Excerpted from Robert Sklar's Movie-Made America: A Social History of the American Movies, copyright 1975, Random House/New York
Scanned and tagged by Mary Halnon for American Studies at the University of Virginia, 1997
In the late 1930s, public discussion about Hollywood changed. Clergymen in backwater towns could still raise a crowd by railing against sin on the silver screen, and judges and reformers here and there continued to maintain that movies led impressionable youth to crime. Among academics and in literary circles, however, and in the principal newspapers and magazines, the moviemakers were regarded with considerably more respect, awe and even envy, as the possessors of the power to create the nation's myths and dreams.
"Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room," Scott Fitzgerald wrote, describing a producer's projection room in The Last Tycoon, "suffered analysis, passed--to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded.''(1) This evocative image and its counterparts in other fiction and social science of the period were not simply imaginative or analytical efforts to grasp the nature of the Hollywood phenomenon. They were observations on the possession and use of cultural power. Whether they wrote in indignation or scholarly detachment, these writers were explicitly or implicitly acknowledging that movies had taken over cultural functions they themselves had exercised, or aspired to, in the past.
In traditional American society the task of describing the world and communicating that vision to its members had belonged, with different emphasis at different times, to the clergy, political statesmen, educators, businessmen, essayists, poets and novelists. There had never been a totally uniform cultural expression in the United States, there had always been schisms and struggles, alternatives and counterviews, but in general the combatants had come from similar ethnic and class backgrounds and had utilized the same means--the written and spoken word. Now for the first time power to influence the culture had been grasped by a group of men whose origins and whose means were different.
This is the principal reason why the message of the movie image was described as myth or dream. In ordinary language, myths and dreams are falsehoods--fantasies, fictions, imaginary tales. In the strict sense, this was a political choice of words. It implied that other forms of cultural communications spoke more truly about human experience than the movies.
What was different about the movies in the 1930s was not that they were beginning to communicate myths and dreams--they had done that from the beginning --but that the moviemakers were aware in a more sophisticated way of their mythmaking powers, responsibilities and opportunities. Among intellectuals and in centers of political power, the importance of cultural myths to social stability was a seriously debated topic. The Depression had shaken some of the oldest and strongest of American cultural myths, particularly the middle-class homilies about the virtues of deferred gratification and the assurance that hard work and perseverance would bring success.
This loss of cultural certitudes had created a mood of shame and self- reproach in American society, as the historian Warren Susman has pointed out, and a sense of foreboding about the future. With the rise of Nazi Germany and the aggressive challenge to democratic ideals, the widespread doubt about traditional American myths threatened to become a dangerous political weakness. In politics, industry and the media there were men and women, as often of liberal as of conservative persuasion, who saw the necessity, almost as a patriotic duty, to revitalize and refashion a cultural mythology.
The high priority the nation's leaders placed on recementing the foundations of public morale was not lost on those producers and directors whose goal was enhanced prestige, respectability and cultural power. Moreover, they were quickly gaining considerable skill at communicating their messages with subtle nuances beneath the surface of overt content. More and more effort in motion-picture production was given over to the service of cultural mythmaking.
A generation later in time, uncounted generations later in consciousness, it is almost impossible to recapture the sense of discovery, wonder and loss which writers like Fitzgerald felt when they observed the Hollywood dream machine. Their concern was not simply that movie producers had usurped their ability to command the attention and allegiance of a larger public. A deeper; more impersonal cultural issue was at stake.
The media of written and spoken words had been various enough, flexible enough, inexpensive enough to accommodate critics and naysayers. Men and women who wanted to expose the dreams and myths of cultural elites--to pull away the veil of mystification that made it seem as if the parochial values of the American middle class were universal fact--had been able to make themselves heard. Behind such works as Fitzgerald's portrait of a doomed producer was the foreboding that Hollywood moviemaking was too costly, too single-minded in its quest for profits and therefore too narrowly conceived, to permit deviation from familiar cultural norms.
Even satirical movies like the screwball comedies, or socially aware films like The Grapes of Wrath, were carefully constructed to stay within the bounds of essential American cultural and political myths. It was feared, with considerable justification, that whatever challenge movies presented to the more straightlaced traditional norms, Hollywood's contribution to American culture was essentially one of affirmation.
Such perspectives seem a little naive and old-fashioned today. After living a quarter century with television, witnessing the rise and fall of the prophet McLuhan and experiencing annual revolutions in media technology, One is all too likely to assume a superior knowledge of media power and an immunity from its effects, without quite comprehending the process of media influence. The youth culture of the 1960s exhibited the tragicomic contradiction of proclaiming its liberation from the bourgeois culture of its parents while at the same time uncritically embracing the bourgeois myths of movies past and present--an up-to-date version of the old middle-class American desire to have it both ways.
