By Alva Johnston
The Saturday Evening Post
May 14, 1938 Volume 210, Number 46
BACK in 1924, San Francisco got the idea that it might become a motion-picture center. The fogs that rolled in through the Golden Gate had previously spoiled San Francisco for the films, but in 1924 the theory was widely held that pictures of the future would be made indoors. The fogs began to figure as a talking point for San Francisco. Those health-giving fogs were so different from the morbid sunshine of Southern California. Millions would be saved in cosmetics alone. The fogs were Nature's own make-up department, producing such brilliant complexions that veneering was unnecessary.
The cause of the picture boom in San Francisco was Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse, a one-reeler based on Kipling's Ballad of Fisher's Boardinghouse. It was made by the Montague Company, a hometown organization. Produced in three weeks at a cost of $1700, it was sold for $3500. The news stirred financial circles. Here was a business in which you doubled your money in three weeks. Sober up any promoter, and he will demonstrate that, if you put $1000 into a business that doubles your money in three weeks, and you will have $4000 at the end of six weeks, $8000 at the end of nine weeks, $16,000 at the end of twelve weeks, and something over $130,000,000 at the end of a year. Even if money didn't breed as fast in reality as on paper, it would seem hard to avoid getting rich.
The boom collapsed, however, as suddenly as it started, and all because one angle had been overlooked. Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse, which earned 100 per cent in three weeks, was a good picture. The others were bad. Instead of making 100 per cent in three weeks, they lost 100 per cent in about the same space of time.
The San Francisco movie bubble had one important result. It introduced Frank Capra to the screen. Capra was at that time a tin-horn gambler and a petty financial pirate. During most of the six years since he graduated from college, he had been a house-to-house and farm-to-farm canvasser, selling coupons to housewives and mining stock to farmers. He bluffed his way into the movies in the hopes of picking up a little sucker money, and stayed there to make It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Lady for a Day, Broadway Bill, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and other well-known pictures. No director in the world stands higher than Capra. Some of his pictures are classics-that is, they have been running for five years, which is equivalent to five centuries in any other branch of the arts.
Capra was in San Francisco, playing poker for a living, when he read a news article about the plans of the newly organized Montague Film Company. He had at the time one of the blankest minds in America on the subject of movies. He had rarely seen one. Though reared in Hollywood, he had visited a studio only once, and on that occasion he had carried apparatus for a friend, a news photographer. Frank dropped in, however, at the Montague studio.
"I'm interested in what you're doing here," he said. "I happen to be from Hollywood."
Capra carried himself with the modest air of importance which a seller of wildcat stock tries to cultivate. Producer Montague, an old Shakespearean actor, was grateful for a chance to explain his plan to a man from Hollywood. He had for a long time cherished the belief that the public would like short motion pictures based on well-known poems.
"What do you think of that idea?" asked Montague.
"It's all right," said Capra.
The plan was to throw the first stanza on the screen and illustrate it dramatically; then proceed with the second stanza, and so on.
"What do you think of it?" asked Montague.
"It's all right," said Capra.
Montague said that the first poem he intended to film was Kipling's ballad of Fultah Fisher's establishment. Fultah's place was a sailor's boardinghouse. The characters included Jake-Without-the-Ears; Pamba; the Malay; carboy Gin; Hans, the blue-eyed Dane; Salem Hardieker, and Anne of Austria. The plot was a variation of the Potiphar theme. Anne of Austria was bound by the water-front code to be true for a week to Salem Hardieker, but she became infatuated with Hans, the blue-eyed Dane, before the week was up. Hans declined to violate the water-front code. Anne of Austria took revenge by inducing her man of the week to murder Hans. Kipling wrote the ballad before movies were known, but it contains strokes of good cinema. For example, one of the lines describing the fight is, "A dance of shadows on the wall."
"What do you think of it?" asked Montague.
"It's all right," said Capra.
Frank found himself in agreement with everything Montague said until the producer told how he planned to shoot the picture. He planned to rehearse his actors thoroughly and shoot the fifteen minutes of action without stopping.
