Capra. Capra is a style-minus director but has a brilliant filmography (his filmography grades out to be ranked 60th as a director) and unlike others like Huston or Curtiz or some others his great films have a definite consistent ethos and Capra trademark. He will, no doubt, be passed by others and will eventually fall out of the top 100 but the quality and consistency is still worthy of praise. His 7 films in the top 100 of their respective decade (and 5 in the 30’s) is really notable.  

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a great use of the frame here in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Best film:  It’s a Wonderful Life

  • It’s pure cinematic transcendence in narrative, acting and writing—that much is clear and inarguable. I think though, the most recent viewing has taught me what a doggedly formal work it is so I’ve taken it to another level. Nearly every element in the film has a counterpoint (in childhood and then again later as an adult), bookend (there is sacrifice by Stewart’s Bailey and, in turn, he’s paid back), or doppelganger (in the Pottersville surrealism nightmare). There an unquestionable economy in the script but it’s more poetic than that—it’s about film form like Paterson or The Searchers the elements of duality
  • It’s a Mount Rushmore performance from Jimmy Stewart (perhaps second to his work in Vertigo) amongst the best of all-performances of the 1940’s which put it up there all-time (on my short list of top 25). I’ve also said before that Stewart may be cinema’s greatest single actor
  • The supporting cast is uniformly superb. Donna Reed is so pure and genuine. Other standouts include Lionel Barymore, the devastating Thomas Mitchell (as Uncle Billy and my god when he loses the money his scenes are tough to watch they’re so wrenchingly powerful) and Gloria Grahame.
  • Solid Dimitri Tiomkin score but not amongst his best—it’s better known for the absolutely perfect timing and usage of Auld Lang Syne
  • The flashback voice over structure (it’s basically an omniscient narrative (though creatively done) narrator and dark surrealism sequences make people think of noir but it’s not noir—there’s no fatalism in the flashback
  • Even without the formal elements there’s real ambition in the storytelling. These two characters (again well done by Stewart and Barrymore) are large, Faustian—the embodiments of good and evil
  • The talented ensemble is aided by the idiosyncrasies in the characters put in by Capra. We have Clarence the Angel reading Tom Sawyer (both telling us about his adventurous spirit—which matches George Bailey) and sets up a future joke about the “modern author Mark Twain”
  • There’s no reason, outside of genius writing, to have the “Hee-Haw” element put in the character Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson). I love it—it gives him personality and us, the viewer, and identifier as we’re thrown so many characters from the ensemble in a short time
  • The mise-en-scene and décor is more instructive and well-done than I had thought of previously. We have a poster of Abe Lincoln
  • I’m of a mind to think that George Bailey, perhaps only second behind Michael Corleone from the godfather (who has the benefit of 2 masterpieces and 6+ hours of brilliant cinema to work with), is the greatest single character in cinema history. He’s heavy—something like David Copperfield from Dickens or something from Dostoevsky—it’s novelistic in his arch and depth.
  • Again, everything has such formal balance and meaning—everything has a counter-point- we have the teacher and the husband Bailey insults on the phone. But it’s not just an excuse to show he’s angry (and he cares about his daughter getting sick) and not himself—he’s punched and that blood shows him (in part) hitting rock bottom and also acts as a signifier that he’s no longer in the normal Bedford Falls reality—
  • One of the best scenes of acting on display is Stewart breaking down and praying in the bar (pic above)—it’s shattering.
  • Another favorite shot of mine is the close-up of Stewart (with what looks like a wide angle lens) after visiting his mother in the surrealism Potterville scene—it shows he’s absolutely floored by the situation
wide angle effects put to good use in It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Sacrifices paid back along the way of this “wonderful life”- rigid formalism
  • Breezy wipe edits—which is trademark of Capra and his pacing—I’m not always in love with it here—but he is trying to condense a novel on film here into 130 minutes. I would’ve used a different transition and made it 135 or 140 minutes.
  • When we first show Stewart (as a grown up George Bailey) we have him in freeze frame—great shot—he’s a huge personality
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one of the earlier, and most notable, effective uses of the freeze-frame
  • The poison story with Mr. Gower (HB Warner) and a young George Bailey is a brilliant novella on its own—it could be a standalone short story and a great one at that
  • “hot dog” line is another sign of formalism repeated— in fact nearly every lined is repeated or comes back- the bannister top, etc.
  • There are a few poorly edited transitions—not a big deal but could do without
  • Again, if it were just the writing, acting and consistency of Capra’s voice as an auteur (he and his populist themes and narratives he was known for) we’d still have a masterpiece but formal aspects are glaring to me now and the ending, which wipes me out every time, is a formal masterstroke with everything coming back

total archiveable films: 11

top 100 films:  1 (It’s a Wonderful Life)

top 500 films: 3 (It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

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The first of two Best Picture winners in the 1930’s for Capra– it happened one night is notable for the performances of Gable and Colbert, being part of the breakout of screwball comedies in 1934 (along with Hawks’ Twentieth Century) — Capra’s biggest contribution is the editing pace– really remarkable

top 100 films of the decade: 7 (It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Lost Horizon, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace)

