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?
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