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Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK


Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Five Legendary Filmmakers went to war:

John Ford

William Wyler

Frank Capra

George Stevens

John Huston

Five Contemporary Filmmakers take their measure:

Paul Greengrass

Steven Spielberg

Guillermo del Toro

Lawrence Kasdan

Francis Ford Coppola

 

When the United States entered World War II these five great Hollywood filmmakers were asked by the government to apply their cinema tools to aid the war effort. They put their lucrative careers on hold to make very different documentaries covering various aspects and theaters of the war. They were all masters of the moving picture medium before their experiences in uniform capturing the war for home-front audiences, but arguably they all came out of this service even better, and certainly more mature, filmmakers than before. Their understanding of the world and of human nature grew as they encountered the best and worst angels of mankind on display.

The story of their individual odysseys making these U.S, government films is told in a new documentary series, “Five Came Back,” now showing on Netflix. The series is adapted from a book by the same title authored by Mark Harris. The documentary is structured so that five contemporary filmmakers tell the stories of the legendary filmmakers’ war work. The five contemporary filmmakers are all great admirers of their subjects. Paul Greengrass kneels at the altar of John Ford; Steven Spielberg expresses his awe of William Wyler; Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes on Frank Capra; Lawrence Kasdan gushes about George Stevens; and Francis Ford Coppola shares his man crush on John Huston. More than admiration though, the filmmaker narrators educate us so that we can have more context for these late filmmakers and appreciate more fully where they came from, what informed their work and why they were such important artists and storytellers.

 

 

The Mission Begins

As World War II begins, five of Hollywood’s top directors leave success and homes behind to join the armed forces and make films for the war effort.

Watch The Mission Begins. Episode 1 of Season 1.
 

Combat Zones

Now in active service, each director learns his cinematic vision isn’t always attainable within government bureaucracy and the variables of war.

Watch Combat Zones. Episode 2 of Season 1.
 

The Price of Victory

At the war’s end, the five come back to Hollywood to re-establish their careers, but what they’ve seen will haunt and change them forever.

Watch The Price of Victory. Episode 3 of Season 1.

 

Ford was a patriot first and foremost  and his “The Battle of Midway” doc fit right into his work portraying the American experience. For Wyler, a European Jew, the Nazi menace was all too personal for his family and he was eager to do his part with propaganda. For Capra, an Italian emigre, the Axis threat was another example of powerful forces repressing the liberty of people. The “Why He Fight” series he produced and directed gave him a forum to sound the alarm. A searcher yearning to break free from the constraints of light entertainment, Stevens used the searing things he documented during the war, including the liberation of death camps, as his evolution into becoming a dramatist. Huston made perhaps the most artful of the documentaries. His “Let There Be Light” captured in stark terms the debilitating effects of PTSD or what was called shell shock then. His “Report from the Aleutians” portrays the harsh conditions and isolation of the troops stationed in Arctic. And his “The Battle of San Pietro” is a visceral, cinema verite masterpiece of ground war.

The most cantankerous of the bunch, John Ford, was a conservative who held dear his dark Irish moods and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Yet, he also loved anything to do with the military and rather fancied being an officer. He could be a real SOB on his sets and famously picked on certain cast and crew members to receive the brunt of his withering sarcasm and pure cussedness. His greatest star John Wayne was not immune from this mean-spiritedness and even got the brunt of it, in part because Wayne didn’t serve during the war when Ford and many of his screen peers did.

Decades before he was enlisted to make films during the Second World War, he made a film, “Four Sons,” about the First World War, in which he did not serve.

Following his WWII stint, Ford made several great films, one of which, “They Were Expendable,” stands as one of the best war films ever made. His deepest, richest Westerns also followed in this post-war era, including “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Another war film he made in this period, “The Wings of Eagles,” is another powerful work singular for its focus on a real-life character (played by Wayne) who endures great sacrifices and disappointments to serve his country in war.

Even before the war Ford injected dark stirrings of world events in “The Long Voyage Home.”

