Evan's Reviews > The Name Above The Title

The Name Above The Title by Frank Capra
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really liked it
bookshelves: celebrity-famous-bio, movies-non-reference, tinseltown-decadence

I read this in high school long long ago at a time when I was devouring Capra's films for the first time. (Back then you either had to wait years for them to show up on TV or at a retrospective movie house. If you missed your chance, you were fucked. No internet, no Netflix, no home video VHS/DVD/blu-ray rental options.) Now, of course, you can easily see them all, although not quite in the right way. These gorgeous old films with their glowing moody black-and-white cinematography really should ideally be seen in a theater with a projected 35-millimeter film print.

I recall this book being flavorful and lively. I remember with lingering fascination Capra's description of the voice of his frequent leading lady, Jean Arthur, ("like a thousand tinkling bells") and of Barbara Stanwyck's good-for-one-take-only explosive acting style (she put her all in the first take and after that could not muster the same energy). I also remember the feeling of great regret he had during the troubled production of Meet John Doe (1941), in which he and his writers filmed multiple endings but failed to come up with an acceptable one.

Capra is a director who seems to have fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. The self-admitted "Capra-corn" outlook that marks his films is out of step with today's jadedeness. Capra's films actually almost always went to dark places: his protagonists were pariahs dragged often to the depths of hopelessness and despair (see George Bailey/Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life) before emerging triumphant. I think today it's hard for us to accept the likelihood of such success. The ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with its abrupt, unlikely happy outcome still seems problematic to me, even though I've come to accept it. (The idea of a bought-off conservative politician succumbing to the pangs of conscience and doing the right thing on the floor of the Senate now qualifies as science fiction.)

Capra's admirers, though, have run the gamut. Even some of the more pretentious practitioners of filmmaking and scholarship (director John Cassavetes, and his academic biographer Ray Carney, for instance) have been unlikely Capra partisans. Capra represents a very American strain of populism in the movies that equates struggle with ultimate success. Capra himself was politically conservative, but his heroes and themes were typically left-leaning.

There are many critics of this book and of Capra, who have pointed out its inaccuracies and alleged half-truths. Capra has been accused of having selective memory and a mammoth ego (which he did). The man was a premier founder of the director's guild and brought glory to a tiny Poverty Row studio (Columbia) by winning for it a slew of Academy Awards. His pride was not without merit.

(KR@KY, rewritten and expanded in 2016)
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 1979 – Finished Reading
June 19, 2008 – Shelved
June 3, 2009 – Shelved as: celebrity-famous-bio
June 3, 2009 – Shelved as: movies-non-reference
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: tinseltown-decadence

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