"You can't do that," said Capra.
"A motion-picture camera only runs four minutes," Capra said. "Then you have to stop and put in a new film."
The head of Montague film company was staggered by this information. It was the only fact about the movies that Capra knew, but it established him as a mine of technical information. Before the conversation was over, Capra had been engaged for seventy-five dollars a week as technical adviser.
Capra wired to his friend, the Hollywood cameraman, to come at once. Any cameraman would discover that Capra was a faker; it was essential, therefore, to have a friendly cameraman.
Frank made his start in the pictures on a sound basis-he had nothing to lose. Exposure wouldn't hurt him, as he could always fall back on poker or mining stock. He had one eye continually on the exit, and was ready to walk out the moment anybody called him an impostor. His main problem was that of keeping the Montague studio free from persons who knew anything about making pictures. Montague, having a wide acquaintance in the theater, had chosen his actors for Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse. Capra felt that any actor might spot him as a fraud.
He said, "We can't use actors."
"Why not?" asked Montague.
"It's old-fashioned," said Capra. Montague was an old-timer, and there is no word in the English language that silences an old-timer like "old-fashioned."
"We don't use actors much any more," explained Capra. "We get types from real life. We pick them up on the water front and off park benches."
Montague nodded. After that he was too cowed to say anything to his technical advisor except "Yes, of course. . . . Certainly" and "Go right ahead."
Capra in the meantime had been trying to educate himself by seeing four or five pictures a day. He wrote the script for Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse at night. He and the photographer then toured the water-front dives, looking for types. In a short time they had a fine collection of scarred and gin-damaged countenances. Their best find was a one-eared sailor for the part of Jake-Without-the-Ears. But Capra was worried. He needed real actors for two or three parts. He safeguarded himself against exposure, however, by going to an old actor's home and obtaining some venerable hams who had retired before the movies had got under way. A chorus girl was cast as Anne of Austria; she was a friend of the cameraman and could be relied on.
Capra was reserved and uncommunicative, especially when technical subjects were mentioned. Financial backers of the Montague Company dropped in and tried to talk to him. They found him a brooding genius, loath to be disturbed when the creative urge was on him. Capra did not, however, have to fake an intense preoccupation with his work. He had, in fact, gone movie-mad. Starting solely with the aim of acquiring the seventy-five dollars, he had become passionately interested in the project. He couldn't sleep for excitement.
In fact, Capra's earnestness nearly spoiled everything. His intensity made people afraid of him. At the sight of him, they stiffened up as if in the presence of De Mille or Griffith. He had to counteract this by reassuming the democratic joviality which he formerly used on farmers and villagers before talking them out of money. He coaxed his actors into talking, and roared at their jokes. Even today, Capra follows the same general policy. He says a director can't make good pictures unless he can make the actors like him. Good fellowship was promoted in the making of the boardinghouse picture, by a keg of beer. Then scene was laid in Mrs. Fisher's barroom. Capra had real beer on the set, because he had not learned that fictitious beer could be used in the pictures.
There was one expert that Capra had to face. This was the laboratory man. Capra knew nothing about printing titles or cutting pictures.
He went to the expert and said, "I might as well confess that I don't know a thing about pictures. You can tell them and have me thrown out if you want to. But if you'll help me, I think we're going to get somewhere with this picture."
"It's all right with me," said the laboratory man. "I'll give you all the help I can."
The picture was cut and titled. It was taken to a Pathé representative in San Francisco. He got excited about it.
"Promise me that you won't show this to anybody else," he said.
"All right," said Capra. The picture was sent to the Pathé office in New York. The check for $3500 came back with a contract for ten more pictures at the same rate.
Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse had its world premièe at the Strand Theater in New York, where it was shown with a Harold Lloyd comedy. It received favorable comment. Critics noted that it was free from stunts, mannerisms, camera angles and Hollywood tricks. It had to be free from them, as Capra had never had time to learn any of them.