 

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William Wyler had already established himself as a great interpreter of literature and stage works prior to the war. His subjects were steeped in high drama. Before the U.S. went to war but was already aiding our ally Great Britain, he made an important film about the conflict, “Mrs. Miniver,” that brought the high stakes involved down to a very intimate level. The drama portrays the war’s effects on one British family in quite personal terms. After WWII, Wyler took this same closely observed human approach to his masterpiece, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which makes its focus the hard adjustment that returning servicemen faced in resuming civilian life after having seen combat. This same humanism informs Wyler’s subsequent films, including “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday,” “Carrie,” “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur.”

Wyler, famous for his many takes and inability to articulate what he wanted (he knew it when he saw it), was revered for extracting great performances. He didn’t much work with Method actors and I think some of his later films would have benefited from the likes of Brando and Dean and all the rest. One of the few times he did work with a Method player resulted in a great supporting performance in a great film – Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.” Indeed, it’s Clift we remember more than the stars, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.

 

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Frank Capra was the great populist director of the Five Who Came Back and while he became most famous for making what are now called dramedies. he took a darker path entering and exiting WWII, first with “Meet John Doe” in 1941 and then with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and “State of the Union” in 1948. While serious satire was a big part of his work before these, Capra’s bite was even sharper and his cautionary tales of personal and societal corruption even bleaker than before. Then he seemed to lose his touch with the times in his final handful of films. But for sheer entertainment and impact, his best works rank with anyone’s and for my tastes anyway those three feature films from ’41 through ’48 are unmatched for social-emotional import.

Before the war George Stevens made his name directing romantic and screwball comedies, even an Astaire-Rogers musical, and he came out of the war a socially conscious driven filmmaker. His great post-war films all tackle universal human desires and big ideas: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For my tastes anyway his films mostly lack the really nuanced writing and acting of his Five Came Back peers, and that’s why I don’t see him in the same category as the others. In my opinion Stevens was a very good but not great director. He reminds me a lot of Robert Wise in that way.

That brings us to John Huston. He was the youngest and most unheralded of the five directors who went off to war. After years of being a top screenwriter, he had only just started directing before the U.S. joined the conflict. His one big critical and commercial success before he made his war-effort documentaries was “The Maltese Falcon.” But in my opinion he ended up being the best of the Five Who Came Back directors. Let this list of films he made from the conclusion of WWII through his death sink in to get a grasp of just what a significant body of work he produced:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Asphalt Jungle

Key Largo

The Red Badge of Courage

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison

Beat the Devil

Moby Dick

The Unforgiven

The Misfits

Freud

The List of Adrian Messenger

The Night of the Iguana

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Fat City

The Man Who Would Be King

Wiseblood

Under the Volcano

Prizzi’s Honor

The Dead

That list includes two war films, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” that are intensely personal perspectives on the struggle to survive when danger and death are all around you. Many of his other films are dark, sarcastic ruminations on how human frailties and the fates sabotage our desires, schemes and quests.

I believe Huston made the most intelligent, literate and best-acted films of the five directors who went to war. At least in terms of their post-war films. The others may have made films with more feeling, but not with more insight. Huston also took more risks than they did both in terms of subject matter and techniques. Since the other directors’ careers started a full decade or more before his, they only had a couple decades left of work in them while Huston went on making really good films through the 1970s and ’80s.

Clearly, all five directors were changed by what they saw and did during the war and their work reflected it. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of what they put themselves on the line for because those experiences led them to inject their post-war work with greater truth and fidelity about the world we live in. And that’s really all we can ask for from any filmmaker.

 

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Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

Image via Wikipedia

The first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life I was overwhelmed by the pathos and beauty and unmitigated emotion of this film classic.  I was just getting serious about film in my late teens and I was watching public television one night when I stumbled upon this picture, one I had never heard of up to then. Being vulnerable to its unexpected charms and powers, I was completely taken by it.  I mean, I was mesmerized and moved so thoroughly by what I experienced that it remains one of the most potent experiences of my life.  I had just started programming a college film series on my campus and I immediately set out to find out all I could about this film and to book a 16 millimeter print of it for next semester’s series.  I screened the picture almost every Christmas for as long as I was involved with the college film series, which ended up being something like eight years.  I was so into film then that my volunteer work for the film program took up more of my time and energy and interest than my studies, and my grades suffered as a result.  I continued with the program even after I graduated, calling myself a consultant.  When I worked in public relations at an art museum I made sure to find a way to screen It’s a Wonderful Life there.  Sometimes I think the picture gets too narrowly categorized as a holiday staple, which it certainly is, but it’s far more than that.  It is a film masterpiece that transcends any particular season or theme or period. Like all masterpieces, it is timeless.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival screening.  If you have somehow managed not to see the film, then by all means do so.