The fact is that the careful analysis of movie dreams and myths has barely begun. As the French critic Roland Barthes said of mass-culture messages, or as he called them, "collective representations," the task now is 'to go further than the pious show of unmasking them and account in detail[his italics] for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature."(2) This new stage of discovery properly begins with Hollywood movies in the golden ages of the 1930s, the first fully conscious era of cultural mythmaking; and it requires not a sweeping overview but a close-up look at significant examples of the dream creators' art.
No Hollywood filmmakers of the 1930s were more consistent or coherent in their efforts at cultural mythmaking than two men whose careers offer striking similarities--the producer of animated cartoons, Walt Disney, and the director of comedy and drama, Frank Capra. Though their work hardly exhausts the variety of movie dreams in the Depression era or the subtlety of relationships between movies and cultural norms, it does offer a clearly marked path along the major lines of development during the decade. In an exploration of Hollywood's myths and dreams in the 1930s their movies serve almost as touchstones by which to compare the elaborations of others, and therefore as the essential place to begin.
Almost alone among moviemakers of the period, Disney and Capra shared the acclaim of all three significant audiences for movies: the ticket-buying public, the critics and commentators on films, and their Hollywood co-workers. Disney won every Academy award for cartoon shorts from 1932 to 1939; his first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), was voted the best picture of 1938 by critics in the Film Daily poll. In the same span of years Capra was awarded the Oscar as best director three times, while no other director was honored more than once. It Happened One Night was named the best movie of 1934 by the Academy, and You Can't Take It With You won again for him in 1938.
Not since Chaplin's early comedy shorts had any filmmaker succeeded so completely in capturing both a popular and a highbrow audience. Capra and Disney each possessed the knack of providing mass entertainment in which intellectuals could find both pleasure and significance They managed, as did no other of their peers--again, Chaplin excepted although Chaplin made only three films during the entire decade--to create comic images of heroes cast in a popular mold who could embody a full range of fantasies and nightmares, who were so likable precisely because they could be simultaneously loved and ridiculed.
Another aspect of their work that set them apart was their independence. Disney, a producer with his own studio, retained sole control over his films; Capra attained such commercial success and prestige as a director that he gained the power, after long struggle, to pick his own projects at Columbia and oversee every element of film production he even demanded and won the fight to have his name appear above the title of his pictures.
Both men were closely attuned to shifts in public tastes and cultural moods, and their independence gave them an opportunity to take full advantage of their audience sense. Their individual developments remarkably reflected--may, indeed, have prefigured--the basic transformations in Hollywood's relation to American culture in the 1930s. Disney's animations, particularly his short cartoons, which will be the focus here, and Capra's comedies and dramas demonstrated the way movie myths and dreams changed from the first years of the decade to the end.
Disney and his fellow animators were heirs to Melies, trick photography, Chaplin's pre-World War I comedy shorts and the tradition of magical metamorphoses in movies. They faced, however, a different challenge and a different opportunity than did filmmakers who worked with human subjects: the very premise of their art was fantasy. They could draw worlds different from any experienced world, lead audiences into uncharted realms as far as imagination or daring could carry them. Blank paper gave them a chance to reinvent the world.
There are scant signs among the few surviving films of the silent period that animators were able to grasp the power in their pens. A 1924 Felix the Cat, drawn by Pat Sullivan, in the Museum of Modern Art collection shows a considerable gift for magical transformation: needing a way to get to the Yukon, Felix buys hot dogs in a butcher shop and attaches them to a sled; needing to see a distant object, he takes off his tail and uses it for a telescope. Animators who later became famous in the sound era mixed photographed live action with their drawings during the 19205. Max and Dave Fleischer, creators of Bettv Boop and Popeye the Sailorman, in silent days produced the Out of the Inkwell series, putting boundaries on fantasy by its very title. In a charming film from the series, Modelling ( 1921), the animators appear in the film along - with their cartoon character, Koko the Clown. The youthful Disney also limited the fantasy in the title of his series, Alice in Cartoonland, in which a teen-age girl encounters drawn characters. In both cases the photographed segments indicated that human life took precedence over the animated world--it brought fantasy into being and then put it away out of reach, back in the inkwell.
What was so astonishing about the Mickey Mouse films Disney began to make in 1928 was how completely they formed a world of their own. It was Disney's brilliant use of sound that immediately caught the public's attention and catapulted him to success and leadership in the animation field: the first Mickey Mouse release, Steamboat Willie ( (1928), came at a critical moment in the industry's transition from silence to sound, and Disney's bold inventiveness with integrated visual and sound effects gave animated shorts a popularity and aesthetic significance they had never had before. But his triumph with sound should not obscure the rich and complex pictorial world thus made audible.
Disney's interpreters invariably described the early Mickey Mouse films, and the Silly Symphony series that followed in 1929, as crude--in drawing, story and the behavior of their characters. The basic thrust of such criticism is technical: as the years went by, Disney and his animators became increasingly proficient, elaborating their drawings, adding color (again, as with sound, ingeniously integrated with the drawings and story and perfected well in advance of the larger studios), and even producing the effects of three-dimensional depth through another technical achievement, the multiplane camera.