Capra had performed a major feat in making a box-office success without knowing anything about either the stage or the films. The moral of it is that an ignoramus is better than an amateur. Capra's advantage was that his mind was a clean slate. If he had had a dilettante's familiarity with "visual flow, cinema rhythm, average audience appeal" and other giblets of wisdom, his first picture would probably have been his last.
Capra was born in Sicily. When he was five years old, his parents emigrated to America and settled on a farm in Hollywood. Frank lived there fifteen years. It is strange that a Hollywood-bred man should have crashed the movie industry in San Francisco. His years in Hollywood, however, had left Capra not only ignorant of the pictures but prejudiced against them. On his only visit to a Hollywood studio, he had seen a comedy in the making. Two comics were plastering wallpaper on a third comic's back. Capra left the studio with a lofty scorn for Hollywood, from which he never completely recovered.
It is also strange that Capra should have spent six or seven years as a house-to-house canvasser and gold-mine peddler, as he had been little short of an infant prodigy at school. He graduated in 1918 from the California Institute of Technology-where it is difficult to cross a corridor without plowing your way through Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, mathematics or biology. He waited on table, edited the college paper and ran the college laundry agency. While still an undergraduate, he was assigned to chemical-warfare research. He received a letter from one of the chiefs of the National Research Council, thanking him for his aid in the invention of a bomb that would burn more people faster than any bomb previously known. Recently, Capra and an associate have invented an "unbreakable" system of communication which, he claims, would enable our Army to handle its messages with absolute certainty that the enemy could not decode them. His system would have been adopted before now, Capra thinks, except for the old Army custom of shifting officers around too rapidly for them to accomplish anything.
They taught Capra some literature also at Cal. Tech. He is a Montaigne authority, and at one time was a typical Montaigne bore, always carrying a volume of the essays around with him and hardly able to discuss any subject without ringing in "as Montaigne says." Capra is a home-taught musician. As a boy he learned, by ear, to play the violin, banjo, accordion, ukulele and piano. Last year, he started to learn the notes, in the hope of becoming a composer. One of his chief ambitions is to make the first good musical picture. In his opinion, all the musical pictures made so far have been extravagantly bad.
Considering his various attainments, it is difficult to understand why Capra was so slow in getting a real start in life. During the war he was a second lieutenant in artillery. It apparently took him six or seven years to get demobilized. He was a private tutor for a while and then a member of a nightclub band. His semi-vagabond life was started by his admiration for a friend who wore fine clothes, had pocket money and moved in high circles in every hamlet he visited. This young fellow was a business builder for town photographers. He went from door to door selling one-dollar coupons which enabled the purchaser to obtain twelve camera portraits at a discount.
Capra adopted this calling. By cleaning up one community rapidly and moving on to another, he could average three or four dollars a day. Later he became the partner of a stock salesman who specialized in securities of unsuccessful mining companies. They toured the West together. Most of their customers were farmers. They always opened the conversation with a farmer by telling him that he had been "recommended." Who had recommended him? The answer was always the name of the biggest man in the locality. The farmer was usually flattered by finding himself under such high sponsorship, and the conversation started on a promising basis.
It was easy to outtalk a farmer, but hard to complete a sale. The final argument was a sixty-pound rock, seamed and laced with yellow and white metal, and jagged enough to cut into the horniest hands. The rock was handed to the farmer. The network of rich veins was traced in detail. When the sharp edges were getting painful and the farmer started to put the rock down, Frank would explain, "Look. Did you notice these pyrites?" As the sharp edges bit deeper and deeper into the customer's hands, the pyrites were examined and their fabulous value explained. The next step was that of inducing the farmer to turn the rock bottomside up in search of platinum. At this point the sucker, in order to save himself from further punishment, was expected to say: "It looks good to me. I'll sign right now." Frank and his partner received 25 per cent of each sale. The average transaction ran into two figures. Their biggest deal was for $100. When they operated in towns and villages, their best customers were barbers, bartenders, and physicians. The barber-shop procedure was to start talking about the superhuman sagacity of their latest client.
Capra's partner would say, "That man has more business brains than anybody I ever talked to. Did you notice those questions of his? Every one to the point. He knows more metallurgy than lots of mining engineers."
