Monday, April 7, 2014

Frank Capra at Stanford and David Rumsey at SFO

Before I forget, there is a great map exhibit in Terminal 2 of the San Francisco International Airport.  It's titled San Francisco Maps from the David Rumsey Map Collection.  The exhibit runs through August 3 and is post-security so you'll need an airline ticket to see it.  Most (if not all) of Virgin America's flights arrive & depart out of the Terminal 2 gates.  The David Rumsey site is quite a treasure trove for amateur and professional cartographers.  I was particularly fascinated with the map of Chinatown from 1885.  The map conveniently (or disparagingly) shows opium dens, gambling dens and houses of prostitution with a color coded legend.

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The Stanford Theater had a month long Frank Capra series in January & February.  They took less than a week off between the end of their Joan Fontaine series and the start of the Capra series.

Several of the films in the series were also screened at the PFA as part of their Early Capra series in 2010.

Lost Horizon starring Ronald Colman; directed by Frank Capra; (1937)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther; directed by Frank Capra; (1933)
That Certain Thing starring Viola Dana & Ralph Graves; live accompaniment by Dennis James; silent with intertitles; (1928)
It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert; directed by Frank Capra; (1934)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur & Claude Rains; directed by Frank Capra; (1939)
American Madness starring Walter Huston & Pat O'Brien; directed by Frank Capra; (1932)

I saw American Madness at the PFA as part of the aforementioned Capra series.  In order to make the trip to Palo Alto worthwhile, I watched American Madness a second time.  It was paired with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I saw The Bitter Tea of General Yen at the Castro in 2010.  My subsequent memories of the film led me to believe it would benefit from a second screening.

I've seen Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on television before.  Each of the screenings were the first time I saw the films on a movie screen.

I had never seen That Certain Thing.  They screened the film 3 times of four days and I caught the last screening.  That was fortunate for me because the print burned in the projector.  The projectionist did some quick work to skip to the next reel while James never missed a beat.  They would not have been able to screen the film another time without some splicing.  Technically, I didn't see the entire film.  When the resumed the film, a plot point had been resolved.

I had not intended to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and American Madness because their screenings conflicted with the Mostly British Film Festival and the San Francisco Independent Film Festival.  However, Shirley Temple (23 April 1928 – 10 February 2014) passed away and the Stanford preempted their schedule on February 15 & 16 with six Shirley Temple films each day.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and American Madness were bumped for Miss Temple but rescheduled to March 1 & 2 which allowed me to fit it in my schedule.

I'll start with those two film.  For many years, I have found Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to be a bunch of hokum.  The premise is that Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is this naive man child.  Stewart was in his early 30s at the time of filming.  Jeff Smith is the head of the Boy Rangers which I assume is a take on the Boy Scouts.  The Boy Rangers go around doing good deeds.  How Smith makes a living at this is unexplained.  It's also kind of creepy that a thirtysomething man spends so much time around prepubescent boys although I'll attribute that to modern day cynicism.

When the US Senator from Smith's state dies in office, the governor taps Smith as the replacement; mainly on the recommendation of his sons (not coincidentally Boy Rangers).  Frankly Smith seems unqualified to be a US Senator is glossed over.  He is honest to a fault which in Capra's eyes makes Smith more than qualified.

When Smith arrives in DC, he is taken under the wing of the senior Senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains).  Paine is machine politician and is set to clean up financially.  He's bought up land near the site of a dam he is going to propose.  Unknowingly, Smith has his eyes on the same site as a camping ground for his Boy Rangers.  When Smith proposes a bill to seek funding for his bill, he sets in motion the full weight of Paine's machine.

I won't bother with more of the plot.  My "favorite" part is when Paine has his moment of amends by admitting his crime on the floor of the US Senate!  That immediately follows Paine's attempted suicide in an antechamber.

Capra lays it on too thick in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  I can stomach It's a Wonderful Life but Mr. Smith is just too much for me.  Capra is too obvious in Mr Smith; it lacks all subtlety.  Over the years, I have begun to resent Stewart's character for his ignorance and naivet√©.  Maybe I resent the film's iconic status or Stewart's celebrated performance (he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar).  Even the much discussed filibuster scene lacks depth.  I found myself wanting more Harry Carey as the Vice President than Stewart as Smith.

Anyway, my curmudgeonly pronouncement is that this viewing will be the last time I watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

American Madness suffers some of the same problems as Mr. Smith.  Capra has a strong sense of right and wrong and he wants to share it in his films...even if it ruins the film.  Ambiguity and cynicism can be powerful agents of drama and humor.  They better fit our everyday lives but Capra seems oblivious to this.  To be fair, he made his name during the Great Depression where upbeat and uplifting movies were considered social benefits.  It just doesn't fit modern attitudes.

Cocksure bank president Dickson runs his bank his way which is to cater to little guy and downtrodden.  The board argues these are high risk loans but Dickson sticks with his instinct; we don't need no damn FICO scores.  One of his employees robs the vault and he is caught short on cash reserves.  Rumors spread and there is a run on the bank.  There is an endless montage scene showing how the rumor spread.

Anyway, the customers may not believe in the bank but Dickson believes in the customers.  He tries to get them to leave their deposits in place, tries to slow the outflow of cash, tries to line up short-term loans, etc.  It's all to no avail until at his darkest moment, some customers conspicuously and triumphantly enter the bank to make deposits which is enough to stem the run on the bank.

There is a subplot involving the employee who robbed the vault, Dickson's wife and another employee (Pat O'Brien) who is being framed for the crime.  It was kind of hokey and had a B picture feel to it.  Like the inner workings of the US Senate in Mr. Smith, my favorite part of American Madness was inner workings of the bank.  Opening and closing the vault door was quite possibly, my favorite part of the film.