This argument from technical growth describes a clear-cut process of advancement: when the mouse series was inaugurated, Disney was capable only of primitive and simple animation, but he and his staff swiftly got better and better--more sophisticated and more complex. To say that later is better than earlier, however, is to ignore a more fundamental kind of change. In the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony films, Disney and his animators created one kind of fantasy world. Then they gave it up, putting in its place not a fantasy but an idealized world. A preference for the later over the earlier cartoon shorts should be recognized as an aesthetic and cultural as well as a technological judgment.
In his classic anthropological work, The Savage Mind, Claude Levi- Strauss attacks the common notion that modern civilization is necessarily higher, or better, than "savage" societies. Modern life is not a sophisticated version of a simple life; it is an altogether different life, based on an entirely separate understanding of the world. Indeed, according to Levi- Strauss, "savage'' peoples with their highly elaborated knowledge of terrain, flora, fauna, kinship and ritual, may live a more complex life than we do. Somewhat the same distinction applies to Disney's cartoons. The two worlds, the fantasy of the early period and the idealization of the late, stand in direct contrast to each other, and both possess their separate kinds of sophistication and complexity.
The early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons are magical. Freed from the burdens of time and responsibility, events are Open ended, reversible, episodic, without obvious point. Outlandish events occur without fear of consequence. There is no fixed order of things the world is plastic to imagination and will. Yet its pliant nature also renders it immune to fundamental change. Almost presciently, this comic fantasy world portrays the cultural mood, the exhilirating, initially liberating, then finally frightening disorder of the early Depression years.
Around 1932 the Disney cartoons began to change; by 1933 a whole new world view had emerged. The later cartoons are tales, many of them moral tales. They rejoin the straight and narrow path of time They have beginnings and endings, and everything that happens in between has consequences. The world has rules, and you'd better learn them or watch out. Don't be too imaginative, don't be too inquisitive don't be too willful, or you'll get into trouble--though there's always time to learn your lesson and come out all right. This idealized world was a full year or two ahead of feature films--perhaps because the features took longer to plan, produce and market--in expressing the spirit of social purpose, the re-enforcing of old values, in the culture of the later 1930s.
Mickey Mouse survived in both these worlds. He personified each in turn, though not without some major changes. Like no other twentieth- century motion-picture character except Chaplin (on whom some say the mouse was modeled), Mickey possessed the world's imagination. He, too, was a creature of many masks, expressing what we all like to think are the best traits of our humanity: sweet sentiment, unfeigned pleasure, saucy impudence. Mickey was all heart, but in the beginning he did not wear it on his sleeve.
At first he was very much a rodent. His limbs were thinner and his features smaller than the later, anthropomorphic version. In Plane Crazy (his first film, made as a silent, then released with sound after Steamboat Willie) he went barefoot and barehanded, but by Steamboat Willie he wore shoes and soon acquired white four-fingered gloves. He was unselfconscious and egocentric, wearing the same confident, self-satisfied grin Edward G. Robinson was to flash a couple of years later as the immigrant gangster Rico in Little Caesar. Unlike Rico, however, Mickey had no end. Success eroded him in other ways. "Mickey's our problem child," Disney said later. "He's so much of an institution that were limited in what we can do with him."(3) He became respectable, bland, gentle, responsible, moral. Donald Duck was added to the Disney cast to provide the old vinegar and bile.
The first four Mickey shorts were made in 1928. The next year the Disney studio produced sixteen cartoons, including a handful of silly Symphony films. Thereafter they completed a cartoon short about once every three weeks--a total of 198 from Steamboat Willie to the end of 1939. About half were in the Mickey series, the other half in the Silly Symphony series, the name for all the shorts without the mouse.
In Plane Crazy, Mickey is an inventive, willful aviator, a barnyard Lindbergh He builds his craft from any material at hand, live or inanimate; to provide power for the plane he twists a dachshund like a rubber band, and for its tail he plucks a turkey feather. Once constructed, the airplane also becomes a living thing, as must the objects in its determined path: a church steeple folds itself down to avoid being hit.
It turns out that Mickey's goal is not fame or heroic achievement, it's lechery. He has built the plane to impress his girl friend, Minnie, and get her up in the air where she won't be able to run away from his advances. Instead of submitting, however, she jumps from the plane, pulls a cord on her bloomers, and they billow out to float her safely down.
The public first saw Mickey and Minnie in Steamboat Willie, in which the brilliant fusion of music with visual images adds immeasurably to the magic possibilities of plastic forms. A goat eats up Minnie's sheet music. She swiftly twists its tail into a crank, turns it, and the notes come pouring out of the goat's mouth as "Turkey in the Straw" (a scene reminiscent of Chaplin in The Tramp pumping a cow's tail and filling his pail with milk). Mickey also made music by playing animals for different sounds--he got melody from, among others, the tails of suckling piglets and then from the teats of the sow.
