December 2016, arsenal cinema

Frank Capra Retrospective

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, 1946

Frank Capra (1897-1991) is one of the most successful filmmakers of the classical Hollywood era. He was the first person whose name appeared above the title of a film in the opening credits and one of the few Hollywood directors to have far-reaching control over his films. Capra led Columbia Pictures into the big leagues and made Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, and James Stewart famous. His films received 40 Oscar nominations and won a total of 12 Oscars over one single decade (1933-1942), including three for Best Director and two for Best Picture. Frank Capra managed to follow the American Dream himself, going from being a poor Sicilian immigrant to one of the best paid directors in Hollywood, with his resultant gratitude to the United States finding expression in his films. In the crisis-riven 1930s, his socially critical, but conciliatory (tragi-)comedies made the case for renewed belief in American values, the freedom of the individual, and the victory of justice over cynical profiteers and corrupt politicians. "Perhaps it wasn't America we believed in all those years, perhaps it was just Frank Capra", is how John Cassavetes put it, his colleague from the generation of filmmakers that followed. The "Capra touch" – a cinema of emotion with a personal signature governed by humanistic values that combines elegance and wit, exact timing, precise dialogue, and excellent direction of actors – conveyed hope and optimism in difficult political and economic times. Capra’s believable vindications of humanity, understanding, compassion, solidarity, and love for one's neighbor in connection with his work's subtlety and complexity generates a willingness to also go along with how class boundaries are so easily overthrown, miraculous turns of events happen, and often somewhat abrupt happy endings occur, akin to a fairy tale. The belief in the victory of the just cause also led the patriotic Frank Capra to apply for voluntary military service at the very peak of his career. With the rank of major, he directed propaganda documentary films between 1942 and 1945 as the head of the war ministry’s film department, including the seven-part series Why We Fight. After 1945, Capra was no longer able to recapture the success of the pre-war years and left the film industry in the 1960s following 6 features as well as several educational films for television and an industry film. Until January 20, we are showing a comprehensive retrospective of 25 of Frank Capra’s films, from his first short made in 1921 to his last feature in 1961, with several of his war films to be shown in January.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (USA 1938, 8.12., with an introduction by Gary Vanisian & 20.1.) The title of the play of the same name by Moss Hart und George S. Kaufman is also the leitmotif of Frank Capra's adaptation. The film sings the praises of the present moment and the richness of life and extols playfulness, non-conformism, and the freedom to do whatever your mood tells you to, far away from thoughts of profitability and the pressures of work. Frank Capra retrospectively dubbed YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU the first hippie movie, which articulates a critique of a capitalist system with an unusual lightness of touch in which people are usually no more than cogs in the machine and allows a utopia to shine forth in a unique mixture of warm-heartedness, wit, and engagement. One day, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) turns around on his way to work and afterwards only does what makes sense to him and is fun. He encourages his friends and family to do the same by way of a quote from the Gospel of St Matthew: "Consider the lilies in the field... They don't plant or harvest, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them". In this way, people paint, dance, play music, and fiddle around with explosives in the big, open house. It only becomes complicated when Vanderhof's granddaughter Alice (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Tony (James Stewart), son of Wall Street tycoon A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold). For the latter needs the Vanderhof's property to expand his weapons factory. 

THE STRONG MAN (USA 1926, 11. & 29.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Frank Capra's feature debut already carries the traits of a – comical – fairy tale: Belgian Great War solider Paul Bergot (Harry Langdon) may be incapable of hitting a tin can with a machine gun, but is easily able to dispatch his vigorous German opponent with an onion catapult. Following the end of the war, both emigrate to the USA, where Paul presents his former enemy and current partner on stage as "Zandow the Great", the strongest man in the world. When Paul is forced to replace the strongman due to drunkenness in the small town of Coverdale, he bumps into his long searched-for and loved penpal from war days, blind pastor's daughter Mary Brown. With the help of a furious canon number in the community hall, Paul manages to liberate the town from a band of alcohol smugglers, receives a job as a police officer, and marries Mary. Harry Langdon's best feature played a large part in the fact that for a while at least, his name was included in the list of great silent film comics alongside Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

FULTAH FISHER'S BOARDING HOUSE (USA 1921, 11. & 14.12.) Frank Capra based his first directorial work on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which already anticipates his later works in its sympathy for outsiders. The one-acter is set in a harbor tavern, whose hard-drinking regulars have no fear of physical altercations. At the centre of the film is Anne from Austria, who has considerable experience with men and is desired in equal measure by Hans, the naive Dane, and top dog Salem Hardieker. 