"And the way he dug into those documents," said Frank. "Not satisfied until he had checked up everything."
"Hardest-headed man I ever met," said the other salesman.
"But that's the kind of man I like to do business with," said Frank.
By this time the barber, if he was a barber at the heart, started to cross-examine them. Then he got in touch with friends and borrowed enough for a small investment. About the same procedure was used for letting a bartender in on a mountain of gold. Capra and his friend worked together on barbers and bartenders, but one man was enough for a doctor. Nobody was found so frantic to acquire bad stocks as a small-town doctor. Frank would call and have his throat swabbed. Without being nosy, the doctor would work rapidly into the confidence of the patient and then insist on buying a slice of the bonanza.
Capra's theory was that bartenders and barbers were easy victims because they were always hearing barroom and barbershop talk about rich strikes and overnight millionaires. Neither he nor his partner could understand why doctors were such militant suckers.
The salesmen were not always successful. Capra's worst defeat occurred in a hotel lobby in Reno. Somebody pointed out an elderly man and said: "Go after him. That's the biggest sucker in Reno."
Capra introduced himself. The elderly man listened with a kind air for a while, and then identified himself. He was George Graham Rice, America's greatest promoter of fake mining stocks and other potter's-field diplomas.
"My son," said Rice, "stocks were made to sell, not buy."
Capra and his partner lived high and gambled freely when their joint earnings ran into three figures. They found that the farther east they went the more difficult were the pickings. The most easterly point they reached was a town in Nebraska where they found themselves broke. They went diligently to work on their landlady. After a long hesitation she finally wrote a check for twenty-five dollars. They rushed to the bank."
"Not much," the banker said. "You don't cash this check. Nearly all the cash in this town has gone into phony stocks, and I'm going to put an end to it." The banker reached for the telephone and announced he was going to have the lady stop the check.
"Touch that phone," said Frank's partner, "and out home office will sue you for all the money in your bank."
Frank hurled himself at the man's honor and conscience. Had he ever investigated the stock? No. Was it fair play to condemn a proposition unheard? Suppose that somebody spread a report that his bank was crooked, just because some other banks were? Would the banker like to show fair play by investigating this stock proposition? Here were the documents. Did he know how to investigate? Certainly he knew how to investigate. He did investigate. He wound up by taking $100 worth himself. Then, on the strength of the banker's investment, Frank and his partner cleaned up most of the floating capital in the town.
Capra was only in his early twenties when he was in this racket. He and his partners justified themselves on two grounds. The first was that, after all, the stock might turn out to be worth millions, as some despised securities had done. The second and sounder argument was that, if they did not take the money from suckers, somebody else would.
Even before 1924, Capra had become tired of his life as a migratory small-time racketeer. He was wildly elated over his work with the Montague Film Company. After making Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse, he thought he had a future all carved out. The Barefoot Boy, The Village Blacksmith and Curfew Shall Not ring Tonight were under consideration as the next poems to be turned into one-reelers. At this point, however, Producer Montague became difficult. He objected to going to the classics. "It isn't necessary," he said. "I'll write the poems myself."
Capra argued that the original plan of using the famous poems of famous authors was better. Montague thought otherwise. He had written a ballad about an ill-fated Chinese girl, and insisted that it should be the Montague company's next production. Capra resigned. The ballad of the Chinese maiden was filmed. Pathé rejected it. A third film was made and rejected. Then the Montague concern busted.
Before the failure, however, the boom had got under way. New San Francisco companies were springing up. Frank thought they would send for him, but he was mistaken. He went around from one studio to another, vainly seeking work. When Frank had regarded himself as a gold brick, he had sold himself with high effrontery. Now that he had become a genuine article, he didn't know how to speak up for himself. He had been connected with wildcat promotions too long to handle anything legitimate. He was like some famous criminal lawyers who lose their cunning if they suspect their clients of being innocent. The quackery had deserted him, and left him a modest, quiet little man. He has never been any good at selling himself ever since. In his subsequent carrier, he never asked for a raise. There is no need to squander sympathy on him, however, as the last offer he received is quoted at $400,000 a year.
