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TV REVIEW

Abridged 'Capra' Misses Some Points About His Life

April 21, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

American Movie Classics carries Kenneth Bowser's engaging 1997 documentary "Frank Capra's American Dream" tonight, trimmed to 88 minutes from its original 109-minute version, which premiered theatrically last July. Unfortunately, crucial material about the director's colleagues has been cut; the shorter version reinforces Capra's view of himself as an auteur.

"One man, one film" was Capra's slogan, but Bowser made clear in the theatrical version how crucial Capra's long association with writer Robert Riskin and cinematographer Joseph Walker were. But this has been eliminated for AMC, giving the impression to the uninitiated that Capra did it all himself.

Joseph McBride's acclaimed 1993 biography, "Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success," revealed both the man and his films to be far more complex than had been widely believed. Bowser's documentary, for which Capra's sons Tom and Frank Jr. served as executive producers, however, concentrates on the professional rather than the personal life of Capra, who died in September 1991 at age 94.

The clips from Capra films remain generous, highlighted by the director's two especially enduring collaborations with James Stewart: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), adapted by Sidney Buchman from Lewis R. Foster's Oscar-winning original story; and "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), expanded from a Phillip Van Doren Stern short story by Hollywood pros Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling--a flop when it came out but long a Christmas perennial.

Although McBride participated in the documentary, he made public his complaints with it, in particular in its dealing with Capra's politics, which he discovered to be surprisingly conservative. In any event, the outlines of Capra's rise are as familiar as they are archetypal: his arrival in the U.S. in 1903 with his Sicilian family; his determination to succeed--he studied engineering at Caltech; his chance involvement with the movies; and his enormous success by the age of 35.

*

The popular conception of Capra is that he was a highly skilled, highly entertaining sentimentalist who cheered the triumph of the ordinary man over political and social injustice. A raft of noted directors and actors, not all of them knowledgeable about Capra, plus film historian and critic Richard Schickel as well as McBride, show us in film after film, through a remarkable array of clips, that Capra heroes tended toward ambivalence, and that Capra in turn was ambivalent about the American Dream.

The documentary leaves us with the feeling that "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) is in its way prophetic--that the garish vision of George Bailey's hometown had he never been born has come to pass across America anyway.

If this leaves us feeling pessimistic about just how much lasting impact one good man can have on his community, "Frank Capra's American Dream" also leaves us pessimistic as to the possibility that there will ever be a time in Hollywood again when filmmakers like Capra and his peers could make movies that actually deal with American lives in such quality and quantity.

* "Frank Capra's American Dream" can be seen at 7 tonight on cable's AMC.

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