By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published December 23, 2010
If you haven’t already, you’ll watch it again this year, probably. There it will be on late night television, or on a cable marathon, or perhaps brought out again from its battered VHS clamshell box or DVD case. You’ll watch James Stewart as George Bailey contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve, and you’ll delight in seeing Guardian Angel Clarence convince George that he matters, that his life has had meaning, that he is here for a reason.
The film, of course, is Frank Capra’s marvelous “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 movie that has become so closely associated with Christmas time that few people ever watch it anymore outside the secular context of “the holidays.” That is a shame, because the film, like almost every other movie Frank Capra made, affirms central Catholic values of community, individual dignity, hope and love that transcend the shimmer of most standard Hollywood Christmas fare.
Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and immigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. His family settled in Los Angeles, and like so many immigrants to California would do, he took a job in the burgeoning 1920s film industry and made a name for himself in the small but powerful film studios that were opening in Hollywood. As a young, established director in the 1930s, Capra experienced a great deal of success, and he suddenly felt lost professionally and personally.
He had characterized his faith at the time as that of a “Christmas Catholic,” but in his autobiography, “Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title,” he recounted a vision, not unlike that experienced by George Bailey, in which an anonymous figure said to him, “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own. … God gave you those talents, they are His gifts to you, to use for his purpose.” Indeed, later in life, after he had made most of his best-known movies, Capra affirmed that he was now “a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross.”
Following his revelation, Capra began to see himself as more than an entertainer, more than a studio system director. At a time when the major film studios were completing films at the rate of approximately one picture a week, Capra insisted upon greater autonomy and creative control for the director. He saw his filmmaking as a vocation, a spiritual calling through which he vowed to “fight for the causes (of the disenfranchised) on the screens of the world.” As a result of this new commitment to his art, Capra became perhaps the most recognized director of his era, and audiences associated his name with a particular kind of film.
Like so many other great Catholic film artists of the 20th century, Capra displayed his faith in films that are not cluttered with obvious religious imagery. Though throughout his career his detractors frequently characterized his movies as “Capra-corn,” the religious sensibility in the films is honest and idealized rather than sentimental. Capra characters exhibit what Thomas Merton called “contemplation in a world of action.” They go against the grain of the establishment and in doing so put their simple faith into practice that inspires change.
As Capra said of his prototypical 1936 film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” in which he devised the plot line and theme that operated in almost all his future films, the movie involves “a simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, who can, if he will, reach deep down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment.” This action, Capra asserted, represented the “rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.”
Yet Capra did not believe in separatism or isolation; indeed, he affirmed in his movies a profound sense of belonging to proud traditions of shared belief—in the American, and Catholic, values of social justice, equality, human dignity and communion. These beliefs resonate in the films even in today’s jaded and bleak political and social contexts. Indeed, when my students look at Capra’s great 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” they can’t help but be moved by how deeply Jefferson Smith believes in the ideal that drives his personal life and political motivations: “Love thy neighbor.”
It’s easy, perhaps, to read cynically that creed today as old-fashioned and simple. For many people in today’s digital, high definition world of motion pictures, it is difficult to look at the old, grainy, black and white films Capra made in the 1930s and 1940s as relevant; even the method in which they were made seems to belong to another time and place. But this is the beautiful paradox inherent in “old movies”; their form actually allows for transcendence and timelessness. By seeming unreal, they actually become far more real because they touch our shared experience, our collective heritage.
And Capra was in fact dealing with subject matter not at all foreign to our world today. He made films about the class divisions and economic uncertainties of the Depression, even when many people went to the movies to forget the Depression. During the Second World War, he enlisted in the Army and made for the U.S. War Department a brilliant series of documentaries, the “Why We Fight” films that exposed the evils of fascism and political tyranny.
Above all, Capra told stories, most of which he wrote himself, and he presented those stories in a cinematic manner that in many ways established the classical Hollywood style that is still practiced and admired today. The great independent filmmaker John Cassavetes once said, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America; maybe it was only Frank Capra.” What Cassavetes meant, of course, is that Capra was so successful in couching his ideals and causes in the framework of myth that his films have become like myths themselves.
So this Christmas, when it’s time to take down the tree, put away the lights, and carefully wrap the Nativity scene, think about leaving out your copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It plays beautifully in the spring, too.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.