Disney's early films had their share of raunchy scenes and outhouse humor. Some official responses, however, were even more ludicrous. Ohio was reported to have banned a cartoon showing a cow reading Elinor Glyn's novel of adultery, Three Weeks--perhaps because the Buckeye State thought it safe to drink milk only from monogamous cows. Then the Hays Office ordered Disney to take the udders off his cows: thereafter, no matter what they read, their milk at least would not harm anyone.
A taste for the macabre was another strong element in Disney's style, and in early 1929 he launched the Silly Symphony series to express the grisly humor that was out of place in Mickey's sunny world. The first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance, depicted a nighttime outing of skeletons in a graveyard, dancing and cavorting to music. One skeleton makes music on another, like a xylophone. Hell's Bells (also 1929) was even more grotesque: it takes place in hell, whose inhabitants include a three-headed dog and a dragon cow that gives the devil fiery milk (even Hades has its barnyard aspects).
Disney and his animators knew the value of shock and titillation before the feature producers, and though he often borrowed ideas from popular features, it is as likely that his cartoons fertilized the imaginations of other filmmakers in the early Depression years. In a 1930 Mickey Mouse comedy, Tragic Troubles, Mickey and Minnie crash into a truck loaded with chickens and end up covered with feathers, clucking and crowing--a comic fate Tod Browning transmuted into horror for Olga Baclanova two years later in Freaks. It would be easy to claim too much for these cartoons, yet their immediate and steadfast popularity makes them of prime interest. In the long-standing style of American humor their extravagance, exaggeration and grotesque imagination serve as mythic constructs of their society. Moreover, as animations they stand at an even further remove from the requirements of verisimilitude. Their fantasy nature frees the viewer's mind from normal expectations of what the world is like, and the simplicity of the drawings, far from signaling stylistic crudity, is a necessary aspect of opening up the imagination. (Disney's press agents later coined the term "imagineering," which is an accurate description of what the later cartoons do--structure all effects so there is no room for the viewer's imagination to operate.)
The early fantasy cartoons are deeply committed to the old American tradition of individual initiative and enterprise. Yet the extreme of their fantastic possibilities, the ease and plenitude of their magical metamorphoses, puts the viewer at a distance from the usual motifs of individualism--hard work, self-denial, upward striving--and throws some of its deeper meanings into hold relief. In the real world, people do indeed turn themselves into instruments and machines to pursue their goals; and machines do in fact take on a life of their own, directing and dominating their supposed masters, taking them places they did not want to go. In a profound way these fantasies do not create myths so much as expose them.
The first signs of the dissolution of the fantasy style came with the increased tempo of violence in Disney's cartoons. By 1932, even in such superbly inventive films as Touchdown Mickey and Building a Building, the fantasy elements have been almost completely replaced by a spirit of physical and material violence. Pain and injury cause no permanent damage, but that is no longer magical, it is merely a convention.
At the same time, the emotional range of the characters and plots begins to expand. There are more joys and sorrows, pleasures and terrors, but they are cast in a sentimental formula mold. Creatures become more anthropomorphic and less versatile. These changes are prominently exhibited in the first Technicolor cartoon short, Flowers and Trees ( 1932), about a villainous old tree who tries to stop a romance between a boy tree and a girl tree, which won Disnev his first Academv award. Mickey Mouse, too, begins to succumb to the pattern of conventional melodrama, heroes and villains and happy endings, in such films as The Mail Pilot (1933) which ends with a clinch between Mickey and Minnie, instead of the old Chaplinesque impermanence of relations (though it should be said that Chaplin's endings in his silent features, like The Kid and The Gold Rush, had become more sentimental, too).
Disney's most popular and influential cartoon short, Three Little Pigs, came at the climax of his stylistic transition and unites essential aspects of the old and new. It was drawn in the new style of full-color idealization and it told a familiar moral tale, but by an uncanny prescience Disney picked a story that was open-ended, that left the individual imagination free to decide what it all meant.
Three Little Pigs was released in May 1933, in the midst of Roosevelt s "hundred days" campaign of legislation to combat the Depression and raise public morale. Its upbeat theme song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?," became a nationwide hit, and Disney could not supply enough prints of the film to meet popular demand. Richard Schickel, in The Disney Version, argues that Disney's retelling of the fairy tale of the home-building pigs and the hungry wolf had a basically conservative point, in keeping with the producer's conservative political allegiance: the pig who exhibits old-fashioned virtues, hard work, self-reliance, self- denial, is the successful one. It's just as plausible, however, that the most effective pig is the one who does not minimize the fact of crisis and builds with modern material and tools. No doubt there were some contemporary viewers who, like Schickel, saw the film as a paean to Herbert Hoover, but the film's extraordinary popularity appears to have stemmed, whatever Disney's intentions, from its apparent expression of the confident, purposeful spirit of the early New Deal.