THE MATINEE IDOL (USA 1928, 14. & 18.12., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Don Wilson is a matinee idol, a celebrated actor who receives 500 letters a day from female fans. While trying to escape the hustle and bustle of stardom, he ends up in a troop of non-professional actors in the provinces and takes on a speaking role in a civil war melodrama consisting of just three words. Don’s producer recognizes the potential of the unintentionally funny play and hires the troop to perform in New York. Their success is just as great as the disappointment of those taking part once they realize that everyone is just laughing at them. They depart again, insulted, with Don hot on their heels, who has fallen in love with Ginger, the head of the ensemble and the daughter of the playwright. THE MATINEE IDOLis one of eight films that Frank Capra directed over the course of 1928. The narrative economy of the fleet-footed one-hour comedy corresponds to the economy of the two-week production period – including scriptwriting, shooting, and editing. The film was long believed lost, before it was rediscovered at the Cinémathèque française in the 90s.

PLATINUM BLONDE (USA 1931, 9. & 15.12.) The Schuyler family are able to afford to avoid negative headlines in the newspaper gossip columns by paying off journalists. Yet the young irreverent reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams) won't be bought, with his charms even enabling him to win the affection of the family's attractive daughter Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow). After Anne marries Stew, who is hardly the family's idea of a good match, he moves in to the Schuyler's property to their dismay and amuses himself by playfully showing deference and insulting the high society group. He soon feels like a bird in a golden cage, however, who is brought suspenders carrying his initials by the butler. When Stew invites his hard-drinking friends to the grand house, Anne finally remembers the class awareness she's been repressing for a while. Frank Capra's anti-authority pre-Code comedy made Harlow and Robert Williams famous. Harlow retained the titular nickname "Platinum Blonde" until her untimely death in 1937.

AMERICAN MADNESS (USA 1932, 9. & 30.12.) The pawnbroker gag at the beginning of the film outlines the general atmosphere in society at the time of the Great Depression. A customer is supposed to guess which of the pawnbroker's eyes is made of glass, guesses right, and immediately gives the justification for his choice: it looks more sympathetic and compassionate. Unconventional bank director Thomas Dickson (Walter Huston) on the other hand is more interested in his clients, the people, than in profit. He champions small borrowers and would like to distribute the money among the populace, which leads the Board of Directors to plan his dismissal via a fusion. When the bank's safe is robbed and rumors of bankruptcy begin to spread, the clients demand their investments back. The story of a banker with a heart and mind, whose faith and trust – the film's working title was "Faith" – in people is rewarded, is generally regarded as the first "Capraesque" film in which social engagement plays a key role.

LADY FOR A DAY (USA 1933, 10. & 16.12.) Apple Annie (May Robson), a poor drunkard who sells apples on the streets of New York has for years allowed her daughter Louise, who lives in a Spanish convent, to believe that her mother is a cultivated lady residing in the luxury Marberry Hotel. When Louise visits New York with her fiancée Carlos and his father Count Romero to negotiate the dowry, gangster Dave the Dude (Warren William), who treasures Annie's apples as bringing luck, helps her to keep up appearances. He organizes a suite for her at the Marberry and a reception at which the petty criminal sub-proletariat is supposed to play the role of high society. LADY FOR A DAY was Frank Capra's first big success and one of his favorite films, which he remade nearly 30 years later under the title of POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961).