Capra's only other picture job during the San Francisco boom was that of writing subtitles for a picture for fifty dollars. The company failed, the picture was never released and the fifty dollars was not paid. Capra, who is a thoroughgoing fellow, went to the small claims court and started suits against thirty-three San Francisco financiers who were backers of the company. In one night he filled out ninety-nine complicated legal forms in order to get the suits started.
California takes small claims seriously. It is wiser to gyp a man out of a million dollars in California than out of fifty dollars. On the day set for the hearing, the court was full of local Croesuses, all in an ugly temper. The mirage of vast profits had vanished. They were angry with themselves for having gone into such a rattled-pated business as the movies. It was the final custard-pie climax, to be dragged into the nickel-and-dimes court and tried by the pin-money judge. When the suit threatened to become prolonged they passed the hat, raised seventy-nine dollars and settled with Capra on the spot.
The boom had collapsed but one company kept on fighting after the bell. This company, a Hollywood outfit with San Francisco connections, was making Toonerville Trolley shorts. The San Francisco manager gave Frank a job as property man. Frank made a bad impression. He was short and swarthy. From under bushy eyebrows, he darted inquiring glances in all directions. He kept watching everything. He did this because he was anxious to learn, but everybody else jumped to the conclusion that he was a spy. In those days the motion-picture industry was ravaged by spy fever. The usual notion was that spies were stealing plots and gags for rival companies. Capra, however, was spotted as a front-office spy. He was supposed to be spying out loafing, waste and graft. The Toonerville troupe gave him the routine spy treatment. Nobody spoke to him. Nobody even swore at him. There was no room for him in the bus in which the company traveled to and from the location. Capra was kept busy, nevertheless. When props were wanted, orders were shouted at the carpenter; Capra heard them and executed them. When the props were mishandled, the carpenter was abused. Capra, a genial, sensitive young fellow, suffered horribly, but he would not be hazed out of his vocation. Moreover, he regarded his tormentors as splendid fellows and geniuses. He was lost in hero-worship of the director, who not only never spoke to him but never looked at him.
One day the San Francisco manager said to Capra, "Do you know anything about cutting pictures?"
"I know everything," said Capra, "about pictures."
He was assigned to the cutting department, although the director almost went mad at having the spy promoted. On one occasion Capra was showing Toonerville sequences to the San Francisco official, who was with a stranger from Hollywood. The stranger sneered at every scene.
After asking questions about the cost, the man from Hollywood said: "They're robbing you. If you make me director, I'll make the picture twice as good for half the cost."
Later the director who was the object of Capra's hero-worship came into the projection room. He still maintained the fiction of Capra's non-existence. When he had suggestions to make about cutting, he always addressed himself to the laboratory assistant. The director had scratched a match and was about to light his pipe, when Capra said, "Could I speak to you for a minute?"
The match stopped halfway to the pipe. The director stared as if a column of thin air was trying to scrape conversation with him.
"There's a ---- from Hollywood here trying to undermine you," Capra told him. He repeated the conversation he had overheard. The director completed the lighting of his pipe and walked out without a word.
A few minutes later he came back and said, "I'm gong to lunch. Want to come along?"
The had lunch at the Palace Hotel. During the months of silence, taciturnity had gained such momentum that they went through the meal without talking.
After lunch the director said, "I'm getting a new suit. Come along."
The director bought Capra a new suit too. Through Capra's warning, the director was able to foil the underminer. Capra and the director became pals. Returning to Hollywood, the director obtained a job for Frank as a gag writer for Hal Roach on the Our Gang comedies.
Capra later became one of the prisoners in the famous tower where Mack Sennett incarcerated his writers. Sennett used to prowl up four flights of steps and burst in on them to discover who was asleep. This went on until the gag writers used their gag technique for their own protection. They had a carpenter make one step higher than the others. Sennett always stumbled over it and rose cursing, giving each literary dormouse a chance to wake up and fall a-scribbling. The Sennett organization was the greatest school for writers and stars that Hollywood ever had. Capra made rapid progress.