Three Little Pigs was among the last of Disney's cartoons open to multiple interpretation. Thereafter there was no mistaking the films' moral messages. In Lullaby Land, made later in 1933, a baby with his toy dog wanders in a dream through a world where nature has been transformed into inanimate household objects. He enters a "Forbidden Garden" filled with plants and trees made of knives, clippers, scissors, pens, hammers, razors, matches and pins. "Baby mustn't touch," watches growing on a tree sing out, "they'll hurt you very much." He gets burned by matches and chased by bogeymen before the sandman rescues him.
This is a message of survival, not by old-fashioned initiative and self- reliance, but by sticking to society's rules, a very different kind of conservatism. The hare in The Tortoise and the Hare ( 1934) is the clever, ambitious one--the preening male who can run so fast that he can pitch a ball and bat it himself, shoot an arrow and be waiting for it like William Tell's son with an apple on his head--and we all know who won the race. The mouse who wanted to fly in The Flying Mouse (1934) also learns the hard way: he frightens off the birds he wants to play with and scares his own family by the shadow of his wings, but he doesn't fool the evil bats, who sing, "You're nothin' but a nothin'." The good fairy who gave him his wings rescues him with the admonition: ""You've learned your lesson. Do your best. Be yourself. And life will smile on you. "
Even Mickey is recruited to the new morality. In Pluto's Judgment Day (1935) he's so anthropomorphic that he's an owner of domesticated animals. He rebukes Pluto for chasing the cat, and the dog settles into a troubled sleep near the fire, dreaming of punishment in hell for his misdeeds. The underworld scenes have interesting affinities with Hell's Bells (1929) that illuminate the transformation of Disney's style. In the earlier film they are a fantasy, in the later, a dream, carefully bounded by waking reality: they are not magic, not out of time, they are part of Pluto's imagination, not accessible to the viewer's.
No account of Disney's later 1930s cartoon shorts would be complete without paying tribute to their remarkable feats of sound, color and animation, their sustained inventiveness, their frequent brilliance of de- sign and conception. Such films as The Band Concert, Music Land (both 1935) and The Old Mill (1937) are tours de force of tight construction, pace and the steady building of effects to a spectacular and satisfying climax. But one should not lose sight of what their style signifies; there is one right way to imagine (as elsewhere there is one right way to behave). The borders to fantasy are closed now. The time has come to lay aside one's own imagination, and together all shall dream Walt Disney's dreams.
There is not quite so dramatic a shift in the style and message of Frank Capra's movies during the 1930s, yet in mid-decade the comedy director basically reoriented his work in remarkably similar wavs. His early films of the Depression era were fantasies of social relationships, his later movies idealizations. The mythic structure of the earlier films encouraged viewers to exercise their imaginations, though it constructed a world they could never enter. The later movies provided an integrated prepackaged network of myths and dreams and invited viewers to join in.
When Disney was having distribution difficulties in 1930 it was Capra who persuaded Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, to take over the distribution of cartoon shorts; though the arrangement lasted only two years, it assured Disney of independent control over his own production and set him on the road to financial success. Considering how different their origins were, surprising affinities existed between Capra, a Sicilian-born Catholic, and Disney, a Kansas Congregationalist. They both knew the rural and small-town heartland of America. Their comic talents veered toward sentimentality and they were imbued with social purpose: a desire to revitalize the nation's old communal myths. Capra had got his schooling in American folkways when he spent three years after 'World War I roaming through the Western states, making a living, among other things, as a door-to-door salesman and cardsharp. (He had immigrated with his family to Los Angeles at the age of six, earned an engineering degree at Cal Tech, and served in the Army during the war.) He started out in Hollywood writing comedy shorts for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. When the comedian Harry Langdon left Sennett ,he took Capra with him to direct his independent productions.
Capra succeeded too well: the features he directed for Langdon-- Tramp, Tromp, Trains, The Strong Man (both 1926) and Long Pants (1927)--propelled the baby-faced comedian into the forefront of film comedy with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and Langdon thereupon fired him, resenting the Hollywood gossip that Capra was principally responsible for his success. Thereafter Langdon swiftly faded from prominence.
Meanwhile Capra began a comeback at Columbia, a marginal, Poverty Row independent studio, where his popular, profitable films helped keep tile studio solvent through the Depression and enhanced its reputation as it rose to become a major producing company.
At Columbia, Capra started out as a jack-of-all-trades, making military spectacles, drawing-roon1 melodramas and romances as well as comedies --fifteen pictures in his first four years with the company. He re-established his comic metier when he began, in 1931, to collaborate with Robert Riskin, a New York playwright scooped up in the Hollywood dragnet for screen writers after the coming of sound. Capra and Riskin first worked together on Platinum Blonde, and thereafter Riskin wrote scripts for eight of the director's eleven films over the next decade.