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (USA 1961, 10. & 17.12.) Frank Capra's final feature was an opulent remake of LADY FOR A DAY from 1933. The 40-minute longer film shot in color and Cinemascope cast Bette Davis and Glenn Ford in the leading roles but was not able to recapture the success of the original and led to Capra retiring from Hollywood. The supporting actors include Edward Everett Horton, Ann-Margret and Peter Falk.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (USA 1934, 16. & 30.12.) Millionaire's daughter Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) finally wants to live her own life and flees from her father, who wants to have her marriage to adventurer King Westley annulled. On the night bus to New York, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who is ready to help her if he can get her exclusive story. Pursued by private detectives, the mismatched couple travel by bus, hitchhike and finally drive in a stolen Cabriolet across the country, arguing and flirting all the way.IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was the first film to win all five Oscars in the most important categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Script (Robert Riskin), Best Actor and Best Actress and is regarded as the first outstanding, seminal screwball comedy.

BROADWAY BILL (USA 1934, 12. & 21.12.) Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter) has married into the richest family of Higginsville and presides over a paper factory as the son-in-law of company patriarch J. L. Higgins (Walter Connolly) which doesn't interest him a great deal. The figures are correspondingly unsatisfactory, which J.L. regularly presents to the assembled four daughters and three sons-in-law at a series of stiff dinners. He demands that his non-conformist son-in-law concentrate on the factory, gives up his hobby, and sells his racing horse "Broadway Bill". Dan decides to follow his passion – and move into poverty, after his wife refuses to follow him into a life without means. It's only the youngest daughter Alice (Myrna Loy), who keeps in contact with Dan, also prophesizing to her father in headstrong fashion that her future husband won't be interested enough in the timber industry in order to take up the vacant position there. Alongside LADY FOR A DAY, BROADWAY BILLis the second story that Frank Capra filmed twice. In Riding High from 1950, Bing Crosby plays horse lover Dan Brooks.

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN(USA 1936, 23.12. & 7.1.) As a member of the voluntary fire service, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) leads a placid life in Mandrake Falls, plays the tuba in the village chapel, and writes poems for greeting cards, until he suddenly inherits 20 million dollars and travels to New York. The million-dollar inheritance awakens covetousness, with tabloid reporter "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur) selling the exclusive story of her experiences with the "Cinderella Man", who has fallen in love her without any inkling of her plans. After a meeting with destitute farmers, he decides to distribute his fortune among the poor, which brings his relatives to try and bring about his disenfranchisement in order that they can get their hands on the inheritance themselves. In the courtroom, Deeds questions such concepts as madness, normality, sanity, and common sense and makes a furious plea for tenderheartedness, tolerance and openness towards those different.

LOST HORIZON(USA 1937, 13.12., with an introduction by Lukas Foerster & 26.12.) During the evacuation of a group of Western Europeans and North Americans from a flashpoint in the Chinese civil war, the plane of designated British Foreign Secretary, writer Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), is hijacked and crashes in the Himalayas. Locals lead the five survivors into the remote Shangri-La valley, where Conway is offered the chance to lead the society there, which exists in seeming total harmony. There is neither money, envy and greed, nor police and military. Kindness, fraternity, and goodness are lived values, the only law states "Be kind." Frank Capra's adaptation of James Hilton's 1933 utopian novel of the same name went beyond the scope of a standard Hollywood production in several respects. The production cost of 2.6 million dollars were more than double that of the most expensive Colombia film of the time and were equal to the annual budget of the studio. From a six-hour first cut, Capra compressed the material down to a duration of three and a half hours for the first public screening. For the theatrical release in 1937, Columbia boss Harry Cohn cut the film to 132 minutes. In the 40s and 50s, further, politically motivated cuts on the part of the distributor followed, reducing the film to 108 and 92 minutes respectively. We are showing the restored 1937 version, which contains the complete soundtrack but only 125 minutes of moving images. Seven minutes of lost film material were replaced with stills. 