His first important Hollywood assignment was that of writing gags for Harry Langdon. In his early Mack Sennett two-reelers, Langdon was a slapstick comic. His personality changed from minute to minute to fit the gags. He was a hero or a villain, an intellectual giant or an idiot, according to the way the laughs had been constructed. Capra made him girl-shy for the purpose of one gag; using slow-motion to indicate Langdon's state of mind when kissed by a Mack Sennett beauty; Harry floated out a window and took half a minute to fall four feet to the ground. In other gags Capra made him a Casanova.
Capra finally worked out a definite characterization for the comedian. He endowed Langdon with all good qualities except sense. Langdon became a sainted moron in a world of miscreants. His only ally was providence, which kept intervening with masterful gags to rescue him from desperate situations. A great natural comic, Langdon had wonderful facial expressions for tracing the snail-like progress of a thought through his brain. This high-souled and feeble-minded character became an immediate success. Big companies began to bid for Langdon. Leaving Sennett to make feature-length pictures for First National, Langdon took Capra with him. Capra directed The Strong Man, a tremendous success, and the Long Pants, another big hit.
All was going well until the genius discoverers took up Langdon. The New York literary rabble went mad over him. They discovered that he had not only a genius for comedy but a still greater genius for pathos. They began to complain that Harry's god-given pathos was being sacrificed to slapstick. Harry was impressed. He wanted to be the Little Nell or Tiny Tim of the pictures. Capra argued that Langdon's pathos was a by-product of his comedy. Langdon fired him.
In spite of his two great Langdon hits, Capra could not get a job in Hollywood. He was told everywhere that Langdon was a great genius and had directed himself.
Capra had to go to New York, where he worked for a shoestring company which blew up without paying him. He then returned to Mack Sennett as a gag writer at seventy-five dollars a week.
In the meantime Harry Langdon had directed himself. The picture was so dire a flop that it practically ended his career. The general conclusion was that the public was unable to appreciate art and that Langdon was too great a genius for his own good. Langdon is today probably as good as ever, but Hollywood is very set in its ways and has never given him a fair chance to re-establish himself.
After Langdon's flop, Harry Cohn, of Columbia Pictures, surmised that Capra might have had something to do with Langdon's hits. Columbia was then an obscure institution in Poverty Row. Since those days Columbia's rise in the world and Capra's have been about parallel. Although still a comparatively small organization, Columbia had two pictures in the last year in the official list of the ten best--Capra's Lost Horizon and Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth.
Money was scarce in Poverty Row ten years ago. Under his first contract with Columbia, Capra got $1000 for writing and directing That Certain Thing. It sold to exhibitors at a high price as a "special" and Capra got another Poverty Row contract to write and direct three more pictures.
Two of the great factors in making Capra's career were his experience in Poverty Row and his six years of living by his wits in the coyote-and-prairie-dog country. During his vagabondage he was always his own boss. He might be penniless when he arrived at a new town, but he always had complete confidence that by nightfall he would have board, lodging and a dollar or two in his pocket. He had to be bold and resourceful in order to live. He gradually came to regard himself as invincible. In Poverty Row he was substantially his own boss. A Poverty Row director who turns out one box-office success after another is allowed to shoot as he pleases. Capra never had to serve an apprenticeship to the Musts and Don'ts of Hollywood. He has always had great deference for his own judgment and practically no deference for anybody else's. Early in his career he adopted the theory that Capra was never wrong. The Capra formula for handling a difference of opinion with a superior had three steps: Outargue him; if that fails, outwit him; if that fails, outwait him. He carries the Capra-is-always-right theory to the point that, even if convinced that he is wrong, he refuses to acknowledge it. It is a matter of self-discipline with him. He would rather stick to a bad idea than have a good one foisted on him.
