Showing posts with label Frank Capra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Capra. Show all posts

Monday, November 12, 2018

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries

You may be familiar with Frank Capra's Hollywood films but how much do you know about the propaganda documentaries he made during WWII? The Sicilian born Frank Capra emigrated to the US in 1903. Here he developed a fervent patriotism that helped chart the course of his life and career. After failed attempts at becoming a chemical engineer and later a screenwriter, he found his talents for directing film suited him best. In Hollywood he made hits such as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). Before re-enlisting in the Army in 1941, he made Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) hoping that its release would secure finances for his family while he was away. When the war ended and Capra came back to Hollywood, much had changed not only in the industry but with Capra himself. He made the independent film It's a Wonderful Life (1946) which wouldn't become the beloved classic that we know today until much later. Capra would make 5 more films over the next decade and a half but couldn't recapture the magic of his pre-war career.

While Capra was in the Army, his contribution to the war effort was primarily propaganda filmmaking. He served as executive producer and co-director on several different documentaries. Seven of these films made up his Why We Fight series.

New from Olive Films is Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries and Blu-Ray (and DVD) that features five of these films, 2 of which are from the Why We Fight series. In addition, Joseph McBride, Frank Capra biographer (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) is featured in an original documentary about Capra's life and career with a particular focus on his work during WWII. He also makes a 4 minute introduction to each of the 5 films.

This new one disc set contains the following:

Frank Capra: Why We Fight
31 minutes

Capra biographer Joseph McBride covers the scope of Frank Capra's life and his filmmaking career. Capra served in the Army for both WWI and WWII. We learn about his patriotism, conservative politics and personal conflicts. Confused with the changing ideologies of America during the war, Capra tried his best to make sense of this to make documentaries that would serve to help with the war effort. Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal for his contributions but was very ambivalent about the films he made during this time with the exception of The Battle of Russia. McBride speaks throughout this doc and unfortunately has a very monotone and dry delivery. The subject matter is interesting enough to make it worth your while. I was particularly fascinated by Capra's post-war career and his struggle to transition back into the industry.

Prelude to War (1942)
dir. by Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
52 min

This is the first of Capra's Why We Fight films and it starts off with the following:

"This film, the first of a series, has been prepared by the War Department to acquaint members of the Army with factual information as to the causes, the events lead up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting."

The film drives home its message of freedom and equality by comparing and contrasting the United States with the fascist regimes of Germany and Japan. These are presented as two separate earths and begs the question: which one would you want to live on? I was particularly fascinated by the propaganda messaging against the suppression of religious freedom and exploring the dangers of not taking the war seriously.

The Battle of Russia Part 1 (1943)
36 min
The Battle of Russia Part 2 (1943)
47 min
dir. by Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak

Russian born director Anatole Litvak joined forces with Frank Capra to direct this two part documentary, another entry into Capra's Why We Fight series. This propaganda film was pro-Russia and served to support our ally in the fight against the Nazis. Along with the pro-Soviet sentiment is quite a bit of anti-Nazi messaging. The first part focuses on Russia's military battles leading up to the WWII and the second part follows their battles against German invasion. It also clearly depicts Russia's successes in either defending or recapturing their borders. A hit upon its release in the US, the film didn't age well in the post-war McCarthy era.

The Negro Soldier (1944)
dir. by Stuart Heisler
produced by
40 min

After reading Mark Harris' book Five Came Back, I was most interested in seeing Heisler and Capra's film The Negro Soldier. This propaganda film had two purposes: 1) as a means to convince white people that it was crucial to have black people fight in the war and 2) as a means to recruit said black people. Carlton Moss wrote the script and also appears in the film as the black priest delivering a message to his parish about the importance of service. The film depicts the history of African-Americans in battle but also explores their contributions to American culture and their potential to contribute to the war effort.

Tunisian Victory (1944)
dir. by Frank Capra, John Huston and Hugh Stewart
76 min

During the war, American and British forces banded together to free Tunisia from the Nazis.  Although united in the battle, the Americans and Brits didn't see eye to eye and their union was fraught with tension. This spilled over to the documentary. The Brits had real footage which they used in their film Desert Victory. The American filmmaking team had their own footage as well but due to an unfortunate accident it was forever lost at sea. The British weren't about to give up their footage so Capra, Stewart and Huston joined forces to recreate the scenes with actors. Because of the reenactments, this one has the most cinematic feel of all the films in the set. It also feels the most contrived.