 

Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

© by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even with Christmas movies a genre all their own anymore, one stands above all the rest for its stand-the-test-of-time story about a desperate man who finds out that though poor in funds he’s rich in friends. That film is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 drama starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore.

The Frank Capra chestnut stands as one of the most beloved, chronicled and screened pictures in cinema history. Viewing this certified classic has become a staple of the holiday season for countless folks. It can be found on several television channels from late November through early January. Many movie buffs have a videotape or DVD copy of It’s a Wonderful Life in their home film library.

Seeing a film on TV is one thing. Seeing it on the big screen is another. Unless you saw the picture when it came out 61 years ago chances are you’ve never viewed it in a theater. Beginning in the ‘70s, the movie’s enjoyed a popular second life at revival houses, yet it’s seldom been run in these parts. One of those rare opportunities to catch It’s a Wonderful Life on the silver screen comes Saturday, Dec. 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford has booked a pristine 35 millimeter print for a one night only showing as a benefit for the Dobleman Head and Neck Cancer Institute in Omaha.

As a homage to the film the Joslyn Fountain Court will be transformed into a set piece from the story’s mythical Bedford Falls, complete with a local dance troupe, Jitterbrats, doing the Charleston in vintage costumes. Memorabilia related to the film and to co-star Donna Reed will be on display courtesy of the Donna Reed Film Festival, an annual event in the late actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.

The screening is the highlight of an event-filled night, starting at 7 p.m., that will include comments from Crawford and special guest Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress who played the adorable Zuzu in the film.

Grimes was 6 when she made the Liberty Films project and RKO Radio Pictures release. The film came near the beginning of a short-lived career that saw Grimes appear in a handful of classics with Hollywood royalty. Besides It’s a Wonderful Life, she earned credits in: Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell; Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven; John Ford’s Rio Grande with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. She also worked with icons Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past), Randolph Scott (Albuquerque) and Glenn Ford (Lust for Gold).

Grimes, who left the business at 12, went on to raise a family and work as a medical technician. She lives in the Seattle, Wash. area and travels the country as an “unofficial ambassador” for the film at screenings, festivals, conventions, et cetera.

Over the years the film’s become the subject of books, DVDs, documentaries, even a board game, as it’s attained pop culture, touchstone status.

All the fuss over it now is ironic. Even though considered a quality A title upon its release and one that enjoyed moderate box office and critical success — capped by Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — the film was not the phenomenon it is today. But as years went by film historians noted it as a distinctive example of Golden Age Hollywood studio production. Once rediscovered on TV, the movie developed an ardent following that’s grown over time.

Like Casablanca, it took a generation for the true enduring value and popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life to be appreciated. It’s gone from forgotten gem to being named one of the 100 greatest movies of all time in a ranking by the American Film Institute. The film also topped the AFI’s list of the most inspirational pics in history.

Everyman protagonist George Bailey’s wistful dream to escape the confines of his small town for the big city is one that reverberates with many of us. His realization that what’s most important — family and friends — is right before him also resonates. The revelation that the lives of others would be poorer without him only comes with the help of some divine intervention — in the form of Clarence the Angel. What could have been pure hokum in the hands of lesser artists becomes a rich, multi-layered tapestry of deep psychological insights in the hands of director Frank Capra, screenwriter Jo Swerling and star Jimmy Stewart.

This was the first feature made after the Second World War by veterans Capra and Stewart, who were forever changed by their wartime experiences. The movie reflects the dark, cynical themes that began creeping into post-war Hollywood fare. George Bailey and Bedford Falls are microcosms of America from the Roaring 20s through the Depression era and on through the war. It is a journey from light to dark to light again. Hope and faith may be shaken but never fade away.

The film is a reminder that each of us impacts others and that we should be grateful for the chance at life we’ve been given. The gift of life is wonderful.

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