Neither the screen writer nor the comedy genre was essential, however, to Capra's fantasy style. Fantasy, as the word is used here, is meant to apply not only to supernatural illusions (flying nuns or Clarence the Apprentice Angel in Capra's 1946 film,It's a Wonderful Life) but to formula constructions in popular entertainment, a way of depicting the issues and conflicts of human relations so that everything comes out all right in the end--a way of pleasing audiences with glimpses of the forbidden or impossible without upsetting conventional values or beliefs: in short, the finely honed mass-media skill of having it both ways.
Capra presented a remarkable example of it in The Bitter Tea of General Yen(1933). Its subject was miscegenation, sexual relations between an Oriental man and a Caucasian woman. An extremely well made package, the film achieved the basic Hollywood goal of satisfaction without transgression. The very idea that a white woman might be interested in an Asian man, however, was enough to make Great Britain ban The Bitter Tea both in the United Kingdom and in the empire.
In the film Barbara Stanwyck is an American missionary, Megan Davis, in China during the civil war in the early ogres. She is rescued from a riot and carried away to the estate of warlord General Yen (played by a Swede, Nils Asther). Her racist superiority conflicts with her Christian principle that "we're all of one flesh and blood." His refinement and sensuality conflict with his brutal military leadership. They are drawn to each other, Yen willfully ("I am going to convert a missionary"), Megan in spite of herself: sleeping in a sumptuous Oriental bedroom, she dreams of sex with Yen.
In the end each comes over to the other's point of view, but the film demonstrates how impossible this is. His lust turned to love, Yen succumbs to her morality, suffers military defeat and then prefers death to violating her virgin purity. As he prepares his poisoned tea he doesn't know she has fallen in love with him. She enters his room as he fades into death and says to him, weeping, "I'll never leave you." The film offers a fantasy of interracial sex without the consummation; it proclaims the superiority of Western morals--Yen accepts death as a punishment for his evil designs on a white woman, and she, having avoided her transgression but realizing its moral implications, promises posthumous faithfulness. It's nice to dream of interracial sex, the film says, but you better not try it.
Following The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Capra made his two most successful fantasy comedies, Lady for a Day (1933) and It Happened One Night (1934). These two films, particularly the latter, have mistakenlv been described as "screwball" comedies, and it is useful to distinguish Capra's fantasy world from the wacky style that became prevalent several years later. In screwball comedies the screwballs are the rich: sometimes they enlist the less well-to-do (as in Easy Living or My Man Godfrey, where the poor man is actually a rich man in disguise), and sometimes they inspire common folk to beat them at their own game (as in Midnight). In Capra's comic fantasies, imagination comes from below and requires recognition and participation by the rich or powerful to make one's dreams come true.
It Happened 0ne Night is the classic motion-picture expression of an important sub-genre in American popular entertainment--the genteel comedy-romance. The formula begins with a bored, headstrong rich girl looking for adventure and mixes in an imaginative, aspiring poor man. Fate throws them together. She finds she's in adventure over her head, but the young man's cleverness saves her. He is entranced by her will, she by his imagination, and before you know it they've fallen in love. It's a fantasy of upward social mobility and romantic love, a comedy of submission and reward. The rich girl gives up her freedom for the hero, the poor boy weds his vitality and vision to the dominant social class.
Capra and Riskin made their version of this formula fresh and distinctive by taking it out of the narrow social setting of the rich and endowing it with commonplace scenes of everyday life. The rich girl, Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, dives off her father's yacht along the Florida Gulf Coast and takes a night bus to New York, where she plaits to elope with a rich aviator. On the bus she encounters Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a newspaper reporter just dismissed from his job; his discovers her identity and figures he can get his job back by writing an exclusive story on her escapade. But first he has to protect her from her father's detectives. Their common pleasures and their masquerades-- singing "The Daring Young Alan on the Flying Trapeze" with their fellow bus passengers; posing as a sparring married couple in a motor Court; trying to hitch a ride--demonstrate Capra's extraordinary inventiveness at creating warm incisive humor out of simple moments.
The brilliant complication of It Happened One Night is that the two have fallen in love and neither knows the other's feeling. Naturally, misunderstandings occur and they separate, he to his job, she to marry her aviator. It takes the kind and knowing heart of a rich man, her father, to bring them together again. The final fantasy touch is for Ellie's father, as they walk to the altar at her sumptuous outdoor wedding, to whisper that Warne is waiting for her in a car. Instead of saying "I do," she runs across the lawn to go off with the man who had kept her, as she said, "thoroughly entertained."
"Say, look, you believe in fairy tales, don't you?" gangster Dave the Dude says to the governor and mayor of New York in Lady for a Day (based on the Damon Runyon story "Madame La Gimp"), inviting them to help him carry out a masquerade for the apple-seller Annie and marry off her daughter to a Spanish nobleman. Of course they do, and once again people in power and authority make the fairy-tale ending come true. These interventions are magical in a sense quite similar to Disney's early cartoons: one believes them in the context of the image on the screen, one is stimulated and satisfied by all that transpires, yet in the end it is fantasy pure and simple. Eventually Capra, like Disney, wanted to attain more socially purposeful effects.
