by Richard Schickel
Frank Capra is a brave man. He might be called a premature auteurist, since long before that critical theory was enunciated he believed that the director was the logical person to be the author of a movie. “One man, one film” was his credo and he was not modest about taking credit for his work. To borrow the title of his autobiography, he believed his deserved to be “the name above the title” on his films and he fought for and won that prominent position when few others were able to do so. A little later Alfred Hitchcock would gain a similar position, but back in the 1930s Capra’s was—excepting perhaps DeMille’s—the most famous directorial name in the country. People responded to his skill, of course, but, more important, they responded to his populist beliefs. It was the decade of the little man, and Frank’s little men—Deeds, Doe, Smith—became archetypes which reflected back to us our best qualities—common sense, down-to-earthness, idealism, patriotism, fidelity to family values. We understood that the “little men” were fictions, but we felt that we were all capable of at least a few moments as fine as their finest. We also understood that there was nothing cynical in Frank’s presentation of them. True, they uncannily suited the spirit of the time, but neither then nor now—as we see the films anew—can we imagine that their creator made them up merely to cater to a mood, exploit our feelings. The integrity of the work was visible in every frame of Frank’s films. You could sense that feelings animating his films were authentic, highly personal. We now know that Frank was of humble origins, that he had reason to be grateful to the country that had given him, a poor immigrant kid, a chance to educate himself, a chance to gain fame, wealth and (most important) the power to express his strongest feelings in what was then the most powerful medium available to an artist.
But times change. The Second World War came along, and Frank went off to serve in it with great distinction as chief of the unit that made the Why We Fight series. He returned to (again somewhat prematurely) pioneer the age of independent production with Liberty Pictures, cofounded with other prominent directors, but then in the late 1940s and early 1950s found that his optimistic spirit was no longer in tune with the confused and groping spirit of a new time. Oddly, he found that he had had more independence as an employee on a contract at a studio than he did in the new independent era. Now enormous concessions were being made to stars, and Frank found himself at the mercy of a not very good actor who has long since faded into B westerns, Disney films and unsuccessful television series, but who was then riding high. Frank hated it, and if the name was still above the title, it no longer reflected, he felt, the true order of things. And so he quit.
But he is a proud and even egocentric man. He had liked standing above the crowd, and relished the fame that he had certainly not tried to avoid in the old days. To be visibly groping for a way to be true to himself and yet stay active in the business must have hurt him. To quit, to be in the cruel judgment of the industry a has-been, must have been brutal. I can’t pretend to know all his feelings in the matter. He is very guarded about them in his book and I never had the nerve to ask him. Once at a film seminar we both attended, I joined him at a lunch during which he was interviewed and the reporter asked him if he ever went back to the studios. He said sometimes, but that he didn’t dare enter a sound stage. They have, he said, a special odor, the residue of a chemical reaction set off when the arc lamps arc fired up, and that odor is an intolerable assault on his emotions. He spoke briskly, eager to get on to another subject.
But it is precisely here that his bravery becomes manifest. Frank says he always knew that if you were willing to take a lot of credit for your successes, it was inevitable that you would receive perhaps more than your share of the blame for your flops. And he took it quietly, without public expressions of bitterness, without changing his fundamentally optimistic view of existence. He moved out of Los Angeles into a house hard by the golf course in La Quinta, California, a new and prosperous settlement not far from Palm Springs. And though he makes good use of the golf course, it is not his major preoccupation. Instead, he sat down and wrote his excellent autobiography. It was a book-club choice and a strong seller in hardcover and paperback. Better still, it opened up a new career for him as a lecturer on films, mostly at colleges, but wherever people want to hear about the movies. As you will read in this interview, he takes great pride in the response he gets from young people, with whose specific political and social beliefs I suspect he frequently disagrees, but whose idealism he finds very familiar and similar to that which he expressed in his films and has felt all his life. He seems to me a very happy man, full of a restless energy, a bristling intellectual curiosity that I imagine to be unchanged from that which people must have felt on his sets thirty or forty years ago. He speaks rapidly, almost stammering, so quickly do ideas flood his tongue, and he is fun to talk to because, like King Vidor (whom he is unlike in most other ways), Capra is one of the few directors who have a conscious sense of what they were trying to do, and why, and can articulate it.
Nor does there appear to be any end in sight for his activities. The last time I talked to him he was passing through New York on his way from one lecture to another. He told me that he had just finished a magazine piece and that he was still struggling with a book, the subject of which he doesn’t want to talk about. All he will say is that it’s hard work. But of course he’s used to that.
When you arc driving to his house, incidentally, you never have to ask directions. It’s the one underneath a giant American flag which once flew over the Capitol in Washington. The flag is a challenge to the sky and a fine thing to see out there in the desert oasis where Frank lives. It marks the home of a self-made man who late in life made himself all over again. Frank still has energy to spare, and it animates wisdom, pride and great sweetness of spirit.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH AMERICA
I fell in love with Americans when I was a young kid. None of my family, not one, could read or write—my mother and father or brothers and sisters. And this struck me as just something that I couldn’t [stand]. I wanted to get an education more than anything in the world. I was going to learn how to read and write. Regardless of what they did. I was born a peasant, but I wasn’t going to die one. That’s all. Now, that’s [why] this thrust toward getting an education, toward getting ahead. And then how easy it was for me to get ahead—just because I had this ambition. How easy it was for me to find things to do. I worked my way through grammar school, through high school, through college. I did all kinds of things. I made money enough to, finally, in my last two years of college send my mother $90 a month. And yet I was okay on grades. Actually, I won the freshman scholarship prize at Cal Tech. I had this mania for education, for books, for learning. And I suppose [because of] the ease with which I got that and the opportunities that were given me to rise above my family so quickly and so well, I just forever admired this country and will forever love this country for giving me that opportunity.
My first big disillusionment came when I got our of uniform after World War I. I didn’t go anyplace, I just stayed in San Francisco all that time, teaching mathematics to artillerymen. [Hut] I couldn’t find a job afterwards. Here I was a chemical engineer, a diploma and all kinds of education behind me, I couldn’t find a job. Of any kind. I had to leave home. I couldn’t let my mother constantly keep me. One of the first jobs I got was to sell photographs house to house for the Heartset people. They had various photographic centers throughout the West Coast and you rang doorbells and asked if anyone wanted their children photographed or anything else and collected a dollar. And you gave them a little contract that would be good for twelve big pictures. And naturally I kept the dollar. The dollar was mine. So if I rang enough doorbells, this was good for three or four dollars a day. This was a fine little way to make a living whenever you wanted to work. Well, that took me from town to town, all over California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Arizona. I fell in love with Nevada. I stayed there a great deal of the time. I learned how to play poker. I could play a guitar very well as a kid. And I got a little job playing the guitar with small combos. … I lived freely. And I met the American people, day to day—farmer, gambler, saloonkeeper, doctor, dentist. And got to know them very well, got to like them.
“Fuller Fisher’s Boarding I louse” is a poem by Rudyard Kipling and it all takes place in a Calcutta barroom. It’s a very, very dramatic poem. Two men fighting for a girl and one of them killing the other one and then the other one suddenly kissing his cross and all this kind of stuff- very, very heavy. All in one reel. Everything happened fast. The man Montague, who had promoted this thing, was a vaudevillean. He was a Shakespearean actor. His act in vaudeville was doing little bits from great plays. So he translated this to the screen. He wanted to do these little poems, little gems as short subjects. And he had himself an idea—he used the stanzas as titles. You’d see the stanza right over the scene and then the scene would be played and then the next stanza would come and the scene would be played. So I went out just to see him [in San Francisco]. I was broke, absolutely broke. And I introduced myself as Frank Capra from Hollywood, which was true, but not in the sense that he thought. I wasn’t from the studio Hollywood. Our home was in Los Angeles. But the doors fell apart when I said “from Hollywood” and I was welcomed—asked to come and help them make this film. And being young and ambitious and broke, I said okay. But I didn’t want real actors because they’d know right away 1 hadn’t been near a camera or a studio. And that was my first film.
I was not aware of [the movies]. I’d go once in a while to see one of them, but they didn’t give me any great kick. No, it came on suddenly when I pecked through the camera, through the eyepiece of the camera, on a job I conned myself into with this man who didn’t know anything about films and I didn’t either but I was younger than he was. And I looked through the eyepiece of this camera and saw this little set and this stage—“Fuller Fisher’s Boarding House”’ and the bums in there and the sawdust and this bar. And I got a terrific thrill, goose pimples ran up and down my back. And I kept my eye glued to that camera. My, didn’t that look great! I’d move the camera a little bit. And I still get the same kick. If I go and look through the eyepiece of that camera, I still get the magic kick of seeing into a magic square. There’s life in this magic square that seems to be somehow unreal.
(Fascinated by this first experience of the craft that *would become his life’s work, Capra, after a few minor detours, made his way back to Los Angeles and got a job at the Mack Sennett studio as a gag writer. He takes up his story there.)
Mack Sennett was one of the most interesting characters. You can understand this character when you understand he didn’t like books. If you came in the studio with a book under your arm, he’d pull it right out and throw it in the wastebasket. Didn’t want any books. He kept saying, “No gags in books.’’ So if you read or in a sense were literate, he didn’t want you around because lie distrusted people who read. Now, gag men to him were something he didn’t quite understand but were absolutely necessary. So he kept them caged up on the top of a tower, a four-story tower. The bottom was administrative, the second was administrative, the third was administrative, and the top [was where] the prisoners of Edendale, as they called themselves—the gag men—worked. And they had to punch a clock at nine o’clock in the morning, twelve, one and six. Like the janitors and everyone else—no freedom for creativity at all. And there were these benches, depot benches they were, with armrests in the middle to keep you from lying down. So, if we had to sleep, we had to sleep on the floor.
Now, there was a little closed-in stairway from the third floor up to the rower. And Mack Sennett would take his shoes off and sneak up there and see if anybody was asleep. He caught a couple of people like this and he fired them quickly. You didn’t have to think of anything [right away]. You were good for six weeks if you didn’t open your mouth. But if you did open your mouth and you didn’t make him laugh, out you went. Anyhow, it was good for six weeks for anybody to get a job; they just went into thinking poses and that was okay [too]. But he didn’t want you to sleep. When I was there we got the head carpenter to raise the riser on one of the steps by about three eighths of an inch. So when he’d creep up there, he’d hit the high riser and stumble, and the noise, of course, would wake the dead and everybody would jump into thinking pose the minute he came up. He never did get on to it. It was there for years and years and years, that high riser, and he never got on to it; he always stumbled. He had it coming anyhow for sneaking up on us.
Now, Mack Sennett himself was not funny. He was not a jokester. He couldn’t tell jokes, but he could laugh. He had a laugh that rolled, a big basso laugh—it shook the windows when he laughed. I think if he laughed, the audience was pretty sure to laugh. What was funny to him would be funny to the audience. This was, of course, a great advantage in a producer. And we knew this and we used to try things on him. If he didn’t laugh, we threw it away. All except one gag that I had about a wheel coming off that I thought was funny. And I told it to him and he said, “No, it isn’t funny.” Ben Turpin was making violent love to Madeline Hurlock in a buggy and she was very cool to him and he w as very ardent in his way. And every time he’d grab her to kiss her, this w heel would almost come off on this cliff, you see. And every time he’d cool off, the w heel came back. And finally the wheel fell off and he fell off and he rolled down the [cliff]. Sennett said, “It isn’t funny. Don’t tell it to the director.” By the way, the only way that the writers could communicate with the directors was to tell them the story in front of Mack Sennett himself; nothing was written and nobody was allowed on the sets. But I told it to an actor who was working with Lloyd Bacon, who was the director. The actor told Bacon, Bacon shot the scene. They loved it. We [always saw] the rushes with Sennett, and that’s when he’d say, “We need another gag. . . . That’s no good there. . . . Somebody’s got to think up another gag. . . .” Anyway, he saw it coming and he said, “I thought I told you not to tell that to—” I said, “I didn’t tell him.” He said, “Well, somebody did, now get that crap off.” And I begged him to show it at a preview and he said, “No, no, no.” And finally he said, “Oh, I’ll teach you a lesson. I’ll take you to a preview. You come with me.” We went to the preview and the gag was very funny. And I thought, My goodness, this is really good. As we come out of the theater, he came over and he said, “Whose name is above that gate?” I said, “Yours, Mr. Sennett.” He said, “You’re god-damned right. You’re fired.” So that was the end of that gag. And I was fired. Being fired by Sennett didn’t mean much, really. If you stayed outside the gate and walked up and down like a penitent [looking] hungry and certainly respectful and everything else, he’d see you from the tower. You’d do that for a couple of days. Everybody had to do it. It was called walking the gate. You’d be fired, you’d walk the gate two days, then you could come back in. This was Mack Sennett.
HARRY LANGDON, THE STAR
I did have a great ambition to direct at all times. I wanted to be a director. I kept bugging Mack Sennett to give me a job as a director and he said, “What, and lose a good gag man?” To him directors didn’t mean much. So I’m signed up to write for Harry Langdon. I’ve never met him, but Harry Langdon had been around the studio there for about a year and they had put him with various comics—these fast-moving comics—and he was nothing. But Mack Sennett said, “There’s something to that man and I want you guys to find out what it is.” So it became my turn, and my partner, whose name was Arthur Ripley, and I had to look at this film of an act that Harry Langdon had done with his wife. He was the little hen-pecked husband. And we look at it and it wasn’t much. And somebody made the remark: “Only God can help that guy.” And that started me off. I said, “Yeah, that’s an idea. That’s Soldier Schweik, he sees no evil, hears no evil, bears no evil to anybody. He’s Mr. Good—he’s this good little elf. And only his goodness wins out.” Well, this got us started and we concocted a new story for him and a new star was born with this character—overnight. Funny—funny because he was so innocent. In a year or two he went out and they gave him a big contract to make features at First National, which is now Warner Brothers. And he took his team. He took the director he had, Harry Edwards, and he took me and he took Arthur Ripley as writers. We made one picture with him, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which was very successful. Then he began to get the swell-head. The director couldn’t take it any more and he quit. So [Langdon| advanced me up to directing. I would do anything to direct him, of course, and the first film I directed was The Strong Man, which I think was one of the ten best pictures of 1926. He was a great star, a new star. But you’d have to keep him from trying to emulate Chaplin. His great ambition was he wanted to do what Chaplin did. Chaplin wrote, acted and directed his own material. But Chaplin had invented his own character. He knew his character better than anybody. Langdon did not know his character, did not know why he was funny, did not know that his goodness was his power. But he wanted to be smart. He wanted to be Jack the Giant-Killer, like Chaplin was. And furthermore, he insisted on it, and when I argued with him about these things, he finally fired me. Then he began to direct himself. Now he was Chaplin. He wrote and directed himself, and his downfall was faster than his rise. It’s a great tragedy of a man not knowing what made him funny, not wanting anybody to help him, so jealous of Chaplin, so wanting to surpass Chaplin that he just flopped miserably. And he never did know why. That was the tragedy.
He spread rumors [that Capra had not directed Langdon] and thereafter I had a very difficult time getting a job again. I didn’t get a job for quite a while. Eddie Mannix of M-G-M said, “Oh, I’d like to give you a job, but you didn’t make those pictures. Langdon says he made them.” And I said, “Well, all I can tell you . . .” And he said, “But I gotta believe him.” I said, “Okay.” So—I had my sabbatical year.
The way back in for me was Columbia Studios, through “Poverty Row.” I had an agent and he said, “Go over there and see if they want to talk to you about directing.” So I went over there and the place stunk to me. It was a riff-raff of a place, it was really Poverty Row. True, the only place I’d been to was Mack Sennett, but Mack Sennett was heaven compared to this thing on Gower Street they called a studio. And that was my introduction to a very, very strange, odd, powerful, forceful and controversial man by the name of Harry Cohn. Later I asked why they wanted me, and Sam Briskin1 said, “He didn’t want you, I didn’t want you. But we looked through a list of unemployed directors and your name was at the top of the list. So he said, ‘Get me Capra. He’s on the top of the list.’ And I said’’—this is Briskin talking—” ‘But, Harry, what about the others?’ He said, ‘If Abraham was good enough for the Lord, Capra’s good enough for me.’ He said, ‘I want the top of the list— Abraham, Capra.’ ” That’s how I got in there.
When I found this out, I said, well, he’s a hunch player anyhow. And I began to perk up a bit. Of course, all kinds of stories have been told about Harry Cohn. They’re all true, but for a man who wanted to make pictures, he was ideal. He ran his own place. He didn’t have a committee running it. Not even the people from New York would tell him what to do, and so he made his own decisions and it’s wonderful to be working for a man who can give you a yes or no right now, and mean it, and not go back on it. And that’s the way he worked. And he wanted his employees to be the same. He wanted his employees to be cocky, to think they knew what they were doing, and to know what they were doing. And then he could sleep well. Then he’d let them spend his money. But if the employee—the writer or director or an actor—was unsure what he was doing, and was asking him for advice—out. And that way, many a sensitive artist went through that studio quite chewed up, but Cohn didn’t care. If you had guts, he’d give you an opportunity. If you didn’t, he didn’t want you around, no matter what your reputation was.
ONE MAN, ONE FILM
I made my first picture with Cohn for $1000—write it, produce it, direct it. If I couldn’t write it, produce it and direct it, I didn’t want it. And I worked twelve weeks on it. It turned out to be pretty good, according to their standards, and it was called That Certain Thing, so I got a contract for three more at the same price. Now I insisted, of course, that I get my complete freedom on free choice of material, complete freedom to cast the actors—I mean, not the stars, but the actors—complete freedom to edit the film any way I wanted to, and that’s the way it should be.
As long as I got small money, it didn’t matter to Cohn, really, because he could fire me any time he wanted to and replace me any time he wanted to, but he didn’t. So I learned. He and I got along together from the very beginning. I would have complete freedom, complete control of my own films. Now, he wasn’t paying me what other people would pay me, but that was okay, I traded money for power. I wanted to make my own films—“one man, one film” was for me a fetish. I wanted to show that it could be done. And I made about six or seven small pictures for him—$20,000-budget pictures—less than Sennett spent on a two-reeler, actually. But we made them in two weeks and then in two more weeks we edited them. Then I got my chance to replace a man by the name of Irvin Willat, who was making the big splash picture Columbia was making for that year, big headliner, Submarine, $150,000 budget. In the middle of it, Harry Cohn got a little worried about Willat. He didn’t like the rushes, he didn’t like the fact the Irvin was saying, “Well, how do you think it should be done?” So he said he wanted me. He called for me, his cockiest employee, to go down and replace—not because I was a better director than Irvin Willat, but because he thought he knew I had more guts, I could handle the situation better. And it took a lot of guts to handle it, really, because Irvin Willat and one of the stars. Jack Holt, were very dear friends. They were gentlemen of the old school and ramrod stiff. To have Irvin Willat replaced by a foreigner and a comedy director was ridiculous. So I had my problems in getting Jack Holt to [cooperate]. I finally got him to agree to it by picking on one thing: makeup. I said, “I want the makeup off you two guys.2 You look like bandbox sailors to me, you don’t look like United States sailors. You look like musical-comedy people and I want that toupee and all that stuff you’re wearing all off. Now, if you want to do it, fine. If you don’t want it, I’ll leave.” On the basis of that kind of attack, I stole their thunder. And I said, “Now, if you want to work with me for one day and see the rushes and then decide, I’ll leave it up to you. We left it on the one- day basis and they were very, very satisfied with what happened, so they went on and I finished the film. It was quite a film. Submarine. The first really big hit that I had.
FROM SILENCE TO SOUND
The biggest trouble we had was from the silent actors who were asked to read lines all of a sudden and memorize lines. And the biggest hangup was the silence. I mean the actual silence because everybody had to be still. The silent actors used to work with people hammering things, and directors shouting at them all the time, and cameramen yelling. There was always a lot of noise around a silent movie. And then everything was quiet, a thousand people yelling quiet at one time: “Quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet . . And suddenly the stillness would settle over you and the actors would shake. They weren’t used to the silence and this got them. The silent actors I’m talking about had the most difficult time of all. Those that came from the stage were used to it, but it was a big change, a big mutation from a silent actor to a talkie actor. And a lot of them didn’t make it—couldn’t make it.
There was a character in California by the name of Giannini. He started the Bank of America. It was called Bank of Italy at the time and changed to the Bank of America. Now it’s the biggest bank in the world. He started by financing the pushcart people—it was the kind of bank that made you think if you came in with an idea, they’d finance [it]. As a matter of fact, they were the first to finance motion pictures. If you had a story and a script and a star, you could go there and get part of the financing, which was a very big step [for] the motion-picture world.
At the time of the Depression, of course, everybody was talking about banks. Prior to that I’d been making films that sort of were escape films, entertainment, comedies. But this time I thought, Well, why don’t we make a picture about the contemporary hangups—you know, bank runs and things? So we concocted this story about a banker [like Giannini] who trusted the people. He loaned the money more on character than he did on collateral, much to the disgust of his board of directors and other bankers all around. Finally, he got into a jam, [through] this trust of the people, and there was a run on his bank. But he was saved by the same people that he trusted, who came to his help in whatever little way they could, and that made everything okay for him. So his trust was repaid and that was the idea.
Another thing about American Madness is interesting to me technically. I used to go to see my films in the theater and kept wanting to urge them on. I felt that the audience was way ahead of the film itself. They knew what was coming, they could anticipate what was coming. And this always worried me. Everything moved slower and I didn’t know whether it was the fact that the heads of the actors were so big or because the audience—perhaps a thousand pairs of eves and cars—would accept stimuli faster than one pair of eyes and ears. I didn’t know which. I tried talking it around, but I couldn’t get any answers from anybody. But I knew that in the movieola and in a small projection room, films that I had made looked all right. But I got them in the big theater and they slowed down. So I said I’ve got to do something about this. In American Madness a scene that would rehearse in one minute I’d [force the actors to] cut it down to forty seconds. It did look faster when we photographed it, but when we finally got it on the screen there was an urgency about it, and I saw that the audience couldn’t take their eyes off the screen. They were afraid of missing something . . . and I’ve used that accelerated pace in all the rest of the films I’ve made, except in mood scenes where pace is not a problem.
THE BITTER TEA OF FRANK CAPRA
I wanted an Academy Award very badly. I thought I was as good or better than the other guys. I had never had any worries about thinking I was good at all. This cockiness I had as a kid just stuck with me and I’m still cocky. And anyhow, coming in second is no better than coming in last, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to get out there in front. I wanted to win one of those Academy Awards for directing. It became an obsession; all ambitious people, all nutty people think that way. I’d seen how the Academy voted—they voted for art; they didn’t vote for comedy. They didn’t vote for this kind of junk I’m making. So I thought. What the hell. I’ll give them art. And I took on The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which is a story about miscegenation between a Chinese warlord and an American missionary. But I fell in love with the story, too. And I think I made a very fine picture out of it. I loved the film myself. It had a quality of honesty between these people.
This warlord said all the things that needed to be said about miscegenation, about racism. And I felt that this woman had depth enough to understand. She was so bigoted [at first]. And this reformation of this character from a bigot to one who could love anybody—why, this was an honest story to me.
But no Academy Award. As a matter of fact, it was one of the few pictures that lost money for Columbia, because it was barred from the English empire. And the English empire then was an empire. It meant Australia, Canada, Africa. And if you lost that British market, that was almost half of our market. So, when that lost money, that is when I took on Lady for a Day. I went back to comedy.
LADY FOR A DAY
Lady for a Day was [an even bigger] hit. The others [had been] minor hits. It came from a Damon Runyon short story. It was a fairy tale.3 The only star I could think of was Marie Dressier, and Louis Mayer wouldn’t let Marie Dressier go for anybody. And Harry Cohn had nothing to trade, so we couldn’t get her. But we finally got a seventy- year-old lady of the stage called May Robson and we used her. And she was wonderful in it.
May Robson had fifty years on the stage and she had an enormous voice that carried right to the top of the second-floor or the fifty-floor balcony. Now, you don’t need that kind of a voice for movies. In the motion picture, you only talk loud enough for the person you’re talking to to hear. You don’t have to reach an audience with it. That is done mechanically through the microphones. This she didn’t understand, [and] I took a test as she began reading these lines, and I said, Oh my, how do I tell this dear old lady we can’t use this voice? I thought she didn’t have any other kind of a voice but that. So I said to her, “I haven’t told you this, it’s not in the script, but there arc two detectives that don’t think you’re quite on the level with this whole thing—you being a grande dame. They kind of know you’re Apple Annie and they are constantly following you around, so that you must speak so that you don’t let them overhear what you arc saying because if you do, you’ll queer it.” She said, “Oh, I understand. I understand, yeah. I see. I see.” And she began to talk in a hushed voice that still carried. You could hear it all over the world practically, but it had this urgency and this excitement about it, this toned-down repression, and she was just wonderful. Sometimes a little lie helps things immensely.
IT — FINALLY — HAPPENED ONE NIGHT
The Oscar shower [finally] came when I was doing what I knew best- comedy. And besides that, timing and luck arc involved—it’s not such a great deal. But it was unexpected because Columbia had no votes in the Academy. I doubt that there were more than four or five Academy members in the whole studio. Mostly, Academy members were people who worked at M-G-M, Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal. Something from Poverty Row would never win an Academy Award. But it did. It Happened One Night won all five major awards, the only picture so far to have done so.
I was at a Palm Springs barber shop when I picked up a copy of Cosmopolitan, flipped through while I was getting a haircut and read a story called ‘‘Night Bus.” It sounded kind of interesting because it was about motels, busses, and I’d always wanted to make an exterior picture— to get out of the Poverty Row studio and make a film around the country. And this kind of hit me and so I asked the studio to buy it and they bought it for $5000. We laid it aside because I had some things to do. Finally we got around to it—Bob Riskin, the screenplay writer,* and I. A director directs a writer by falling in love with him and becoming friendly with him, and the two of them then collaborate and the man becomes part of a team, though it is still the director who’s got to make the decision. And this was the case with Bob Riskin and I. We were great friends and we loved each other. We were great audiences for each other. And we collaborated on all those stories we did with each other, but in the end I had to have final yes or no on everything because that was my province. That was why I was a director. I can’t say too much for Bob Riskin. He was the greatest screenplay artist that I’ve ever known—great ear for dialogue, and a great person to be around. And we had a symbiotic thing going between us. We created together. When that happens between a director and a writer, it is a wonderful thing for both.
But we couldn’t cast It Happened One Night. No girl wanted to play the part. Five girls turned it down, five girls. And finally we got Claudette Colbert to agree to play the part if we doubled her salary and could get through with her in four weeks’ time. She had a vacation [she wanted to take]. But then we couldn’t get a leading man. We wanted Bob Montgomery. He turned it down. Well, the perils of It Happened One Night just grew and I finally got pretty sick of it and said, “Let’s call it off, Harry, everybody says that bus pictures won’t go, so the heck with it.” And Cohn says, “No, no, w e have to make it, Louis B. Mayer wants to punish an actor and he’s told me I could have Clark Gable.” That was an order from Louis Mayer. Every time Mayer got a cold, Cohn did the sneezing. And so we had to make the picture because Louis Mayer had to punish Clark Gable. This is not a pretty way to start a film, so I asked Clark Gable to come over. He was absolutely roaring drunk when he came over to see me. I won’t tell you about that whole magilla, but we made the picture really quickly—four weeks. We stumbled through it, we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business: how sometimes no preparation at all is better than all the preparation in the world; and sometimes you need great preparation, but you can never outguess this thing called creativity. It happens in the strangest places and under the strangest of circumstances. I didn’t much care for the picture, [yet] it turned out to be It Happened One Night.
It opened in New York at the Music Hall and the reviews were very mediocre—two and a half stars for it in the Daily News. Other reviewers called it adequate. Some, entertaining. And the people didn’t come. The picture took in only $80,000 the first w eek, which was not enough to keep it as a holdover for a second week. And that boded ill for its future box-office return because the way it played at the Music Hall was considered a bell-wether of what it would do throughout the rest of the country. But when it got to the various cities—Salt Lake, Kansas City, places like that—it began to build. People would come to see it again and bring their friends, and instead of one week in Salt Lake, it would stay six weeks. It built right from the bottom. And after the first month, it became an avalanche. Critics went back to see it a second rime to see what all the shouting was about. And they still couldn’t see it. They went back again later on—six months later—and then, you know, some began to read some things in it, but most did not. [It succeeded because it was] pure entertainment, well-done entertainment, believable entertainment, and unfettered with any ideas, any big moral precepts or anything else. Just sheer entertainment, fun.
GOOD DEEDS, IDEALISTIC SMITH
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was the first film that I made in which I consciously tried to make a social statement. I wanted to see what an honest small-town man would do with $20,000,000—how he would handle it, and how he could handle all the predators that would surround him, and what good would come out of that thing, what statements you could make about a man being his brother s keeper. But I didn’t forget [entertainment], of course, and I think if I have any strength at all in the films that I make, it’s that I don’t forget the entertainment. I use comedy to, in a sense, warm people to my subject. I don’t say, “Now I’m going to tell you a moral tale and you’d better like it.” No, first I entertain them. I get them in the spirit of laughter and then, perhaps, they might be softened up to accept some kind of a moral precept. But entertainment comes first. Without it, it’s very heavy, and without it, you can’t sell the American people anything.
Mr. Deeds was really a man of the people. I mean, he was people himself. He was a small-town man. .Mr. Smith [in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington] was also small-town people, but he was an educated man, an idealist on a higher level. Mr. Deeds was honest, but not necessarily an idealist. He didn’t go out and really think up this thing to do with the money; it was forced on him. But Mr. Smith was a young Ivy League idealist who gets put into the Senate, a dewy-eyed freshman—always speaks of Jefferson and Lincoln and Washington, is full of the ideals that started this country. And he gets into the Senate and sees it work- how it works. The pragmatic work of politics [reveals itself and we see] how disillusioned he becomes and his reaching down for something strong within him and his determination to fight it.
[Official Washington] turned against the film. Hollywood has always been a dirty word in Washington anyhow. And the fact that somebody had nerve enough to make a film about the Senate—this real aristocratic club, private club, private preserve—have this snotty-nosed thing called films get in there—was a revelation to them of the power of film, the power of film to do what they hadn’t been able to do, which was expose the workings of something and really tell people all about it visually.
The Washington premiere was under the auspices of the National Press Club at Constitution Hall. All the elite of Washington was there, four thousand of them, to see this Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Two thirds of the way through the picture, they started walking out, booing, disgusted. About the time of the filibuster [in the movie] they really began to walk out in droves. And the newspapermen were just vicious about it and the Senators were all vicious about it. The next day they voted against it ninety-six to nothing. And it was a great surprise because we had previewed the picture with various audiences and they loved it. And critics all over the country loved it. But this group in Washington really lambasted it. There was so much hue-and-cry about it that producers and studios in Hollywood began to fear that some punitive legislation would be passed against motion pictures, such as a bill, then being discussed, proposing to break up the combines of production and distribution and exhibition. So [the other studios] offered Columbia $2,000,000 if Columbia would shelve the film. Now, that was much more than the picture cost, it cost about $1,500,000, so it would have been a fine profit for Columbia. Of course, I objected violently. And I had many a talk with Mr. Harry Cohn and said, “No, this is the wrong thing to do. We’ve made this film. We have to show it. That’s just a few people. Don’t let them run this country. The people like the picture, the people like it. And that’s our money, not the Senators’. The hell with them; let them do what they want.” The big pressure (finally] was a cablegram that came from London. Now, you must realize that Mr. Smith came out in October 1939 and Hitler had just invaded Poland. The whole world was going up in flames. The cable was from Joseph P. Kennedy, Ambassador to the Court of St. James at the time, saying [in effect], “For God’s sake, don’t show that picture in Europe. It’ll be taken as Nazi propaganda. It’ll put us all in such a bad light that it’ll destroy the morale of the Allies. Please don’t show the film.” Well, this coming from a source like that really made us stop and think: Have we got something here that is anti-American? That’s exactly what the problem was. I pleaded with them not to listen to politicians, but to release it and show it and send it to Europe. And, thank God, we did. Thank goodness, Columbia Pictures had enough guts to show the picture.
Three years later, I think it was, when I was in the Army, the Germans had overrun France. The Vichy government was in power. They told all the movie theaters they had one more month to run Western films, and that’s all. From that time on, only German films would be run. The theater managers went around to their various customers and said, “Well, now look, we’ve got thirty days. What do you want to see?” And they selected the pictures they wanted to see. Invariably, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was one of them. And not only that, but one of the theaters ran it every day the last thirty days. People came from all around to see this film, and to cheer when the man made his speech about liberty. They refreshed themselves. It was like Antaeus touching the ground every’ time he needed to refresh his strength. This was a marvelous example of the power of the film. A marvelous demonstration that it’s never untimely to ring freedom’s bell.
JIMMY STEWART AND JEAN ARTHUR
Jean Arthur was an enigmatic figure because she doesn’t do very well in crowds, and she doesn’t do very well with people, and she doesn’t do very well with life, but she docs very well as an actress. She’s afraid. She’d stand in her dressing room and practically vomit every time she had to do a scene. And she’d drum up all kinds of excuses for not being ready. Well, I finally got to know her. All I had to do was push her out in the lights, turn the camera on, and she’d blossom out into just something wonderful, very positive, certain. An assured, poised, lovely woman. And she could do anything, could express love or hate or anything else. And when the scene was over, she’d go back into that dressing room and cry. She certainly had two sides to her: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality. She’s quite a study.
Jimmy Stewart first of all is a very, very fine actor. He’s a fine man. He can project whatever his thoughts are. He can project what he’s dreaming, what’s in his heart, what’s in his soul. He can let you see that. He’s a very humble man. And at the same time he’s very educated and a very knowledgeable sort of a guy. But he’s got this wonderful quality —all the women want to mother him, that’s his great quality. Now, they don’t want to jump in bed with him, perhaps, but they certainly want to mother him. When he’s in trouble, they’re for him. They want to help him.
To act hoarse for the filibuster scene [in Mr. Smith J would be an additional hurdle that he would have to go through in doing this part. So I thought I’d like to relieve that [burden] from his mind. I asked a doctor, “Look, you can cure a sore throat, can you produce one?” And he says, “Oh, sure.” So about three times a day he’d swab Stewart’s throat with a vile mercury liquid of some kind-that would swell his vocal chords and make him hoarse. He’d have to tight to get that voice out. That, of course, was a great, great help in playing that part.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU
You Can’t Take it with You I usually refer to as the first hippie picture —thirty years ago. A group of people who were tired of the whole rat race, you know, want to do their own thing and they get together in the house and do it. This just follows along with my feeling that the individual should be an individual, no matter what other people think of him. The individual is divine, he’s worthy, he’s unique and he’s the most important thing there is. So this, in a sense, was individualism gone mad, this You Can’t Take It with You. This family of individuals got together and lived their own lives and did a pretty good job of it. It won the Best Picture of the Year at the time it was made, and it was a very big popular success too, which was a pretty good combination—if you could get an Academy Award and get people to the box office at the same time.
Harry Cohn was taking a gang of us to the Stanford-USC football game up at Palo Alto on the train. I went into the station to pick up something to read and I picked up this book called Lost Horizon. I had heard [Alexander] Woollcott say something about it on the radio. I read it that night before going to bed, but I couldn’t really go to sleep. I his book, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about it all night long, and in the morning when I got up for breakfast with Harry Cohn, I said, “Harry, that’s my next picture. Buy it for me.” And he said, “W hat is it about?” I said, “Well, never mind reading it. It’s going to cost an awful lot of money, I can tell you.” And he said, “W ell, we can’t spend a lot of money.” I said, “Well, that’s it. That’s the next picture.” He said, “How much do you think it’s going to cost?” “I think it’s going to cost about $2,000,000.” He said, “What!” But he bought it and we made it. I thought it had an enormous statement to make, this Lost Horizon. I thought, first of all, it’s a good tale, it’s a mystery story, hijacking of a plane, people brought in against their wishes from a lot of far-off places and being forced to live there in Shangri-La and then loving it finally. I mean, it’s not only about an idea, but it’s great theater, great melodrama, great suspense. Plus the idea of Shangri-La—that they are collecting all of the good things of the world in case things are destroyed by war and here we will still be when the strong have eaten each other, here we will be. Now, I think that’s one of my great films.
MEET JOHN DOE
(In making Meet John Doe] we did have great difficulty with the ending. I think for seven eighths of the film it’s a great, great film, with great power, great emotion, and then the ending, of course, to me has always been weak. And we didn’t have one at the beginning. I thought it would come during the making of the show. It didn’t. And at one time we had three different endings playing at various places. In Washington we had one ending, in New York one ending, in San Francisco another ending—trying to see if the audience would tell us which they preferred. None of those three was satisfactory, either to the audience or to me. When, all of a sudden, here comes a letter from the outside, signed “John Doe.” And it said, “The only way you can keep that man from jumping off that City Hall on Christmas Eve is if the John Does themselves come and tell him he’d be much more use walking around than dead.’’ And my gosh, this was the best ending we could [come up with]. I’m surprised we didn’t think of it. But it came from the outside, so we brought the whole cast back in. We went up to the set and shot that ending. And that ending is the ending that is now on the film. And yes, it’s perhaps the best of the lot. And probably because it came from the outside rather than from within us. I don’t think it’s as good an ending as the audiences say, but it is the best ending we had.
John Doe was to me an important film because it did dig pretty deeply into the tempo and the mood of our times, which was fear of military aggression, fear of losing our sense of well-being and our sense of satisfaction, and fear that we might lose everything that we ever stood for. Hitler was a real, real problem. When he came, his stuff was real poison. I’ll tell you how poisonous it was. In the films, we were not allowed to use Jewish comedians any more because they put the Jews in a bad light with their dialect and their long noses and things like that. That was how frightening this thing was. It poisoned the minds of men like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn into saying, “No more Jewish comics in our films. We don’t want to give Hitler any ammunition.” This is how deep it went. And I remember having to give Benny Rubin little odd jobs—inserts of his feet and his hands—to keep him going. I low terrible this bigotry is, this poison. There were fascist groups and there were people who were developing paramilitary organizations, usually very rich people, very powerful people, in order to take over—when it happened [when war came]. This was what John Doe was about: a man who was just a drifter—just a man. A baseball pitcher with a bad arm, not even the bush leagues would have him any more, and he was a bum who was taken up by a newspaper person who made him into a cause, made him say that he was so disappointed with the way world conditions were that he was going to jump off the City Hall building at Christmas Eve as a protest against all the evils of man’s inhumanities to man. And this got a lot of attention in the press and so forth. Now, he was paid to say that, but he finally began to believe in it. He got caught up in the idea when he saw how it affected people. John Doe Clubs began to form. People would form anything to sort of herd together in little groups so they could trust their neighbors. They formed these clubs and talked to each other, helped each other. They didn’t feel so much alone. They felt maybe they could stave off these coming things that Hitler was talking about.
Naturally, as these clubs were being formed, somebody said, “We’re going to take advantage of these clubs.” The newspaper owner decided to take advantage of them, to finance them and help them, that way getting them to vote a third ticket [on which he would be] made President of the United States. But when John Doe finds out about it at a big convention of the John Docs, he [decides to tell the truth]—to spill the beans. Whereupon the newspaperman beats him to it and gets up and says, “This man’s a fake. Been a fake all his life. He’s fooled me as well as he has you. I’ve put up a lot of money for this thing. He has no idea of jumping off anything. He’s a pure fake.” And now the people turn on him as well. Up to then we have a real fine story, lots of conflict, lots of decisions. Now what? It was as if St. Patrick slew the dragon and then got killed himself. I mean, there were no answers if this man jumped off the roof. So, when the people turned on him, [you see that] your neighbors can turn on you and can turn on each other and can turn on somebody if they arc disillusioned. If you get their hopes up and they open their hearts to you and then they find out you are a fake, well, you’d better watch out for those people. They don’t like to be disturbed and opened up like that and then be double-crossed. And this is what made John Doe such an interesting picture, showing that people can become mobs, and one of the occasions they can become mobs is when they become disillusioned, when somebody has tricked them.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
I knew I was going into the Army. I had volunteered the year before, and the way things were happening, it was only a matter of time before we were in war—it seemed imminent. And I thought. Well, if I go into the Army, I’d like to have something going for my family while I’m there. Perhaps I can find a picture that I can make fast and get a percentage of the profits. Then that will keep them going, it’ll be something for them. So I saw Arsenic and Old Lace on the stage in New York, fell in love with it, and I said, Here’s the thing I can do fast, quickly, I can do it in one set. Then I found out that Warner Brothers had already bought it. But they couldn’t make the film for another three or four years because that’s how long the play would run and they couldn’t make the film out of it until the play stopped running, which might be three years from then, which would spoil my plans. Bur anyhow I didn’t give up. I said, “Could I make that film for you now? I got the two little leading ladies, little women in the show. I got the guy that runs up stairs and says, ‘Charge!’ and I got Cary Grant for your lead.” Warner said.
“But I can t release it now. I said, “Well, I know, but you can release it later. I’ll make it now.” I talked him into it and we made it in about four weeks, as a matter of fact, and that truly was a fun show, as far as I was concerned. I had everybody going—the actors were crazy about it. Peter Lorre and Cary Grant had a ball with the whole thing. Grant is a great comedian, a great light comedian. He’s very good-looking, but he’s also very funny. That makes a devastating combination, and that’s why he’s been a star so long. I think he’s been a star for forty years, and is still a star today because he is a great entertainer. And fun to work with, lots of fun to work with.
Leni Riefenstahl made what I think is the powerhouse propaganda film for all time, a film called Triumph of the Will, which glorified the Nazi Party and, in a sense, deified Hitler. She scared the hell out of me. The first time I saw that picture, I said, “We’re dead, we’re gone, we can’t win this war.” [I responded] just exactly as the Austrians did and the Czechoslovakians did and the Channel countries did. That picture just won them over. They were frightened. That shows you the power of that film, or any film if you make the right film. When I saw it, I just thought. How can we possibly cope with this enormous machine and enormous will to fight? “Surrender or you’re dead”—that’s what the film was saying to you. And how do we counter that? It took us quite a little while. There was a lot of worry before I got an idea that might work. And the idea was to just fight back with their own words. I thought if our young soldiers could just hear what the enemy had to say, they would know why we were fighting without being told. That was the premise of Why We Fight films. We didn’t produce anything, we didn’t shoot anything except headlines and maps. The rest was all taken from German films. We just showed our soldiers a piece from Triumph of the Will and other films and they seemed to get the idea better that way than if we tried to tell them what bastards the Nazis were.
It was General Marshall’s idea to produce these shows, not mine. He’s the one that got me to come into the Army. He’s the one that asked them to get me. I didn’t know why I was asked to join the Army until he told me, and he said, “This is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to tell our young men why they’re in uniform. They’re going to fight seasoned soldiers who’ve got a thing going for them, a superman thing, and the soldiers believe it. And we haven’t got that. But,” he said, “I think free men will prove themselves stronger. And I think if they’re informed completely, we will have no trouble with Americans holding their own against this military machine. If you shoot at Americans, they’re going to shoot back. That’s axiomatic. But what are they going to do when they’re stuck on these islands, they’re stuck in these bases, and waiting here and waiting there when homesickness comes in? And all the nice things they had at home, they can’t have them, what about the morale then? This is what we’ve got to worry about. Why are they in uniform? Why arc they in deserts and in these jungles and these places like this? ” And this is the job he gave me, and I thought it was great, only a great man could think in those terms [about informing] the common soldier.
We did have a lot of problems breaking away from the Signal G>rps and getting a separate unit to make these Why We Fight things. But we did it, just strictly by going out and doing it. This is exactly what General Marshall wanted somebody to do. He wanted them done, no matter what. So we got them done. And I say God bless the Army; we did it anyhow. It’s possible to do things in the Army if you work hard enough.
When we were making the Why We Fight series—which was a big enough job and we had our hands full—Secretary of War Stimson sent word to me that he wanted me to make a film showing what the blacks had at stake in this country, what they had done, how they had helped develop this country, because the morale of the blacks in the Army w as very, very low. The amount of discrimination was just terrible. Well, I didn’t want to take the job on. I tried to get out of it, but couldn’t. He said, “Would you please come up here and read something?” So I went into his office and he handed me a sheaf of papers and these w ere reports of cases of discrimination that had taken place in various parts of the country, various parts of the Army. Some of them were truly unbelievable—that man could degrade his fellow human beings in so many ways. I could see what was in Secretary Stimson’s mind. So I said. “Okay—I don’t know what it’ll be like, but we ll work on it.” We went to work on it and I found out things that I didn’t know about the blacks. I found out that the first man to be killed at Bunker Hill was a black, that there was a black kid in the boat with Washington crossing the Delaware, there were blacks that played a very important part in our history here and there. I didn’t know these things. So we made a film in which our primary interest was to show the blacks in the Army that they had a stake in the United States that they wouldn’t have if Hitler and Japan took over. In other words, it was to their advantage, in spite of all the discrimination, that Hitler should not win the war, nor should the Japanese win the war, because then they would really be [sent] back to slavery. The other purpose of the film was to show the whites what the blacks had done in our history for our country.
When we finished it, we called in about two or three hundred leaders —especially editors and writers of black newspapers. And we brought them all into the Pentagon, seated them all in one big projection room. They were sure they were going to get some kind of a snow job and I had to tell them what the film was about and I had to tell them how it was made and I had to tell them that if they didn’t like it, we wouldn’t show it. They were the first ones to see it. If they had any objections to it, it would not go out. Those were my orders from General Marshall. So we ran it for them. The film ran about forty minutes. There was complete silence after the film. They were kind of stunned. This was the first time any documentary film had been made about the black race in America. Finally, one man spoke: “.Mr. Capra, we know about the kind of films you made in Hollywood. But how come the Army brass let you make this kind of a film? How do you get away with it?” I said, “The Army brass is not letting me get away with anything. I was ordered to make this film because there are people at the top here who care about these things, they care about them, probably, more than I do, because they ordered me to make it. And this is a training film to be shown to all soldiers, black and white, and we won’t show it unless you say the word.” W ell, they were unanimous in praise of the film, and we showed it. But the point is that for the first time I was able to say there arc people at the top in this Army who care about these things. And I’m sure it has something to do with alleviating the morale problem of the blacks. It didn’t cure it, but it did alleviate it, because many of the white soldiers hadn’t known these things about blacks. This is again the power of film.
That idea [for an independent production company owned by directors] came into being while we were in uniform. George Stevens was in uniform, Willie Wyler was in uniform, John Huston was in uniform, Sam Briskin was in uniform. There were quite a few of us in uniform who thought perhaps we should come back and make films as individual director/producers, form a unit [owned by] director/producers, not a studio. But we wanted film-makers, not stars. So we formed Liberty Films—George Stevens, William Wyler, Frank Capra, Sam Briskin. And the first film we made was It’s a Wonderful Life. And by the time we got through with It’s a Wonderful Life, it was 1947 and it was right after the war and the boom was over. We found that theaters which were filled throughout the war were not filled any more. Great, great drop in box-office attendance. And it evidently was not the time when we could make a go of it with an independent unit, because there was no way to finance it. We had to draw salaries from the money we put in the company and we kept paying income tax on the salaries. It was the most gentlemanly way of going broke, and the fastest way, anybody ever thought of. We didn’t have enough capital, so we decided to sell Liberty Films, which was a very, very hopeless thing to do. My partners did not want to sell. But I got cold feet, and I’m the one who insisted that we sell. And I think that probably affected my picture-making forever afterward. Once you get cold feet, once your daring stops, then you worry a little bit. And when you worry about a decision, then you’re not going to make the proper films any more. That is, I couldn’t. And I think that was the start. When I sold out for money, which is something that I had always been against anyhow, and security, I think my conscience told me that I had had it. Really. There wasn’t any more of that Paladin out there in front fighting for lost causes. I dragged my partners into it [selling out]. We shouldn’t have sold it. We could have made it go. And it was a thing in my life I’ve regretted ever since, having sold Liberty Films.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Wonderful Life was the first picture we made with Liberty Films and it was my production. And to me, that’s a great film. I love that film. It’s my favorite film, and in a sense it epitomizes everything I’d been trying to do and trying to say in the other films. Only it docs it very dramatically with a very unique story. The importance of the individual is the theme—and no man is a failure. If he’s born, he’s born to do something, he’s not born to fail. And this idea is carried out in a unique way because a man who thought he was a failure, and thought everybody around him would have been better off had he never been born, was given a chance to see how the world around him would have been, his own small little world, had he not been born.5 And he suddenly saw that it would have been a much worse place, much worse world, had he not been born. And he realized that life was a wonderful, tremendous thing to have, a great enormous gift, and that everybody must do something with it. And that he was not a failure at all, he was actually a pretty successful man. And, as his own brother says, “He’s the richest man in town,” really, because he has the most friends. The uniqueness of the plot is what prompted me to make the film and why I loved the film so much.
STATE OF THE UNION
State of the Union was a Pulitzer Prize play and quite an important property. We had to make it at M-G-M because I wanted Spencer Tracy in it, and Spencer Tracy wanted to play the part very badly, and the only way we could get Spencer Tracy in the part was to make it at M-G-M and have the picture released through M-G-M even though it would be owned by Liberty Films. So that’s the way I finally got to M-G-M after, I think, the fourth attempt to make a picture there. I found it a very pleasant place to make a film—on my own terms. But the Un-American Activities Committee had gotten into the act about “reds” in Hollywood at that time. We had in the cast Adolphe Menjou, who was quite a right-winger, and then we had a left-winger in Katharine Hepburn. Now the whole press flocked onto this set, hoping to start some controversy, and everything was controversial at the time. The Un-American Activities Committee was meeting in Hollywood and calling people in as “reds” and trying, you know, to ferret out the Communists they said had infiltrated films during wartime. But I must say that those two people, Menjou and Hepburn, they might have talked privately, but they never on the set showed one bit of animosity toward each other. They were professional people doing their parts. They were wonderful to work with as actor and actress.
It was a very, very bad time in Hollywood. People didn’t trust each other any more. And the Writers’ Guild had great problems internally between the lefts and the rights, and in the Directors’ Guild we had our problems. My attitude toward Communism was that I could never understand a great deal of it. There arc two things that I can’t understand, really. I couldn’t understand M-G-M directors w ho said they didn’t mind other directors finishing their pictures. Why should anybody want somebody else to finish his picture? The other thing I couldn’t understand was why writers became Communists. Writers! The free- spirited, freewheeling thinkers of all rime arc writers. Writers, who should be free to write against and for anything! I low could they put their heads in a block of cement, a dictatorship like Communism? And yet many writers became Communists. I just couldn’t understand it. There were many things I couldn’t understand, but there was one thing I tried to understand all the time, and that is the dignity and the importance of the individual. I tried to hang on to that. And that I tried to hang on to all the way throughout my films.
COMEDY AND TRAGEDY
I don’t believe in tragedies. I’m not interested in them. I’m an optimist, and comedy to me is victory. Victory over anything. Tragedy is failure. I just don’t believe in failures. And it’s a strange thing about comedy. I think that the gospels arc a comedy—good news. I think that the greatest comedy of all is the Divine Comedy—the Resurrection, victory over death. Every Sunday the Catholics celebrate the mass, celebrate a victory over death. That’s what comedy means to me. Victory over your environment. When you think about it in those terms, you probably know a little bit more why I use so much comedy in my films and what comedy means to me. And happy endings mean the same thing to me. I’m not interested in defeat; we have too much going around already. And I think what is going on all over the United States is lack of morals, lack of ideals. I think it’s up to you young guvs to get yourself some ideals and stick to them and to hell with this nonsense that there is nothing but greed and power and gain out there. Sure, the good people—good hasn’t taken over the earth. But neither has evil taken over the earth. And you shouldn’t let it. Think in terms of ideals—in terms of self-commitment to ideals that are positive. Boy, we confuse them today. We can use a Mr. Deeds, we can use a Mr. Smith today in our country—in our highest places. We lack morality, we lack ideals.
Everybody has those kinds of dreams. I wanted to make Cyrano very much throughout my whole life, but I had no chance to. I wanted to make Don Quixote, Cervantes’ show. I never got an opportunity to make that. I’ve always wanted to make those two. I read them over and over at times. I also wanted to make the story of Saul who later became Paul, which to me is one of the greatest stories ever told: a man, a Hitler-type guy, suddenly becomes converted and becomes the thirteenth apostle- great story of an individual, great story of clashes of ideas. I wanted to make the story of Luke, a Greek, a born slave of the Romans, who worked his way up and becomes a great physician—doesn’t believe all that mystical nonsense about religions—he’s a complete scientist—how he gets converted and becomes an apostle—what happens to him.
These are enormous tales about individuals who’ve got to make choices. Drama is choices, drama is a man having to choose this or that— the more difficult the choice, the more intense the drama. And when he makes one choice, it’s failure, it’s tragedy; you make another choice, it’s victory. Now, it’s that choice, that’s what drama is. And that’s why when you’ve got to tell an idea, you tell it through people actually acting out the idea, not through rhetoric, or not through preachment, or not through talking like you would in a tract. You tell drama through people. If your film is dubbed message, you haven’t got anything. First you’ve got to entertain; first you’ve got to get the people to like the people on the screen, to make the audience forget they are actors and think they are living human beings. When you can involve the audience that much, this grand illusion takes place. These shadows become real and you become hooked with a human being. You pull for them, you pull against them, you become involved with them. Then you arc able to get across some message, some piece of morality. And that’s the way to sell messages, that’s the way to sell anything. That’s the way to make the whole thing believable.
In 1951, ’52, ’53, television aerials began sprouting all over the tops of houses, and the studio executives, picture executives, were quite sure that the film business was over with, that television was going to bring the theater to the home and that nobody would go to theaters any more. So they sold out. They canceled their contracts with their stars, canceled their contracts with directors and writers and just abdicated. And left a vacuum in Hollywood. All kinds of people out of work. And there were two talent agencies that felt the unemployment greatly. The William Morris office and MCA. They were our of money because their clients weren’t working. So they decided to package their own clients in the independent production companies and borrow money from banks and make independent productions with their own clients. And independent production was born in Hollywood. It is still there now. Eighty percent of it is done independently.
Well, the film business was not dead. These independent companies went out and made pictures that made money and, lo and behold, everything was okay. But in order to borrow money for individual films, bankers (or bankers’ wives, I don’t know which one, I have a hunch it is the wives more or less) said they had to have stars in the pictures before they would lend money to any producer. They wouldn’t lend money to an independent director or producer unless he had two stars. Or one great big star. There were only a few stars around that they [the bankers] could accept. [Now] because these stars were not dumb, because they were used not only for their performances, but as collateral, their salaries went up. They used to get $50,000 a picture, which was big, but they went for $100,000, $200,000, $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, $1,000,000 a picture, finally. And with them they drew up all the other satellites. But [the trouble was] not so much that the salaries went up, but that when a star gets ten times as much as the director, he has to feel somehow that he is ten times as important to the film. Therefore he wants a piece of the film now. And when he gets a cut of the film, then he becomes an owner. He made the decisions. And he became the actual producer because you couldn’t do without the acting. People like me couldn’t possibly make pictures under those circumstances. I tried it. I tried it in Hole in the Head; it worked in Hole in the Head because Sinatra is a very smart man. If somebody is around that knows his business, he lets them operate. But it didn’t work in Pocketful of Miracles. For me. And so I was really forced out of the business because I wouldn’t yield to supervision by stars. I wouldn’t let stars tell me how to make a picture. It was just that simple. And then I liked being out of work. I started doing other things, and here I am talking about film again.
So I retired. I made four educational films for the Bell Telephone System and I loved making those because they were a subject that was very dear to my heart: education. Then I thought I’d write a book and I did write my autobiography [and] that proved to be very successful and that was very gratifying. And then what? Should I go back to making pictures when I just couldn’t see myself making films again? It’s a personal thing with me. I know what it takes to make a motion picture, it takes a tremendous amount of physical energy, a tremendous amount of mental energy, nervous energy. It’s like fighting a war, the logistics of making a film are a terrific burden on you. The hours and the responsibility and the suspense—you never know what you have until you finally see the picture with a thousand people. You’ve got to be young to take all that. You take it better when you’re young. And as you get older, you worry more, because you know more. And this knowledge is no good for show business at all. The less you know, the better off you are. You’ve got to trust your instincts, you’ve got to gamble, you’ve got to trust your hunches. A hunch is the only thing that really counts. If you get a big hunch, that’s better than adding up all the figures and coming up with the right answer, because it’s a creative business, an intuitive business. It is not just a skill. You’ve got to make your decisions, and they are gut decisions when you make them, mostly.
If you make a decision on trends or on past performances, if you try to treat motion pictures like you do horses, you handicap them and you make book or you go on past performances, you’re doing the wrong thing. You’ve got to go on your own judgment entirely. That’s the safest. You’ve got to make your decisions fast, then you mustn’t worry about them after you make them, right or wrong. You’re going to make a lot of wrong ones. As you get older, what happens to you, you take a little longer to make the decisions and you worry about some of them. You worry about whether you’ve made the right ones or not and that’s fatal in the creative business. It really is a young man’s game. Not that I couldn’t make a good picture today, probably make as good a picture as I ever made, but I’d feel better if I were younger. And I knew, too, that I couldn’t make the kind of pictures that I wanted. I couldn’t make them again.
So what else is there for me? Well, I’ve always been interested in the young people and in the schools, so at the moment I’m going around doing lectures and holding seminars for students at various universities. I’ve done a great deal of that and I find that very rewarding and profitable as an individual. As a matter of fact, I feel as useful today as I did at any time in my life. And talking to the young people certainly is a revitalizing thing. This is the film generation. These young kids, even in the elementary grades, go around filming each other, little scenes with each other. They will create directly for the film rather than translate from another medium. And I think it’s their art, it’s their art form. They are finding that out. And the great films arc yet to come and they’re going to come from the students.
In these seminars and lectures that I do, they actually love my films. They love them because in some ways there is some kinship. They arc moved by these films the same way |audiences) were moved thirty years ago, thirty-five years ago. All young people are idealistic. Therefore this idealism that comes forth in some of these films that I made, that’s their meat. And so they’re very strong for them, and I’m some kind of minor-league folk hero with some of the students that I’ve seen, and it just pleases me no end. And at the same time I can tell them some of the positive things about life. That not all people go around kicking each other in the teeth or in the groin. That love is still the most moving force in the world. And that honor and honesty and a few things like that, they’re things to hang on to, and to make pictures about. And not to have all our heroes creep heroes, to have some other heroes, moral heroes who give their life for a cause, for an ideal, for something. And this interests them, and it interests me, of course. And if I can be useful in this way, that’s the way I’d like to spend the rest of my life.
1. Briskin was Harry Cohn’s executive assistant. For many years he played “good cop” to Cohn’s “bad cop.”
2. The other star was Ralph Graves.
3. About a streetcorner apple vendor who is briefly projected into high society.
4. Riskin had credit on a number of Capra’s films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It with You, Meet John Doe.
5. In a remarkable dream sequence.