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Frank Capra’s Small-Town America

2.01.2011

Frank Capra followed up the success of 1934’s It Happened One Night with a string of sentimental films about small-town American values, which the director himself dubbed “Capra corn.” Lost Horizon (1937), an atypical trip to exotica for the director, was a critical and financial disappointment, but in such films as You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and his now classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Capra extolled the virtues of the common

The idealistic senator (James Stewart) breaks down man over the machinations of bankers and corps working-class, populist values that audiences readily identified with. For most observers, Capra’s early films remain his finest work.

In addition to his feature films, during World War II Capra produced and directed the Why We Fight series of documentary/propaganda films at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt to explain to the public the reasons for the U.S. entry into the conflict. The first of these, Prelude to War (1943), created the pattern that the rest of the series would follow: a mix of documentary footage, animation, and staged sequences shot in Hollywood to create a compelling blend of images that bolstered the wartime home-front morale.

But as the 1940s rolled on, Capra seemed out of step with the rest of the nation, which had been socially transformed by the war. It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t a box office hit when first released, as audiences flocked instead to such films as William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for a more realistic vision of life in postwar America. Indeed, the failure of It’s a Wonderful Life put an end to Capra’s independent film company, and his subsequent career was marginal.

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