When a big picture is produced by one of the big companies you hear, "There's the star who carried the picture on his coattails. . . . There's the bit player who stole the picture from the star. . . . There go the seventeen writers who wrote the picture. . . . There's the man who wrote the additional dialogue that rescued the picture. . . . There's the author who wrote the original so well that Hollywood couldn't spoil it. . . . There's the producer who made the picture practically single-handed. . . . There's the man who made the retakes that saved it from the shelf." Comment of this kind is not made about a Capra picture. It would be like saying that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were the people who made Disney.
Capra's six years in the sticks were important in another way. They made a grass-roots-and-sagebrush American of him. There is nothing more American than his old sideline of selling golden dreams to farmers; nothing more native and star-spangled than house-to-house canvassing for the town photographer. He traveled American, hitchhiking, bus-riding or driving paleolithic autos. He put up at American-plan inns. Though Capra was born in Sicily, his experience and culture are as Yankee Doodle as George M. Cohan or William Allen White. This is strongly reflected in pictures like Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Capra likes Americans. He thinks they often have good ideas and good impulses. But, because he has endowed some of his American characters with generous and kind dispositions, he has been considered a social revolutionist. For painting America as he sees it, he is regarded in Moscow as a Utopian dreamer. In making Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra tried to show what a good unspoiled American would do if $20,000,000 suddenly dropped in his lap. Traveling to Russia after Mr. Deeds appeared, he was hailed as a comrade, a world improver and a Red propagandist. In their enthusiasm over Capra's portrayal of an American philanthropist, the Soviet critics showed themselves far behind the advanced thinkers of Washington, who want to abolish the American philanthropist because his money is needed to buy votes with. Somebody ought to advise Moscow that all wealth squandered on benefactions is practically stolen from the national fund for purchasing elections.
Capra likes American institutions. He doesn't regard the men who made the country as a lot of fools. He is against dictatorship. He believes in things like freedom of the press. All this makes him a marked man in Hollywood, where so many of the rich intellectuals are sound, orthodox American-haters.
It is a Hollywood fad today to say that the public is very wise, learned and brilliant, and that the greatest mistake of the producers is their conviction that the public is very dumb. Capra has always acted on the belief that the public is smart. He mad Lost Horizon, for example, in the face of warnings that the movie audiences were not clever enough to understand symbolism or mysticism. Lost Horizon was a box-office success, even if it did not show Capra at his best.
When he was making Lady for a Day he was told on all sides that it was too talky; the theory of that period was that action was the thing and that spoken lines should be introduced sparingly. Capra said that his characters could talk their heads off if their lines were good, and the public was delighted with the incessant chatter of the picture. When he made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, he was told that the public would never stand for having the hero arrested as a lunatic and placed on trial for his sanity; Capra made that the great scene of the picture.
Capra's vagabondage, his homebred musical knowledge, his Hans Christian Andersen quality of storytelling all came to his assistance in making It Happened One Night. One of the finest scenes was the bus ride. Outside, it was raining torrents; inside, cozy and sociable. When Capra likes a scene, he lets himself go. With the idea of putting a little more life into the bus ride, he began testing hillbilly musicians. He tried out three teams in order to make a choice by process of elimination. He liked them all; he put them all into the scene. He played over endless phonograph records in search of hearty old tunes, and in this way unearthed The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, an ancient piece that became a new sensation. Long drawn out as the bus scene was, it paid its way dramatically; the characters kept developing as the bus lurched on, until the driver, joining in the chorus, forgot to watch the road and had a smash-up, which started the picture off on a new sequence. Incidentally, the bus scene is a clue to Capra's idea of how musical pictures should be made.
Capra says the best thing he ever worked on was Soviet, an unborn photoplay. He was getting ready to shoot it for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, when the company decided it was full of controversial dynamite and put it on the shelf. His biggest hit was It Happened One Night, although he prefers Lady for a Day. One of the most striking tributes to Capra is the way other companies have helped themselves to his titles, especially in the case of It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. After they were released, It Happened, or Goes to Town appeared as parts of dozens of titles. Capra is now making the film version of You Can't Take It With You, the Kaufman-Hart Pulitzer Prize winner. It is full of eccentric Americans and ought to show Capra in good form. It is a severe test, however, because of the old saying, "It's a good picture, but not as good as the play."