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Before “Capraesque”: Early Frank Capra

January 16, 2010 - February 27, 2010

American Madness, January 16

Over the years, interest in Frank Capra’s work, and his critical reputation, have ebbed and flowed, usually due to changing sociopolitical currents in the United States and their effect on public perception of his work. What is now known as “Capraesque” filmmaking is generally, and reductively, regarded as a form of sentimental populism, but Capra’s work in fact encompasses a far wider range of emotion, social criticism, and genre experimentation than is usually recognized. Because of our current economic collapse, with its many disturbing echoes of the Great Depression, Capra (1897–1991) seems timely all over again, as the first film in this series, American Madness (1932, about a run on a bank), demonstrates with startling immediacy.

Much of Capra’s early work—the films the Sicilian immigrant made before the Capraesque label was applied in his heyday during the New Deal—has largely been inaccessible to most filmgoers, preventing a deeper understanding of his legacy. Many of the films he directed between 1927, when he came to Columbia Pictures, and 1934, when he made his Oscar-winning and career-changing It Happened One Night, have not been available on home video. Now Sony Pictures, which owns the twenty-five films Capra made for Columbia, has painstakingly worked with both vault material and foreign prints preserved by collectors to reassemble and restore his rich and diverse early period. This series showcases many of these little-known gems, showing Capra’s explorations of various genres before he found his familiar niche. The programs also include rare short films Capra directed in the San Francisco Bay Area; two short comedies he cowrote as a Hollywood gag man; and his first feature as director, The Strong Man (1926), starring Harry Langdon.

Joseph McBride
Author, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

Saturday, January 16, 2010
8:40 p.m. American Madness
Frank Capra (U.S., 1932). Capra and writer Robert Riskin take on a bold and timely topic, for 1932 or for today: a crisis at a major bank. Walter Huston plays a financier modeled on the real-life head of the Bank of America. (76 mins)

Sunday, January 17, 2010
2:00 p.m. The Strong Man
Frank Capra (U.S., 1926). Judith Rosenberg on piano. This comic fable stars Harry Langdon as a gullible immigrant whose experiences in America recall Capra’s own. With Langdon short Saturday Afternoon. (102 mins)

Sunday, January 17, 2010
4:10 p.m. Ladies of Leisure
Frank Capra (U.S., 1930). In her first film with Capra, Barbara Stanwyck plays a wisecracking adventuress par excellence. (98 mins)

Sunday, January 24, 2010
2:00 p.m. Early Capra in the San Francisco Bay Area
(U.S., 1921–22). Lecture by Joseph McBride. Judith Rosenberg on piano. Three films, including Capra’s first fictional work as a director, offer fascinating glimpses of the Bay Area in the early twenties. (c. 120 mins)

Friday, January 29, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Miracle Woman
Frank Capra (U.S., 1931). Capra wedges a scathing critique of divinity-for-dollars into a Depression-era melodrama about a female evangelist, played by the miraculous Barbara Stanwyck. (91 mins)

Friday, January 29, 2010
8:50 p.m. Forbidden
Frank Capra (U.S., 1932). Stanwyck stars as a woman living in secret devotion to a married man in this classic weepie. (87 mins)

Saturday, February 6, 2010
8:20 p.m. Submarine
Frank Capra (U.S., 1928). Judith Rosenberg on piano. Capra established himself as an “A” director with this adventure saga based on real-life disasters involving Navy subs. (103 mins)

Friday, February 12, 2010
7:00 p.m. Rain or Shine
Frank Capra (U.S., 1930). This early talkie is a delightful showpiece for Joe Cook, one of Broadway’s most endearing clowns. (87 mins)

Friday, February 12, 2010
8:50 p.m. Platinum Blonde
Frank Capra (U.S., 1931). An early example of the kind of class-conscious comedy for which Capra and writer Robert Riskin became famous. Jean Harlow plays a spoiled socialite who seduces a newspaperman away from fellow journalist Loretta Young. (88 mins)

Sunday, February 14, 2010
2:00 p.m. The Matinee Idol
Frank Capra (U.S., 1928). Introduced by Joseph McBride. Judith Rosenberg on piano. This theatrical burlesque focuses on a hammy tent company putting on a Civil War melodrama. With short Fiddlesticks. (c. 120 mins)

Saturday, February 20, 2010
6:30 p.m. The Way of the Strong
Frank Capra (U.S., 1928). Judith Rosenberg on piano. A blind girl falls for “the world’s ugliest man” in this over-the-top melodrama. With a trailer for the lost film Say It with Sables. (66 mins)

Thursday, February 25, 2010
7:00 p.m. The Younger Generation
Frank Capra (U.S., 1929). Ricardo Cortez stars as a Jewish immigrant striving to rise above his origins in this part-talking, part-silent picture, an intriguing counterpoint to The Jazz Singer. (75 mins)

Friday, February 26, 2010
7:00 p.m. So This Is Love
Frank Capra (U.S., 1928). Bruce Loeb on piano. Capra mocks the macho code in this breezy cheapie about a romantic rivalry taken all the way to the boxing ring. (65 mins)

Friday, February 26, 2010
8:30 p.m. The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Frank Capra (U.S., 1933). Barbara Stanwyck plays a missionary who falls in the thrall of a ruthless but noble Chinese bandit in an atypical Capra classic that luxuriates in Sternbergian exoticism. (88 mins)

Saturday, February 27, 2010
6:30 p.m. It Happened One Night
Frank Capra (U.S., 1934). “Reporter Clark Gable chases spoiled heiress Claudette Colbert across most of the eastern seaboard, pausing long enough between wisecracks to set the definitive tone of thirties screwball comedy. . . . This is Capra at his best.”—Chicago Reader (105 mins)

Series curated by Susan Oxtoby. Film notes by Joseph McBride are excerpted and adapted by the author from his book Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon & Schuster, 1992, and St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000), and adapted from notes published by the Bologna Film Festival.

PFA wishes to thank the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Grover Crisp and Helena Brissenden, Sony Pictures Entertainment; Rob Stone, Library of Congress; Maria Chiba, Lobster Films; and Marta Chierego, Photoplay Productions.

Archival prints and musical accompaniment for silent films are presented with support from the Packard Humanities Institute.