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
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
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
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"
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