Capra tells his own fantasy of the intervention that brought about his change: a bald man wearing thick glasses came to his house when he lay ill and rebuked him for not using his creative talents more to God's and humanity's purposes. That presumably was the turning point that led him to make five social-message films in the next half-dozen years: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You ( 1938),Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ( 1939) and Meet John Doe (1941).
Capra was not alone in continuing to make films on contemporary social themes when other filmmakers increasingly turned to genre or historical subjects. But the tendency of Hollywood's social films in the late 1930s was to focus on narrow "problems" or aberrant behavior: slum conditions, as in William Wyler's Dead End (1937); the lynch mob, as in Fritz Lang's Fury (1936); the plight of the ax-convict, in Lang's You Only Live Once (1937). Capra was the only Hollywood director who tried to construct a large-scale model of American society in his films.
When he shifted from fantasy to an idealized version of social relations, Capra did not need to alter his approach radically; instead he rearranged and re-emphasized the elements of his earlier style. The imaginative hero remained central to his formula, though he became more folksy and bucolic--Gary Cooper playing Longfellow Deeds and Long John Willoughby (John Doe), James Stewart as Jefferson Smith--rather than a sharp-tongued reporter like Clark Gable's Peter Warne or Robert Williams' Stew Smith in Platinum Blonde. The role of the press and publicity continued to be important, and authority figures continued to take a significant part in validating the fairy tale: judges in Mr. Deeds and You Can't Take It With You,, the Vice-President of the United States in Mr. Smith. The major changes concerned the wealthy: rich young women became unsuitable for the hero, and the power of wealthy men, sinister rather than benign, a subject for redemption, or failing that, opposition.
In the heart of the hero the rich girl's place is taken by a working woman; instead of wealth and power giving aid to the hero's dreams, it's "the people" who rally behind him. Capra's social myth requires the recognition and participation of common people to make it come true; it's a myth in which audiences are assured they, too, have a part to play.
These later films have often been attacked for their "Populist" ideology --for sentimentality, demagoguery, anti-intellectualism, a belief in tyranny of the majority; for idealizing small-town and "middle" Americans who think they can do no wrong because their motives are pure and who hate lawyers, bankers, artists, intellectuals and urbanites. In any precise sense of the word Populist, this is clearly a misnomer. Capra's social myth, it's true, required turning back the clock to an imagined past social stability founded upon an image of the American small town, with comfortable homes, close-knit families, friendly neighbors--a modest but prosperous community with bountiful farms and a benign wilderness nearby. Unlike actual Populists in the American past, he was not making a critique of the American social and economic system, did not even want a redistribution of wealth and power. He simply wanted more neighborly and responsible people to be at the top of the social and economic hierarchy. It is closer to the truth to describe him as a Jeffersonian agrarian, or more simply, a pastoralist.
Capra's late 1930s films are myths about false leaders and true. The false leaders are tycoons, media barons, political bosses, kept politicians. The true leaders are idealistic, gentle young men who can articulate the pastoral dream, as in Longfellow Deeds's plan to spend his inherited millions on small plots for destitute farmers, Jefferson Smith's boys' camp in the Western outdoors, John Doe's network of clubs where people can practice Capra's social ethic, which Jefferson Smith described as "plain, ordinary, everyday kindness, a little looking out for the other fella, loving thy neighbor."
The false leaders have all the power; the true leaders have only moral right as their weapon. In each of Capra's idealized social fables, as the historian Warren Susman has pointed out, the hero must suffer through a ritual humiliation. The purpose of this abasement is to show that the hero is vulnerable and incomplete--he is a leader, but he needs help, the "people's" help, our help, to accomplish his vital task. The working girl, a reporter in Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe, a senatorial secretary in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is cynical at first, then changes her mind and comes to his aid, gaining in return her femininity and a chance to lead a full emotional life. The hard-bitten reporters also change and rally to his cause. Authority figures sense his true worth and give him strength to carry on.
Nevertheless, once Capra's heroes begin their open struggles with wealth and power, they find themselves unable to triumph by asserting their strength and invoking their alliances. The false leaders are simply too wealthy and powerful. The heroes' only hope for success lies in persuading their opponents voluntarily to join the righteous side. They attempt this by demonstrating the efficacy of their social myths and then by prodding the villains to express the humane values they have suppressed during their struggle to the top. The tactic works perfectly in You Can't Take It With You, ambiguously in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and not at all in Meet John Doe.
In You Can't Take It With You the gift of a harmonica is the symbolic act that recalls Edward Arnold, as the tycoon Kirby, to his humanity. Kirby cancels the business deal that would have destroyed the Vanderhof house and also wrecked his son's chance for love and happiness with Alice Sycamore, Martin Vanderhof's granddaughter. In the movie's happy ending the Kirbys are sharing the human warmth and recognition of the Vanderhof household.
