Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

The topic of Capra -- corn

Cleveland Press July 2, 1971

There was, back in the '30's, Hollywood corn and there also was a special strain known as Capra-corn. Critics coined the term scornfully; Frank Capra repeats it with impish delight in his autobiography -- and great book -- FRANK CAPRA: THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE (Macmillan, $12 50. 513 pages).

What's your pleasure? Movie history? Hollywood gossip? A tale of rags to riches? Personal drama?

Frank Capra's movies were ordinary pictures made special by the Capra touch. So is his life story and Capra is virtually another Capra hero like those fellows in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It's Wonderful Life."

THESE WERE LITTLE guys with big ideals and little else and when almost defeated by the system they reached down into a store of innate goodness and triumphed.

Corn? Sure. Capra-corn.

The kind of corn that touched "Lost Horizon" and "It Happened One Night' and "You Can't Take It With You."

With "Deeds" and "Smith" Capra became dedicated to realism and social issues and if they still came out as Capra comedies, so much the better. It was entertainment he was making and you got the message as a by-product.

CAPRA'S OWN STORY outdoes Horatio Alger. Born in Sicily he came here at six with his penniless parents, his sister and brother. They were all illiterate and they all went to work, except for little Frank who was allowed to go to elementary school and sell newspapers.

Out of the Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles Capra fought his way, going to Cal Tech while he held down three jobs, graduating as one of the top three in his class only to find that no one needed chemical engineers, stumbling into movies with 12 cents in his pocket and more brashness than brains.

First he was a gag writer for Max Sennett. then writer and director for Harry Langdon, and then director at Columbia Pictures, a poverty row studio that made pictures quickly and cheaply.

TODAY THEY TALK about movies as a director's a medium. Capra fought way back then, and succeeded, for his "one man-one- film concept" with the director in complete control and this was in the days of big studio mass production. He fought and won -- and so was the first to have his name above the title.

There were disappointments, personal tragedies, setbacks. He learned the hard way, made mistakes. Capra emerges as a proud man with a strong strain of humility, a man who felt that his talent was a gift of God but something he had to make work.

At the height of his career came World War II and as a Signal Corps officer he revolutionized the documentary film with "Why We Fight Series." Fighting off studio big shots and temperamental stars was nothing compared to government bureaucracy.

NEEDING OLD newsreel film he practically had to steal it before other Signal Corps brass could confiscate and classify it so that he couldn't use it. What a reporter he would have made!

Capra didn't always win. He found a changed Hollywood where directors were no longer in charge, where stars called the creative shots and where anything goes.

Some of his defeats were humiliating. Some of them he blames himself for.

But even then the story is not downbeat for Capra was and still is an upbeat kind of guy.

HIS BOOK IS MORE than his own story, more than movie history. He comments well and knowledgeably about many things.

On comedy: "Comedy may be many things to many people. But one thing it is not to anybody; it is not a tragic ending."

Sex: "Sex is mental, elusive, mysterious. It is a chemistry of desire of one sex for the other. Whistle girls are not necessarily sexy. Men whistle at girls to show off their own libidos. When they are really hooked they don't whistle. They suffer."

HE POINTS OUT that while "It Happened One Night" has been described as a sexy film that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert never even touched hands.

"Desire is the key, not fulfillment. The chase, not the catch."

On technique: "Another distinguishing mark of top directors is the absence of obvious camera moves. Undisguised camera tricks are the mark of beginners who fall in love with bizarre camera angles and hand-held moving camera shots. Wrong. Fall in love with your actors."

"The giants are mostly gone," he concludes. "The Marquis de Sade took over in the '60's."

He laments the "creep-hero stuff; glorification of the "minus" people or apologies for the 'brute' people. Gone are the power of morality, of courage, of beauty, of the great love story."

But he sees the '70's as a dawning and a promise of a better future.

More Capra-corn?