1More Film Blog: The Bitter Tea of Mister Capra

1More Film Blog joins the sidebar list of sites that I visit regularly. It’s the new movie-blogging home of FFCC member Ken Morefield, and there’s already some great stuff over there. I particularly appreciate the attention to a wide variety of classic films, such as the essay I wanted to draw attention to here. In “The Bitter Tea of Mister Capra,” Morefield engages in a lengthy analysis of the apparent anomaly of The Bitter Tea of General Yen as an example of the recurring themes that make Frank Capra’s films tick. I’ve certainly been guilty of regarding Capra as an unabashed sentimentalist (although I do enjoy the occasional screening of It’s a Wonderful Life), but Morefield’s assessment is eloquent and compelling. With these ideas in mind, I look forward to rewatching a few Capra classics, and maybe tracking down a few more (I’ve never seen Bitter Tea all the way through, for instance). In any case, definitely check it out:

[…] in Jamieson’s case the seed of truth is that Frank Capra’s films, for all his wholesome reputation, have some pretty dark strains to them. At the primary film discussion board where I hang out (when I’m not writing brilliant and erudite essays for 1More Film Blog), I managed to somewhat embarrass myself after watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen by remarking that John Ford movies have a way of starting conventional and yet unraveling in unexpected ways. After having my mistake pointed out–the film had been unavailable for so long I had forgotten why I had put it on my queue–I wondered openly why I had gotten into my head that it was a John Ford production. “Perhaps,” a sympathetic colleague opined, “because it doesn’t feel anything remotely like a Frank Capra movie…?”

I love that answer because it gets me and my pop-up (that’s the polar opposite of encyclopedic, right?) film history knowledge off the hook. It kind of leaves me wondering, though…what does a Frank Capra movie feel like, anyway? Capra was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director six times. He won the statuette for You Can’t Take it With You, Mister Deeds Goes to Town, and It Happened One Night, and those aren’t even the pictures he is most revered for. He also received nods for It’s a Wonderful Life, Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and Lady for a Day. Everyone loves Capra, but ask a cinephile for a list of the great auteurs in film history and…well, it’s not that Capra’s name doesn’t come up, exactly. It’s just that everyone tends to think of him as a director of great (or at least beloved) movies rather than just a great director.

[…]I guess for Capra my reductive hook is that a lot of his films seem to me to be about challenges to idealism. People in Capra films–and I’m including the Why We Fight series in this assertion–have high ideals, and if we know anything in a Capra film, it is that if you talk the talk you better be ready to walk the plank, because as Job is my witness, the world will put you to the test. For that reason, I somewhat agree with Jamieson when he says It’s a Wonderful Life is “terrifying” and about “being trapped.” I disagree that it is about compromising. One thing that’s so appealing about Capra films is that his idealists do put their ideals to the test. George does open the bank. Mister Smith does go to Washington. Megan Davis does put herself on the hook for Mah-Li’s loyalty. Sometimes they suffer greatly because those ideals lead them to trust in and sacrifice for the good of others, but even when that happens one feels as though the idealist is better off having had the ideals even if the people they love have failed to live up to them.

~ by Jared on May 18, 2009.

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