Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934)

Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.

I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.

Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.

Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.

All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.

The quintessential Capra hero, I’d say, is Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith. Thrown into the fast-paced political climate of Washington as an “honorary” senator, and unaware he’s a pawn in a scheme to cover up graft in his state, Smith has all the odds against him. When he clues in to what’s going on, he fights the corruption with a long, exhausting filibuster that seems to drain all the life out of him. But armed with Arthur’s inside knowledge and her full belief in him, he pulls through in a climax that never fails to inspire me, even after endless viewings. And it’s not just deeply moving – it’s really funny too. Smith knows he looks crazy to the other senators, so he charms them with self-deprecating humour. Comedy and tear-jerking can be a deadly mix when done badly, but it’s often magical when Capra does it. Even a Utopian fantasy like Lost Horizon (1937) benefits highly from Riskin’s and Capra’s knack for humour; it grounds the wonderment in the real world.

I pay homage to Capra movies several times in my upcoming novel, Hate Story. My film-obsessed protagonist, Jackie, personifies her gut instincts as Gable’s Peter Warne in It Happened One Night, and she imagines events depicted in spinning headlines in black-and-white, similar to many montages in Capra films. (I’d even like to think she’s an edgier update of a Jean Arthur character.)

If I could write a book that had even a small fraction of the moral and social integrity that Frank Capra achieved on a regular basis – and make it just as funny – I’d be proud indeed.

Written by Jeff Cottrill, 2022

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s