January 2017, arsenal cinema

Frank Capra Retrospective (2)

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, 1938

Frank Capra (1897–1991) is ranked among the most successful filmmakers of classical Hollywood cinema. He was the first to have his name billed above the title in the opening credits, and one of the few directors in Hollywood to enjoy far-reaching control over his films. Capra’s own realisation of the American dream — from a poor Sicilian immigrant to one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood — and the resulting gratitude he felt towards the United States found expression in his films. During the crisis-ridden 1930s, his socially critical and yet conciliatory (tragi-)comedies appealed for a renewal of faith in American values, the freedom of the individual and the victory of justice over cynical profiteers and corrupt politicians. "Maybe there really wasn't an America" that people believed in for all those years, "maybe it was just Frank Capra," speculated John Cassavetes, a member of the following generation of filmmakers. The "Capra Touch" — an emotional brand of cinema with a personal touch, governed by humanistic values and characterised by elegance and wit, perfect timing, snappy dialogue, and excellent direction — conveyed hope and optimism in difficult political and economic times. Capra’s sincere championing of kindness, understanding, compassion, solidarity and brotherly love, combined with the complexity and subtlety of his works, encourages us to suspend our disbelief even in the face of fantastical overcomings of class barriers, miraculous turns of events and at times rather abrupt happy endings. His belief in the victory of the just cause led the patriot Frank Capra to enlist in the army at the very height of his career. As head of the film branch of the War Department, he produced on commission a dozen documentary films between 1942 and 1945. Our comprehensive retrospective will continue through January 20.

THE MIRACLE WOMAN (USA 1931, 2. & 6.1.) Just minutes after the death of her father, Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) delivers his final sermon in the church where, until his recent firing, he had long served as minister. While the congregation, whom she accuses of hypocrisy, hurriedly leaves the building, Bob Hornsby — impressed by Fallon’s emotional sermonising — smells a business opportunity.  He transforms Florence into a star evangelist preacher, who, in a spectacular show, preaches "trust" from a lion’s cage.  Capra’s critical film drew inspiration from the story of a then-well-known evangelist and presents religion as a great money-making machine: "Religion is great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away." THE MIRACLE WOMAN was the second of what would in all be five collaborations between Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (USA 1939, 3. & 7.1.) With the help of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who is dependent on him, the industrial magnate and media mogul Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) is searching for an easily manipulable candidate to fill a vacant senatorial seat. The choice falls on the boy-scout leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) from Montana. Smith approaches his new congressional tasks in Washington with great idealism and enthusiasm. However, he is quickly divested of his illusions by his cynical and jaded secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) as well as by political reality, which is dominated by intrigues and patronage. His plans to found a national youth camp collide with those for the construction of a dam, which no one needs but from which Taylor stands to profit handsomely. MR. SMITH is a further iteration of MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, once again showcasing a naive, honest man from the provinces who, despite the power of financial lobbyists, media campaigns and corrupt politicians, remains true to his ideals. Frank Capra's 25th and final film for Columbia, MR. SMITH was a great popular success, although it earned him a rebuke by officials, who accused him, so soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, of criticising the democratic system of the United States and thereby damaging its reputation. 

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (USA 1933, 4. & 6.1.) is a complex melodrama set against the background of the Chinese Civil War of the late 1920s: The rebellious General Yen spares the wife of an American missionary, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), and has her brought to his palace. After initially rejecting him ("You yellow swine!") Megan feels increasingly attracted to Yen. This unconventional Capra film reinforces contemporary racist clichés and prejudices while intriducing a stunning twist at the end. As at that time in Hollywood, Asian leading roles were typically given to Whites, the General was portrayed by the Danish actor Nils Asther. The only Asian cast member was Toshia Mori, a Japanese actress who played Yen’s concubine. The pairing of a White missionary with an Asian warlord led to protests, and the film could only be shown in England, for example, after cuts were made. For similar reasons, an effort to rerelease the film in 1950 was thwarted by the Motion Picture Code, which was in force in Hollywood from 1934 into the 1960s.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (USA 1944, 1.1.) Shortly before he is to set off on his honeymoon, the writer Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers a corpse in the home of his fussy elderly aunts, Abby and Martha. He learns that the sweet, eccentric old ladies have already brought a dozen lonely old bachelors "closer to God" by poisoning them with arsenic-laced elderberry wine. The bodies are buried in the basement by Mortimer's mentally ill brother Teddy, who believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt and that the graves he is digging are new locks for the Panama Canal. While Mortimer attempts to have Teddy committed to a mental asylum, Mortimer's fugitive brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), the black sheep of the family, turns up at the aunts' house, together with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), intending to hide out and dispose of the body of their latest victim there.

STATE OF THE UNION (USA 1948, 5.1.) The powerful newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke convinces her lover, the aircraft manufacturer Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), to enter the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States as a dark-horse candidate. To prevent the affair from coming to light, Matthew’s estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) is drawn into the campaign. Under Mary’s influence, he develops a platform that conflicts with that of his Republican advisers, calling for universal health insurance, poor relief, combatting homelessness, and the establishment of a world government that is necessary for the survival of humanity. However, political reality soon forces him to make decisions that threaten his integrity, as the delegates upon whom his nomination depends demand a quid pro quo for their support. STATE OF THE UNION, a variation on the (once again highly topical) central themes of MEET JOHN DOE, e.g. the power of the media, manipulation and political intrigues, is regarded as the last "true" Capra film.