Your Job in Germany (1945)
dir. by Frank Capra
13 min

"The problem now is future peace — that is your job in Germany."

Made specifically for the American occupation troops in Germany to teach them how to treat the German people and what to be wary of, Your Job in Germany was written by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. This documentary short stands out in the set because it served to educate G.I.s rather than inform the public. Warner Bros. repackaged the film the following year and released it as Hitler Lives. McBride points out in his introduction that all of these war films were in the public domain because they were made with taxpayer money and not for profit.

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. The disc includes English subtitles and the option to play McBride's introduction before each film. This is a fantastic one disc set and is a must for WWII buffs and film history enthusiasts alike. 

Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review. 
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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Miracle Woman (1931)

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing..."

Barbara Stanwyck stars in The Miracle Woman (1931) as Florence Fallon, the daughter of a preacher. Her father dies of heartbreak when his parish replaced him with a younger man. The disillusioned Florence lashes out at the parish. Witnessing this is con man Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy). The delivery of her impassioned speech inspires him and he convinces her to use her talents to make a tidy profit. He proclaims, "religion is great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away." Bob transforms Florence into Sister Fallon, a radio evangelist whose religious messages make her a nationwide sensation. They put on elaborate shows at Fallon's tabernacle using trickery to fool the masses into believing she can perform miracles.

Everything goes to plan until John Carson (David Manners) comes into Florence's life. John is a former Air Force pilot gone blind. He spends his days in his apartment, composing music, practicing with his ventriloquist dummy and interacting with his landlady/helper Mrs. Higgins (Beryl Mercer). Depressed about his situation, he writes a suicide note and plans to jump out of the window. He hears Florence's radio broadcast and her words save him. John seeks out the woman who gave him a new lease on life. During one of Sister Fallon's tabernacle spectacles, John joins Florence on stage while they are both in a cage of lions. John doesn't realize Florence is a scam artist when he falls in love with her. As the two spend time together, Florence falls for John too. Florence starts to doubt herself, the people she's hurting and starts to imagine a different life. Will she be able to get out of her situation and keep John? And can she wrangle herself away from her manager Bob's stronghold?

Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners in The Miracle Woman (1931)

The Miracle Woman (1931) is a Pre-Code film with a critical eye and a tender heart. It explores the dangers of using religion for greed and also what it means to see someone for who they truly are rather than what they pretend to be. Florence and John experience awakenings and rebirths as their stories progress. One could see this as a criticism of religion but I saw it as a warning against using faith for personal gain. I was enamored with the love story which is the heart and soul of the film.

Directed by Frank Capra for Columbia Studios, The Miracle Woman was based on John Meehan and Robert Riskin's play Bless You Sister and acquired by Harry Cohn. The story is loosely inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist famous in the 1920s and 1930s. The original play was a failure on Broadway. However Capra saw potential in the story especially after the success of George M. Cohan's The Miracle Man which was later adapted into a movie in 1919. Capra brought on Riskin to adapt the screenplay. Riskin was still traumatized by the failure of his Broadway production didn't think the story would work as a film. Capra then hired screenwriter Jo Swerling to take over. With a hat tip to The Miracle Man the title was changed to The Miracle Woman. Some details were changed including the name of the protagonist as well as the details involved with Florence meeting John Carson.

The movie was Capra's second of five collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck. David Manners was loaned out by First National for his part. He became famous for his role as John Harker in Dracula (1931). In later years he claimed to have never seen Dracula and asked that fans not send him copies of the film. Manners is absolutely charming in his role as John Carson. And it's clear that Capra was captivated with Stanwyck. The close-up shots and lighting of her character demonstrate the camera's attraction to its subject. Stanwyck and Manners would put in two very dangerous situations. This was in the days when the technology of movie making could only go so far. In the lion den scene Stanwyck and Manners were separated from the lions by an invisible net. During the film's climactic scene, both actors risked their lives as real flames shot up around them.