The conclusion of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is far more equivocal. As Smith exhausts himself in an apparently futile filibuster against the crooked Taylor machine, Claude Rains, as Senator Joseph Paine, finds himself torn between his connivance with Taylor and his admiration for Smith's courageous fight in a lost cause. Paine fires a gun in the Senate cloakroom, apparently an attempted suicide, then enters the Senate to throw his support to Smith. But his change of heart does not ensure that back-room political boss and businessman Jim Taylor will change his heart, too. At the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the United States Senate erupts in pandemonium and the outcome of the struggle remains in doubt.
In Meet John Doe, Capra's last film of the prewar period, the hero is hardly imaginative in the old formula sense at all, and the villain more powerful and ambitious than ever. Long John Willoughby is merely an ex-baseball pitcher on the bum who allows himself to be put forward as a symbolic common man--the John Doe in a nation of John Does--as part of publisher D. B. Norton's scheme to gain national power. When called upon to speak to the public, he draws out of himself Capra's familiar social myths: everybody pull together, join the team, love your neighbor. Soon he begins to believe in his own words, but by that time he's powerless in the face of his past compromises and Norton's political and media control.
In his autobiography Capra describes the difficulties he and Riskin experienced in finishing Meet John Doe. He filmed four different end- ings and played them all in different theater previews. None was satisfactory. "I knew Riskin and I had written ourselves into a corner," he recalls. " We had shown the rise of two powerful, opposing movements--one good, one evil. They clashed head on--and destroyed each other! St. George fought with the dragon, slew it, and was slain. What our film said to bewildered people hungry for solutions was this, 'No answers this time, ladies and gentlemen. It's back to the drawing board.' "(4) But at last they shot a fifth ending and put it on the film.
Trapped in a situation he cannot control, remorseful about his own role, Long John Willoughby determines to fulfill the original phony John Doe promise lay jumping off a building in "protest against the state of civilization," a civilization in this case that has allowed his good im- pulses to be used falsely, has turned people against each other and against him. Capra and Riskin needed to decide--does he jump, and if not, why not? In their fifth and final ending Doe is persuaded not to jump, because their solution was to transmute the Capra hero into a modern Christ. He doesn't have to die, as the working woman who loves him says, because someone else--the first John Doe--already died in a similar cause.
The parallel between Long John Willoughby and Jesus Christ has its obvious shortcomings, but it is more of an answer than Capra is willing to admit in his autobiography. It linked the Capra hero directly to the Christian faith. Representatives of the common people confront the villain Norton atop the skyscraper from which Doe is prepared to jump, and their veneration, their need, change his mind. "There you are, Norton--the people," says the cynical reporter in the last words of the film, "try and lick that." Good and evil were not destroyed, as Capra claims, but rather had fought to a standstill, and both sides lived to fight another day.
In the process of turning John Doe into a Christ-figure, Capra transformed the myth of his American hero into a defense of Christian morality. No longer is Shangri-La, the Tibetan retreat of James Hilton's novel and Capra's 1937 movie, Lost Horizon, the sanctuary for the Christian ethic: it has become the United States. After Pearl Harbor, the struggle between good and evil moved from the realm of an internal conflict into the titanic battle of fascism versus Americanism. And what was Americanism? It was the rewards of social stability--wealth, success and the girl for the hero; fellowship, happiness and trustworthy leaders for the rest of us. It was a religious faith in a secular social myth that found its embodiment in patriotism and American democracy.
Capra made the point vividly in The Negro Soldier (1944), a film he produced for the War Department in his capacity as head of wartime film propaganda for the Armed Forces. It tells its story through the device of a worship service in a black church; while its capsule summary of black history never mentions slavery, it conveys the overwhelming impression that the black congregation gives its witness and sings its hymns in worship of America.
Earlier in the war Capra had begun production of the famous "Why We Fight" series of films explaining war aims to new soldiers and sailors. Disney, too, though not in uniform, made a large number of wartime training and civilian propaganda films. The struggle against fascism transformed his bad guy, Donald Duck, into a patriotic taxpayer in a cartoon short for the Treasury Department, Der Fuehrer's Face (1943). When General George C. Marshall assigned him the responsibility for I the "Why We Fight" films, Capra reports in his autobiography, he asked the Chief of Staff how he would know what to say. What if no one, neither the White House nor the State Department nor the Congress, could tell him why the United States took a course of action or adopted a policy? "In those cases," replied Marshall, "make your own best estimate, and see if they don't agree with you later.(5
) The government had confidence in Capra, and in Disney as well. They had demonstrated remarkable skill at infusing social myths and dreams with humor, sentiment and a sense of shared moral precepts and responsibilities. No one in Hollywood was better equipped than they to convince wartime audiences that America was worth fighting for, that there were pleasures, satisfactions and rewards in store for those who followed their leaders.
2 Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972), p.9
3 Quoted in Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films (1973), p.8
4 The Name Above the Title (1971), p.305
5 Ibid, p.336