That Certain Thing didn't make much of an impression on me.  Viola Dana plays Molly Kelly who wants to marry a millionaire.  She's kind of a gold digger.  She makes the most of her opportunity when she actually meets a millionaire - Andy B. Charles, Jr. (Ralph Graves).  Technically, Jr. is the son of a millionaire which comes into play with A.B. Charles disowns his son for marrying poorly.

Molly is back to where she started except now she has a husband with no marketable job skills.  After failing as a ditch digger, Molly & Andy come up with an idea.  A.B. Charles' chain of downscale restaurants are the source of frequent complaints from the laborers.  Molly & Andy start a box lunch company in direct competition.  In time, Sr. is forced to buy out Jr. business and thus fulfilling Molly's dream of being married to a millionaire.

There were some physical comedy scenes and Molly lives in a wild tenement building which provides some laughs.  Dennis James spoke before the film and mentioned that the box lunch used in the filming were later used to feed the cast and crew.

I had not seen Lost Horizon since I was a child and did not recall it so well.  Based on the best selling James Hilton novel by the same name, Capra's version of Shangri-La seemed kind of boring to me.  Ronald Colman plays British diplomat Robert Conway.  Helping Westerners escape an armed conflict in China (I cannot recall if the conflict was between Japanese & Chinese or between Chinese), Colman escapes on the last plane out of China with his younger brother George, a paleontologist, a flimflam man and a terminally ill woman (likely a prostitute).  Despite the danger, the plane flies "over the hump" as they would say in WWII.  That is it flies from China to India over the Himalayas.

The plane is hijacked, crashes in the Himalayas and the passengers are taken to Shangri-La; a term now so ubiquitous than it doesn't need an explanation but originated in Hilton's novel and perhaps more widely by this film.  People age slowly in Shangra-La but they do age.  The High Lama (Sam Jaffe) is near death and on the advice of Sondra (Jane Wyatt), arranged for Conway arrival.  Sondra is better read about the outside world than most residents of Shangra-La.  Familiar with Colman's writings, she & the Lama think Colman would make a suitable successor.

Most of the of the visitors want to leave Shangri-La but it's George's brother who is most vocal.  He has taken up with a woman (Margo) who, seemingly, is the only person who wants to leave Shangra-La.  Reluctantly agreeing to leave, Ronald sets out with Margo in tow.  However, as they leave the sphere of influence of Shangri-La's magical properties, Margo ages and dies (she is really several hundred years old).  George goes insane at the sight and leaps to his death.  Ronald eventually makes his way back to England, his memory of Shangra-La mysteriously gone as a result of his ordeal.  When he later regains his memory, he returns to Shangri-La.

Like Colman's character, I had no recollection of specific scenes from the film.  As the film progressed, I began to recall the film; particularly Sam Jaffe's performance.  Ultimately, I found Lost Horizon bad dated which is becoming a trend with Capra's films. Whatever impact Lost Horizon had on audiences in 1937 is long gone in 2014.  That could be said of any 77 year old film but whatever universal or timeless truths Lost Horizon was alluding to seem ridiculously quaint today and Capra's "let's-spell-it-out" approach only reinforces the sense that this film doesn't have much to say in 2014.

As a historical relic, it was interesting to see.  There is a fascinating backstory about production cost overruns and a 3½ hour preview version of the film.

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Lest one thinks the Capra series was a complete bust, I'm glad to report that The Bitter Tea of General Yen held up well to a second screening and It Happened One Night lived up to my expectations.

I stand by what I wrote on September 2, 2010. I will add a little based on the second viewing.  First, Nils Asther's performance has a little more racism than I initially thought.  His General Yen almost yearns to be white - adopting Western manners and forsaking all for a white woman.  I guess it is a form of self-loathing but it's also a symptom of Yen's lust for Stanwyck's Megan Davis.  If the opposite had been true - a white man spouting Confucius and forsaking a white woman for an Asian woman, the reaction would have been outrage in 1930s and derisive laughter today.  Instead, the self-obvious superiority of Western ways is seamlessly interwoven into the plot.

Like Asther's performance, I detected more racism in Stanwyck's role.  Her character has this innate belief on the superiority of her culture, her religion, her beliefs, etc.  It is only at the end, when Yen has given up his Chinese empire and identity that Davis adopts the role of Chinese concubine to comfort the dying general.  In that sense, the story comes down on the side of the Chinese but the next scene shows that Davis' position in China is untenable.  She has to leave the country for her own safety, a victim of reverse discrimination and potential Chinese barbarity.

After having seen The Bitter Tea of General Yen twice, I am anxious to see it a third time.  It's amazing to me that Capra followed American Madness with The Bitter Tea of General YenGeneral Yen was a box office failure which likely played a part in Capra's future directorial efforts.

In It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert is Ellie Andrews, a wealthy heiress who runs away from her father's yacht to marry a man her father doesn't approve of.  Without money and unwilling to reveal her location to her father, Andrews is forced to accept Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a fast-talking, wise-cracking, newspaper reporter.  As they make their way from Florida to New York with little to no money, the pair slowly fall in love.  Andrews is a spoiled rich girl and Warne a cynical newsman.  Initially they dislike each other but their mutual reliance and attraction carry the day. 

It Happened One Night is an oft-told romantic story (Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd was one of my favorite versions).  However, Gable & Colbert have undeniable screen appeal and elevate the film beyond what most other actors could have achieved.  Colbert in a particular is funny, sexy, petulant and appealing.  What constitutes "funny, sexy, petulant and appealing" in a woman changes as men age.  Colbert, 29 years old during filming, gives a performance which I would not have appreciated as a boy or younger man, but greatly appreciate in my middle age. 

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San Francisco Chinatown (1885)

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