Unfortunately The Miracle Woman (1931) was a box office failure. With all of Capra and Swerling's good intentions not to make a movie that was anti-religion, audiences still didn't flock to the theaters for this one. The film was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors for its content and as a result never released theatrically in England. The box office failure had no effect on Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra's careers which were both on the rise.

The Miracle Woman (1931) is available on DVD through Sony Classics Choice Collection series. I recently watched the film on TCM. I highly recommend checking out Danny's excellent piece on the movie, completely with lots of visuals, over at

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940by Victoria Wilson

Monday, August 28, 2017

Five Came Back by Mark Harris

Five Came Back
A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Penguin Press
511 pages
February 2014

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

World War II was over and director John Huston was heading home. The army had one more assignment for him before he repatriated to good old Hollywood. They needed him to make a documentary about shell shocked servicemen being treated at a psychiatric ward. With soldiers coming back home and some dealing with serious mental trauma, the army was anxious to show employers across the nation that these men were treatable and would make fine employees. Propaganda films during the war became “a matter of strategic necessity” and this didn’t change when things were winding down. Huston was excited to show a reality of war that had been swept under the rug. The army’s vision of The Returning Psychoneurotic because Huston’s vision of Let There Be Light. Huston spent three months filming psychologists working with patients at Mason General Hospital. He had unfettered access and countless hours of precious footage. Once it was filmed, edited and in the can, a premiere at MoMA in New York City was arranged. At first the army approved the final result. But then they urgently tried to supress it. First they said they didn’t have music copyright permission for public screenings. Then they said the releases the soldiers signed were not legally binding. Even though Huston ended the film on an uplifting note, the army wasn’t ready for the public to see what Huston wanted them to see. Let There Be Light was supressed for 35 years. Huston fought for decades to have it released and finally got his wish when Vice President Walter Mondale gave his approval in 1980.

“The men were seeking adventure, but more than that, they were reaching for relevance in a world that had become rougher and more frightening than anything their studio bosses would allow them to depict on film.” – Mark Harris

The story of Huston’s Let There Be Light is one of many stories contained in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Before the United States was involved in the war, there was an understanding that the film industry would be a crucial ally in building pro-War sentiment with the general public. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, five Hollywood directors enlisted and lent their talents as filmmakers to capture scenes of the war for the folks back home. These included John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens. Harris follows their stories from just before the war, through to their assignments on the battle field and their eventual return to Hollywood. Told in chronological order the narrative intertwines their stories to tell the bigger story of WWII.

Anyone with an interest in 1940s film will be fascinated by how the war influenced pictures including feature films but also documentaries and shorts. Many films are discussed at length and what’s particularly fascinating is how the director’s involvement in the war affected their films. Did you know Frank Capra wanted to make Arsenic and Old Lace so his family could have some income while he was away? Or that Harold Russell was first part of William Wyler’s Diary of a Sergeant before he was added to The Best Year’s of Our Lives? Or that George Stevens witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps and after that couldn’t bring himself to make comedies in Hollywood?

“As long as they lived, the war lived in them.” – Mark Harris

William Wyler (left)
George Stevens (center)
John Ford (left)

John Huston (second from left), Frank Capra (right)

Films discussed at length include Meet John Doe (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), They Were Expendable (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and more. Then there are the documentaries that brought home the story of the war. These included Capra’s Why We Fight series and The Negro Soldier, Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro and The Report from the Aleutians, Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Stevens' Nazi Concentration Camps and Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and others.

Mark Harris’ book is a result of five years of archival research and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed and while it’s not overly long it does take quite a bit of time to read. Mostly because of it’s structure and how much information is packed in its pages. I’m fascinated by this era so it was essential that I read Five Came Back. The book inspired a Netflix mini-series which I’m keen to watch. It does help to have seen some of the films and documentaries mentioned in the book. Many of the docs are available on YouTube including Huston’s Let There Be Light which I highly recommend you see and have included below.

Five Came Back is a fascinating book about Hollywood directors contributing to the war effort during WWII and how their experiences affected them.

This is my fourth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

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