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the second of Capra’s two best picture winners— not his best work– but a solid effort to have in the back-half of a top 10 for a director.

most overrated: Capra doesn’t have one- he only has 3 films in the TSPDT top 1000 and I think that’s low— and all 3 films (my top 3 films) are either rated fine or underrated.

most underrated:   I actually think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington  is underrated. It’s a little hokey but it’s wonderfully written, acted, and edited (a main Capra stylistic trait) and there’s no way there are #654 better films (TSPDT #655 ranking). I’ve got it at #449.

  • Tour-de-force from Jimmy Stewart- especially in the last 30 minutes with the filibuster sequence
  • Capra and Stewart sure are the normal rockwell of cinema- Definition of wholesome with his “gee whiz” sayings and naivety- it will test people but you can’t be too cynical- this film will win those over much like they do the jaded (at the beginning) jean arthur
  • Rumor is Arthur wanted deeds star gary cooper for Jefferson Smith but cooper couldn’t have pulled off the intelligence (nor the passion in the last half hour) stewart gives the character
  • Fast-paced wipe editing- 7 different characters speak in the first 60 seconds
  • A few actors here from the Preston Sturges battery of actors including Eugene Pallette and William Demarest
  • Edward Arnold plays- Jim Taylor—a very evil Potter-like from it’s a wonderful life character
  • Best screenplay win- justifiably so
  • Newspaper headline montage as transitions
  • Another montage is the tour of DC monuments montage
  • A really strong ensemble- Arthur is great as the “wised up” jaded insider- she’s completely won over, over the course of the film, like the audience, by Stewart/smith
  • Thomas Mitchell is wonderful as the drunk “I gotta go out and drink this over” (he won best supporting Oscar same year for stagecoach– also playing a drunk)
  • I don’t fully understand the Harry Carey Oscar nom- he mostly just smirks
  • An almost comic-strip-like montage of stewart punching reporters
  • Broad edges- A few too many quickly cheering applauds, parades
  • Top 5 of the year quality film
great imagery here in Mr. Smith
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featuring Stewart’s tour-de-force performance

gem I want to spotlight:    The Bitter Tea of General Yen

  • Much like capra’s it’s a wonderful life the film can get very dark- early on there’s a hanging man in war-ravaged china blocking the mise-en-scene like a von Sternberg film
  • Quickly edited but there’s some mistakes here with some slopping in scene dialogue continuity editing- Capra would get much better
  • Very nice post-war set pieces with tons of extras- powerful scenes
  • There’s a very interesting surrealism interlude- almost like a small silent film featuring the Nils Asther character as an almost nosferatu-like vampire with long nose and fingernails—it has very dramatic music like the silent, too
  • I love Stanwyck and she’s fine here (not one of her better roles) but she’s better as a femme fatale than as the purer character here
  • The film doesn’t fully follow the capra ethos
  • The star crossed lovers would work again in it happened one night and yet again in mr smith goes to Washington (cynical Jean Arthur vs boy scout Jimmy Stewart)
  • In the archives but not top 10 of 1933- lesser Capra
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stylistic innovations/traits:     Capra’s major narrative and thematic trait is the small-town populism throughout his oeuvre. It charmed depression-era audiences. He is definitely criticized for being sentimental, idealistic and overly simple but he is definitely consistent and I admire that as I rate his auteur status- especially working in Hollywood during the 30’s and 40’s—such a personal stamp on his films (with the real exception of Arsenic and Old Lace which is more pure comedy). His films are impeccably edited. I mean look at the pacing to it happened one night or some of the montage sequences in Mr. Smith (which can still capture a 10th grade history class’s attention).  Lost horizon is a pretty beautiful film as is It’s a Wonderful Life.

the most iconic scene from It Happened One Night
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from Lost Horizon- a great shot here

top 10

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. It Happened One Night
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  4. Lost Horizon
  5. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  6. Arsenic and Old Lace
  7. You Can’t Take it With You
  8. Meet John Doe
  9. The Bitter Tea of General Yen
  10. Platinum Blonde

By year and grades

1931- Platinum Blonde R
1933- Lady For a Day R
1933- The Bitter Tea of General Yen R
1934- It Happened One Night MP
1936- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town HR
1937- Lost Horizon HR
1938- You Can’t Take it With You HR
1939- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington MS
1941- Meet John Doe R
1944- Arsenic and Old Lace HR
1946- It’s a Wonderful Life MP

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives