Capra's Comedy of Triumph

Author: Robert E. Lauder

Capra's Comedy Of Triumph

by Robert E. Lauder

------------------------------------------------------------------ The pantheon of great American film directors includes D. W. Griffiths, John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and Frank Capra (1897 - 1991). Working in film from 1926 to 1961, Capra won three Academy Awards It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You; in addition to three nominations Lady for a Day, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life. Capra was a practicing Catholic, but many of his fans may not realize just how Catholic Capra's cinematic imagination was. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Capra was most successful in expressing his Catholic vision through his comedies. He wrote of comedy:

Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming. It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil. . . . Comedy is good news. . . . The Gospels are comedies; a triumph of spirit over matter. The Resurrection is the happiest of all endings: man's triumph over death. The Mass is a "celebration" of that event. Priests and parishioners "celebrate" a Mass. It is a divine comedy.

This Catholic vision is most evident in four classic comedies: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and It's a Wonderful Life. Though the term "Christ-figure" has been used excessively and sometimes misused, it does apply to each of the heroes of these four classics in that each undergoes a crucifixion because of his love and service of his neighbors and, through being loved, passes through suffering to a kind of resurrection.

In Mr. Deeds, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits a fortune and decides to share it with the poor, immediately making his mental stability suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. Discovering that Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), the woman he loves, was originally part of a scheme to hold him up to mockery, Deeds, like Christ, refuses to defend himself at his trial before accusers who want to divest him of his fortune. When he learns of Babe's love for him, Deeds delivers a marvelous speech about helping those less fortunate and is able to continue to help the poor.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, junior Senator Jefferson Davis Smith (James Stewart) uses a filibuster in the U.S. Senate to battle corruption in the person of his boyhood idol, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Smith seems unable to convince anyone of the truth of his accusations or of his own innocence. During his filibuster, Smith's face is occasionally photographed by Capra so that it is reminiscent of the suffering Christ. The director even has a benign majority leader (Harry Carey) sympathetically watching, like God the Father, Smith's suffering, which is referred in the film's dialogue as a crucifixion. Before collapsing, Smith tells the assembled senators, including Paine, that his key message is "Love thy neighbor" and that someone eventually will hear his message. Paine does and confesses before the entire Senate to his corrupt dealings.

In Meet John Doe, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) convinces newspaper magnate D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) to run a series of articles about a mythical John Doe, who will leap off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve because of his frustration at how people are misused by the rich and powerful in society. A down- and-out hobo, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired to portray John Doe and a vast movement centered on loving your neighbor begins to sweep the country. When Willoughby discovers that he and the John Doe movement are going to be used to promote Norton's fascism, he decides to expose Norton at a gigantic rally but instead his own role in the scam is revealed. Thousands who loved him and were inspired by the John Doe philosophy pelt him with fruit, yell, and jeer at him. Capra shoots and edits the scene so that Willoughby's identification with Christ is obvious. Disillusioned, Willoughby decides to jump on Christmas Eve, but Ann persuades him not to by reminding him of the first John Doe, Jesus, and insisting that Willoughby need not give his life because the first John Doe already did that.

Critic Andrew Sarris has noted that the obligatory scene in a Capra film is the public confession of folly. I would emphasize that, following that confession, there is the conferral of grace. That is true of Babe's confession at the trial, of Paine's confession in the Senate, and of Willoughby's confession at the rally. It is also true of the confession that George Bailey (James Stewart) makes on the bridge near the end of It's a Wonderful Life. It leads to George Bailey's resurrection and his realization of how blessed his life has been.

In trying to articulate his philosophy of film, Capra wrote:

My films will explore the heart not with logic, but with compassion. . . . I will deal with the little man's doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God. And I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith . . . and I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually. . . . And, finally, my films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.

Capra's best films, and especially It's a Wonderful Life, which he considered his greatest film, embody that philosophy. Prayer is central to It's a Wonderful Life. The film opens with people praying on Christmas Eve for George Bailey, who we learn through heavenly voices, is considering suicide, and an angel is sent to help him; midway through the film, George prays and his prayer only seems to go unanswered. When George prays again, near the end of film, God returns him to a transformed existence filled with the love of God, family, and friends. The movie's last moments are filled with George, his family, and friends singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

Frank Capra once said, "You know, no one will believe it, but before every scene I shot, I said a silent prayer. Hard to believe I guess." I believe it, and it's not so hard to believe when you see Capra's films.

Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a Brooklyn diocesan priest, is professor of philosophy as St. John's University, Jamaica, New York

© 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine

This article was taken from the June 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: