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It Was a Wonderful Life

A treasure-trove of video offerings testifies to the richness of Frank Capra's long film career.

May 15, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Capra was the first of the Hollywood directors to have his name above the title. His populist movies championed lost causes, the inherent goodness of the common man and American values.

His films lifted the spirits of audiences of the Great Depression, though cynics referred to his fable-like tales as "Capra-corn."

Capra, who died in 1991, won Oscars for best director for 1934's sparkling "It Happened One Night" (Columbia TriStar, $20), 1936's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (Columbia TriStar, $20) and 1938's "You Can't Take It With You" (Columbia TriStar, $20).

He made Jimmy Stewart a major star in his endearing 1939 political comedy "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (Columbia TriStar, $20), and transformed James Hilton's magical fantasy "Lost Horizon" into an equally enchanting 1937 film (Columbia TriStar, $20) starring Ronald Colman. Capra's beloved 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" (Republic, $15) starring Stewart, has become the ultimate holiday movie.

Sunday marks the 100th birthday of Capra, who was born in Palermo, Sicily, and immigrated to California at age 6. Thankfully, a vast majority of Capra's films are available on video.

Capra got his big break when he was hired by Mack Sennett in 1925 as a gag writer for screen comic Harry Langdon. When Langdon moved to First National to make features, he took Capra with him. Kino recently released the first two films Capra directed starring Langdon--the wonderfully funny 1926 comedy "The Strong Man" ($30) and the offbeat "Long Pants" ($30) from 1927.

One of the best of his early farces is 1931's "Platinum Blonde" (Columbia TriStar, $20). Loretta Young, Jean Harlow and a very engaging Robert Williams star in this witty screwball comedy about a newspaper reporter who marries a society gal only to discover he doesn't like the confines of his new life.

Capra goes dramatic with good, albeit sentimental, results in 1932's "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (Columbia TriStar, $20). One of Capra's favorite leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck, stars in a tragedy about the unrequited love between an American missionary and a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther). Dated, but definitely worth watching.

Columbia TriStar will be releasing two more vintage Capra films on June 3: 1931's "The Miracle Woman" ($20), starring Stanwyck as a popular evangelist who delivers her sermons inside a caged lion's den; and 1932's "American Madness" ($20), a Depression-themed drama starring the wonderful Walter Huston.

Also new from Columbia on June 3 is the documentary "Frank Capra's American Dream" ($20).

Capra received his first Oscar nomination for his sweet 1933 comedy "Lady for a Day" (Connoisseur, $30), which was written by his frequent collaborator, Robert Riskin. May Robson is perfectly cast as an apple peddler who is transformed into a lady by a racketeer with a heart (the underrated Warren William). Available through Home Film Festival, (800) 258-3456.

In 1961, Capra remade "Lady" as "Pocketful of Miracles" (MGM, $15). The comedy, which was Capra's last feature, has its moments, but is far too hokey. Bette Davis, Glenn Ford, Ann-Margret and Peter Falk star.

Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy star in Capra's pleasant 1934 comedy "Broadway Bill" (Paramount, $20.) Baxter plays an unhappily married man who leaves his rich wife and buys a racehorse. "Riding High" (Universal, $20), Capra's 1950 remake of "Broadway Bill," lacks the charm of the original. Bing Crosby stars.

Capra and his "Mr. Deeds" star, Gary Cooper, reunited for 1941's dark social comedy "Meet John Doe" (Nostalgia, $20). Cooper is marvelous as a homeless, downtrodden man who becomes the spokesman for a political goodwill campaign run by a crooked, fascist politician (Edward Arnold). Stanwyck also stars as the cynical reporter who recruits Cooper and then falls in love with him.

Capra's "Here Comes the Groom" (Paramount, $15), a lightweight romantic comedy from 1951, benefits from his breezy direction and the charms of its stars, Bing Crosby, Jane Wyman and Franchot Tone. Songs include the Oscar-winning "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."

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