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Why was Frank Capra so popular during The Great Depression?


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'I hated being poor. Hated being a peasant.’ These are the first few words of Frank Capra’s fascinating autobiography, a book that details his rag-to-riches rise from the Sicilian ghetto of Los Angeles to the peak of Hollywood stardom. Capra, as one historian put it, was 'the American Dream personified'.

Capra believed in America, as well as its myths surrounding success, failure and individualism. And why wouldn't he? Through hard sheer hard work and intelligence, Capra had been able to ascend from his humble origins in ‘little Sicily’ into the star-studded galaxy of Hollywood. It's hardly surprising then, that this Horatio-Alger hero believed in the ability of the individual to shape their own destiny in the fertile soil of America.

What is most remarkable about Capra is how much his films resonated with the public. It's interesting then that Capra’s most fruitful period of filmmaking was the 1930s, during one of the most protracted economic crises in America’s history.

With so many Americans feeling powerless in the face of economic Depression, there was, as Arthur J. Schlesinger observed, a ‘longing for some vindication of individual identity, for restoration of the sense of individual potency.’ This was what Capra provided so brilliantly for American movie-goers through his films. He was a firm believer in the ability of the individual not only to shape their own destiny, but to influence the very course of history.

What was so alluring about Capra’s films for audiences during the Great Depression was the way they gave complex social and economic problems a human face. His films depict the problems created by unfettered capitalism, such as unemployment and vast concentrations of economic power. Yet these problems are always portrayed as the result of the actions of corrupt businessmen, monopolists, or other boogeymen. As a result of this, social evils were explained away as the consequences of individual instances of evil.

We can see this by looking at Capra’s wonderful 1938 film (my personal favourite), You Can’t Take It With You. The story traces how the idyllic neighbourhood of the Vanderhof family and their friends is under threat from the greedy monopolist A.P Kirby (played by Edward Arnold), who wants to use his enormous wealth to buy up all of the property around the area. The film thus seems to pose quite a radical question: does unregulated capitalism represent freedom for only those who can afford it, and misery to everyone else?

Yet this question is never really dealt with because all of the uncomfortable consequences of unfettered capitalism are explained by the voracious appetites of Mr Kirby. It is Kirby who, through his desire to buy up the entire neighbourhood, imperils the homes of its inhabitants, not the capitalist system itself. Mr Kirby provided audiences with the reassuring face of the source of evil, a figure towards which Depression-scarred Americans could channel their own fears and resentments.

What’s more, by tracing the source of all social problems back to the actions of boogeyman Kirby, the problems themselves become more solvable. More scope is given to the power of the virtuous individual such as Grandpa Vanderhof to make changes for the better, as all they must do is get rid of the boogeymen or, in this case, convince Mr Kirby of the error of his ways through a good old fashioned chat.

It was in this way that Capra restored America’s faith in the ability of good individuals to shape the destiny both of themselves and America. This was seen most memorably in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Once again, the source of evil is reassuringly human in the form of a political machine boss (played, of course, by Edward Arnold) and his stooges in Washington. This gives ample scope to Jefferson Smith, the patriotic new Senator, to make great strides in exposing and rooting out these corrupt boogeyman and thus restoring America’s political institutions to their former glory.

Time and time again Capra presented America with the reassuring message that its institutions were fundamentally sound, and its problems came from individual acts of maleficence. In American Madness (1932), the string of bank failures in the early 1930s is depicted as a consequence not of the unregulated financial system but the hoarding of greedy plutocrats. In Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1935) the solution offered to the plight of American farmers was the philanthropy of virtuous individuals such as Longfellow Deeds.

Capra thus offered Depression-era audiences a world where complex social and economic problems were simplified and reassuringly embodied in evil character-types. This not only made the difficulties they were experiencing more intelligible, but also suggested that these same problems could be solved by individual acts of reformation.

This reaffirmed the faith of many of Americans in the power of the individual to shape their own destiny, something so many during the miseries of the Great Depression.

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