MEET JOHN DOE(USA 1941, 25. & 28.12.) After being fired, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) channels her entire frustrations into her final column and writes a made-up reader's letter under the name of the fictitious John Doe, who announces that he will jump from the town hall on Christmas Eve in despair at the treatment of everyday people in the USA. When the letter finds considerable resonance, the newspaper decided to continue the story. Homeless, unemployed former baseball player Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired to travel through the United States as John Doe, accompanies by Ann’s articles, in order to shift as many copies of the newspaper as possible. John Doe clubs are founded across the country and John Doe becomes a folk here. D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the fascistic publisher of the newspaper, wants to exploit the paper's popularity for political means and make Doe the drawing card for his own presidential campaign. In order to bring the darkest of his political fables to a Capraesque optimistic end, Frank Capra needed several attempts and shot a total of five alternative ending sequences.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE(USA 1944, 26.12. & 1.1.) Just before setting off on his honeymoon, writer Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers a corpse in the house of his two fussy elderly aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair). He finds out that the two lovable, cranky ladies have already brought a dozen single, elderly men "closer to God" by way of elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Mortimer's mentally ill brother Teddy is responsible for getting rid of the corpses in the cellar, who thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt and declares the graves to be new locks for the Panama Canal. While Mortimer attempts to bring Teddy to a psychiatric institution, the black sheep of the family, Mortimer's brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who the police are searching for, tries to seek refuge in the aunts' house together with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) and dispatch their final murder victim there. Frank Capra shot this darkly humorous, grotesque thriller in 1941 shortly before he entered the army; for contractual reasons, the film only arrived in theatres in autumn 1944 after the stage version had completed its Broadway run.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (USA 1946, 25. & 27.12.) The barely 40-year-old family father George Bailey (James Stewart) loses the will to live the night before Christmas, believing it would have been better if he’d never been born. In Heaven, his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent to the rescue to prevent George from jumping from the bridge. Clarence takes George at his word and shows him what the small town of Bedford Falls would look like if he'd never existed. Frank Capra’s emotional masterpiece about youthful vigor and big hopes, lost dreams and the pain that goes hand in hand with the obligations and responsibilities of adult life was in his own words the film he waited his whole life for. The first production completed by his newly founded independent production company Liberty Films ended up a financial failure, from which Capra would never recover: "I fell into a crisis and was never the same man again – neither as a person, or as an artist." In the 70s, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE was rediscovered and evolved into both a Christmas classic and a fixed entry on the lists of all time greats.

STATE OF THE UNION (USA 1948, 19.12. & 5.1.) Powerful newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke persuades her lover, airplane manufacturer Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), to enter politics and become the presidential candidate for the Republican Party. In order to prevent any possible disclosures being made about his affair, Matthews's wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) is supposed to be incorporated into the campaign. Under the influence of Mary, he develops a program that is not in line with the wishes of his Republican advisors: universal health insurance, financial relief for the poor, combatting homelessness, the creation of the international government necessary for the survival of humanity. Political reality soon forces him into decisions that jeopardize his integrity, because the delegates upon whose votes his nomination depends demand quid pro quo for their support. FollowingIT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), this was the second and final production by Liberty Films. While the film was still being shot, the independent production company founded by Frank Capra, Samuel J. Briskin, George Stevens, and William Wyler in 1945 was sold to Paramount. STATE OF THE UNION, a variation on the central themes of MEET JOHN DOE about media power, manipulation and political intrigue is regarded as the last "true" Capra film.

A HOLE IN THE HEAD (USA 1959, 17.12. & 8.1.) Tony Manetta (Frank Sinatra) left the Bronx 20 years previously to seek his fortune in Miami. The single father of an eleven-year-old son still doesn't want to give up on his dream of a sophisticated lifestyle, although his small hotel "Garden of Eden" has heavy debts and faces ruin, meaning he must once again ask his brother Mario (Edward G. Robinson) for financial support, who looks down on Tony's easygoing moral conduct. This time Mario links his help to a difficult condition: he'll only get the money if Tony’s son grows up in more ordered circumstances from now on, i.e., if he moves to New York to live in the custody of Mario and his wife or if Tony remarries, such as wealthy widow Mrs Rogers. Following an eight-year absence from Hollywood, Frank Capra's first production in color and Cinemascope succeeded in putting a Capraesque spin on the moralistic 1950s plot of the Broadway play on which it's based in that the achievement-minded brother Mario realizes that work, money and "ordered circumstances" are perhaps not the decisive values for happiness in life. (hjf)

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Vorlesung von Sabine Nessel: Frauen und Film

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Das Versteck

*Das Versteck Frank Beyer
GDR 1978 With Jutta Hoffmann, Manfred Krug
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arsenal cinema: Frank Capra Retrospective

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Lost Horizon USA 1937
With Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton
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Introduced by Lukas Foerster