Taylor, and when he refuses to accept Taylor's graft, he is framed and broken on the Senate floor—by none other than his hero, Senator Paine himself.
Two facets of Mr. Smith are unforgettable. The first is Capra's depiction of corruption—made all the more effective (and sinister) for its understatement. As the Taylor machine operates, we see the false camaraderie, the "Joes" and the "Jims," the bluff comradeship that belies the speed with which each member of the group would grind the other underfoot if necessary. One is reminded of C. S. Lewis' depiction of hell in The Screwtape Letters, and Capra's take on the quietly descending blanket of corruption (in a brilliant scene with Claude Rains as Senator Paine) reminds us how easy it is to get there: "the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts …"
The other is Stewart's electrifying performance in the movie's climax, a desperate attempt to out the Taylor machine through a Senatorial filibuster. As the camera moves in, we see Smith in a scene reminiscent of the Crucifixion—literally shaking with pain and weariness, he is affixed and alone, his hair wet with sweat as it hangs lankly over his face.
Days earlier he was the favorite of laughing crowds, and hailed as the people's champion. Now those same crowds have abandoned him and he hears only jeers—an object of scorn from the "decent" men he is trying to defend. Seemingly defeated as the film draws to a close, he slowly raises his head and speaks. His life seems spent and his voice is a whisper. The same rasping whisper, perhaps, that issued from the cross?
Capra makes the analogy complete by having his protagonist swoon at the end. While Mr. Smith does succeed (his conscience finally awakened by Smith's collapse, Paine attempts suicide while shouting "it's true, it's all true") he does not share in the victory, at least onscreen … the only Capra protagonist to end in such a fashion.
A fine human being
Long recognized as one of the masters of American cinema, Frank Capra was a skilled technician and a gifted writer, a natural conciliator on the set and a brilliant director whose gift of controlled concentration when bringing a film together was unsurpassed.
His greatest attributes, however, were personal. Actors, stagemen, film crews—even fellow directors—felt remarkable affection for him, often speaking of his patience, sense of humor and kindness. One storyboard artist said that she "never worked with a finer human being, in or out of the business." This testimony was echoed by very nearly every person ever to work with Capra in over 40 years of moviemaking.
And his vision of loving God and loving one's neighbor, his desire to encourage us all to take a breath—resist the darkness—and do the same, instilled hope and courage in American hearts during the darkest of days. It does so still today. Watch a Frank Capra movie, and find out for yourself.
Frank Smith is a writer who lives with his wife and two children in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Filmmakers of Faith
, an occasional feature at Christianity Today Movies, highlights directors who adhere to the Christian faith—sometimes strongly, sometimes loosely, and sometimes somewhere in between. This series will include everyone from biblically-minded evangelicals to directors who may only have a "church background" and perhaps a lapsed faith … but their films are clearly informed by their spiritual history.
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