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (USA 1936, 7.1.) Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) leads a tranquil life in Mandrake Falls as a member of the volunteer fire department, playing the tuba in the town band and writing verses for greeting cards, until a 20-million-dollar inheritance brings to New York. The rich inheritance inspires greed in others, including the tabloid reporter "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur), who exclusively markets her experiences with "Cinderella Man", who has unwittingly fallen in love with her.  Following an encounter with struggling farmers, Deeds decides to distribute his wealth among the needy, prompting his relatives to attempt to have him declared incompetent in order to claim the inheritance for themselves. In court, Deeds calls into question terms such as madness, sanity, rationality and common sense, and makes a passionate appeal for tolerance for and openness to those who are different.

A HOLE IN THE HEAD (USA 1959, 8.1.) Tony Manetta (Frank Sinatra), the single father of an 11-year-old son, refuses to give up on the dream of living a sophisticated life although he and his small, debt-ridden hotel in Miami are on the brink of bankruptcy and he once again has to ask his brother Mario (Edward G. Robinson), who disapproves of Tony's casual lifestyle ("A bum!"), for financial assistance.  This time, the help comes with a condition attached: Tony will only get the money if his son henceforward grows up in proper circumstances, meaning that either the boy moves to New York to live with Mario and his wife or Tony remarries. One candidate for marriage is the wealthy widow Mrs. Rogers. After an eight-year-absence from Hollywood, Frank Capra succeeded, in his first film in colour and cinemascope, in giving the moralising 1950s plot of the Broadway original a Capraesque twist by having the achievement-oriented brother Mario realise that work, money and "proper circumstances" are perhaps not values in life that most decisively lead to happiness.

WHY WE FIGHT 2: THE NAZIS STRIKE (Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, USA 1943, 9.1., Introduction: Fabian Tietke) The seven-part series of "informational films", Why We Fight, was originally intended to be screened for members of the US Army and, according to the highest-ranking officer, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, was supposed to explain to the soldiers why they were fighting and risking their lives thousands of miles from home. At the request of Roosevelt and Churchill, the films were also translated into other languages and screened before general audiences in cinemas in numerous countries. THE NAZIS STRIKE depicts the German efforts to achieve world domination and the belligerent politics of conquest it had been engaged in since 1863.  The film shows the role of the geopolitical institute in Munich in Germany's plans for world domination and aggressive orientation between 1933 and 1939: rearmament, conscription, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the "annexation" of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the war against Poland.

YOUR JOB IN GERMANY (USA 1945, 9.1.) was completed after the capitulation of the Wehrmacht and was supposed to explain to American occupying soldiers what their mission in Germany was. Images of picturesque farms and Bavarian folklore as well as idyllic medieval towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl are contrasted with footage of the victims of the Nazis: "Don't let it fool you". "They're not sorry they caused the war, they're only sorry they lost it." Three chapters outline Germany's aspirations to world power since 1863: Otto von Bismarck, Wilhelm II, National Socialism. There must not be a fourth chapter: "We stand guard, that their world conquest disease shall once and for all time come to an end. That is your job in Germany."

WHY WE FIGHT 3: DIVIDE AND CONQUER (Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, USA 1943, 10.1.) begins with the Commonwealth's declaration of war against Hitler in September 1939 and documents the progress of the war through the end of June 1940: the German occupation of Denmark and Norway, the battle of Narvik, the occupations of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, the cauldron of Dunkirk and the Wehrmacht's victory over France.

WHY WE FIGHT 4: THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (Frank Capra, Anthony Veiller, USA 1943, 11.1.) After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Great Britain, as the only remaining opponent, became the next target of Hitler's politics of conquest. The film describes both the German plans to occupy the island and, through impressive aerial battle footage, the unfolding of the Battle of Britain.

WHY WE FIGHT 5: THE BATTLE OF RUSSIA (Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, USA 1943, 12.1.) The two-part climax of the series is a rare American homage to the Soviet Union and the Red Army. Part 1 begins with panegyrical quotes from high-ranking US generals ("the greatest military achievement in all history", Douglas MacArthur) and a list of Russia's successful efforts to repel invaders since the 13th century. The commentary emphasises the impressive size, diversity and wealth of the country — a sixth of the Earth's land mass, 193 million people, 100 languages — as well as the heroic battle of the Red Army soldiers and partisans between June and December 1941. Part 2 begins with the Soviet counter-offensive in the vicinity of Moscow and ends in the spring of 1943. The film features a variety of footage that is seldom seen in this country, including of the Blockade of Leningrad, as well as providing an interesting change in perspective for German audiences.  The photographic and film material does not correspond to the familiar view of the propaganda companies of the Wehrmacht, and the crushing of the 6th Army at Stalingrad is for once not presented as a "tragedy" but rather as what it was for virtually all of the rest of the world: a cause for celebration. When the Red Army completes the encirclement of the German troops, the soldiers of the North and South pincers joyfully embrace one another.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (USA 1938, 20.1.) The title of the play of the same name is also the leitmotif of Frank Capra's adaptation. The film is a song of praise for the present moment and the preciousness of life, and extols the virtues of playfulness, non-conformism and freedom to do just what you want to, far removed from thoughts of profit and the compulsion to work. Frank Capra retrospectively described YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU as the first "hippie movie", which, in his typically blunt manner, expressed criticism of a capitalist system that for the most part reduces people to nothing more that cogs in a machine, and in which, through a unique mixture of warm-heartedness, humour and engagement, a utopian vision emerges. One day on his way to work, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) turns around and thenceforward dedicates himself to doing only what is enjoyable and meaningful to him. With a quotation from the Book of Matthew, he encourages friends and family to do the same: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." And so in this big, open house, people paint, dance, make music and dabble in pyrotechnics. Things get complicated when Vanderhof’s granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Tony (James Stewart), the son of the Wall Street magnate A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). For the latter requires the Vanderhof's property for the expansion of his munitions factory. (hjf)

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