CineSavant Column

Saturday May 4, 2019

Hello! A Book Review Today.

What? A book about the writing of a book?   Critic and scholar Joseph McBride has written definitive critical studies on several film directors; I reviewed his critical bio on Ernst Lubitsch just last year. But his writing ranges farther afield than just film, taking in a conspiracy study about the JFK assassination, and an earlier autobiographical study. McBride’s new Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra also falls into the autobio category. It is not a typical book about film; it’s a book about the ten-year effort to write his earlier biographical exposé Frank Capra: The Castastrophe of Success. To tell the truth as he found it, McBride had no choice but to expose a famous film director, a university archivist and at least one editor at a prestigious publishing house of lying to him and conspiring to suppress his book.

Frankly is not a sour grapes story, for McBride’s tenacity and professionalism eventually won out and his very important book was published in its intended form. McBride’s story goes beyond the personal in that it decries the situation a biographer has today when writing about any famous person: inconvenient truths can be suppressed by heirs and corporate entities that hold a stake in the subject’s reputation.

Joseph McBride’s research for his The Castastrophe of Success confirmed that the famous director’s highly popular 1971 autobio The Name Above the Title was a collection of self-serving lies from one end to the other. Capra falsified and fantasized facts about his origins, his school achievements, and his claims of full authorship of his films: ‘One Man, One Movie.’ But the popular book cemented his reputation as a genius filmmaker whose humanity and spirit defined American values. It arrived just in time for the cultural revival of It’s a Wonderful Life to once again make Capra a household name, twenty years after his fame had faded. As it turns out, Capra did not embody any of the values he claimed to represent — all those sentiments came from the writers that his book marginalized, or ignored. Although Capra’s sterling service to the war effort must be applauded, the dark corners of his personality overturn the values put forth in movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In Frankly, McBride explains the political & professional pitfalls he encountered when researching what would become The Catastrophe of Success. He spells out the process by which he contracted with the archive of a major university to gain access to Capra’s personal papers. He saw the documentation instructing the archive that the papers were to be made available for academic researchers like himself.

When McBride went through Capra’s files he was surprised to discover that they had not been sanitized for controversial material, and in fact presented a disturbing portrait of a misanthrope and racist with anti-Democratic values. The director of the beloved It’s a Wonderful Life was a fan of Mussolini, and his actions suggest that he held the ‘common man’ in contempt. And this hypocrisy shows through in his professional life. While touting himself as a patriotic defender of ‘the little guy’ against political despotism, he volunteered to secretly inform on Union activities.

Capra continued to inform secretly on his Hollywood associates during the Red Scare, perhaps to protect himself from political attack for having produced wartime propaganda that praised the Soviet Union as our ally. Remember the revelation of the FBI file about the supposed subversive messages in It’s a Wonderful Life? The witch hunt was so strong, it would go after anybody. But Capra continued secretly denouncing the writers that deserved credit for his big successes. McBride’s research showed that he maliciously informed on the son of one of his former writers, based on hearsay about a college prank.

McBride maintains that, not long after beginning his book the head archivist at the University began to conspire against him with his own publisher, as both had a vested interest in keeping Capra’s dirty laundry from being made public. Certain files suddenly became unavailable; the archivist (herself a well-known film writer) reneged on promises made, and contradicted documents McBride had seen about the archives’ clearance to grant access to materials. It also became obvious that Capra’s heirs were involved as well. At this time Frank Capra was still alive and talking to McBride in lengthy interviews, but all the while trying to get himself included in the the publishing deal, for both money and to gain control. McBride spent the better part of ten frugal years walking a legal tightrope, establishing a paper trail of evidence to keep his book free from interference — or being shut down entirely. In short, he found himself in the center of a situation like that described in The Keeper of the Flame: for both profit and careers, the guardians of Capra’s legacy conspired to suppress McBride’s reporting of the true story. They tried (too late) to control the narrative of the Capra Legend, to suit their interests.


Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra is not a dry account of an author’s publishing battle — it’s more like a detective story. It soon becomes clear that McBride was saved by his own meticulous record keeping. He documented all of his correspondence and phone calls through years of hostility and passive-aggressive obstruction and interference. He had help from his wife and a brother who happened to be an attorney. The only reason he succeeded was by having the ammunition (legal knowledge, hard paperwork) to keep formidable powers from steamrolling his project.

Besides Keeper of the Flame, McBride’s book also reminds me of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers, in which a poet’s heirs sit on his revealing letters and deny that they exist. I think that Frankly has wide relevance for anybody trying to create in a corporate atmosphere, where everything can be reduced to ‘intellectual property’ and controlled by rights holders. The university archivist wanted to keep the Capra heirs happy, which meant perpetrating the ice cream happy-myth about Frank Capra. How could the archive attract the papers of other famous filmmakers and artists, if they didn’t defend Capra’s good name?  Besides, the archivist-writer had big plans to write her own books using the Capra materials. To protect the potential franchise, it was essential that Joseph McBride’s unauthorized biography be curbed, stalled, stonewalled, obstructed.

Intellectual property is one thing, but conglomerates have been reaching beyond that concept to privatize reality as a corporate asset: ‘He that owns the copyright determines the truth.’  The featurettes I made for film studios often became lightweight, deceptive fluff because their content was put through a sieve by lawyers, removing mention of anybody or any thing that might place the studio or the film in a less-than-glowing light. In other words, they were ‘authorized.’  When McBride revealed that he wanted to tell unpleasant truths about Frank Capra he found individuals and institutions arrayed against him. Ten years of careful gamesmanship were required for McBride to come out on top.

Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra is highly readable. Joseph McBride’s recall of events is amazing. We see the workings of an organized mind, trying to filter out his own emotions and stay focused on his goal. Most of us don’t keep the sales receipts necessary to return a defective product. McBride ‘won’ by showing his adversaries that he could prove that they had been lying for years, about almost everything, in most every letter and phone call.

For years I have tried to understand my personal antipathy toward Frank Capra’s so-called ‘important, political’ movies. When I say that I think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has fascist underpinnings, I get the same weird looks as when I argue that E.T. The Extraterrestrial is an unhealthy movie for children (I was protective of my small children). For all their directorial brilliance and powerful performances, Mr. Smith and You Can’t Take it With You and Lost Horizon still feel dishonest and patronizing, and I have little patience for studio- authorized hosannas to Capra’s humanity and sincerity. McBride’s first Capra book drove a stake through the heart of the director’s lies. His second, more personal book could be titled Mr. McBride’s Struggle to Tell the Truth.

I was inspired by Capra’s The Name Above the Title just as I was getting into film school, when the UCLA archive was restoring It’s a Wonderful Life. To me Capra could do no wrong, and when he came to talk to Bob Epstein’s class his exuberance held us in thrall. So the disillusion was complete when McBride brought us the true story, that much of what Capra claimed in his autobio is false. During our visit Capra told us his most frequently repeated anecdote — that after a bad preview of Lost Horizon, he grabbed the film’s offending first reel, ran down to the basement, and threw it into a furnace. I knew enough about film to realize that destroying a print wouldn’t do anything to the negative back in the lab, but I figured that Capra was just embellishing a good story with a harmless exaggeration. An offhand observation in Frankly puts to rest the big lie about the first reel of Lost Horizon: all movie film in 1937 was made of highly combustible nitrocellulose: a full reel tossed into a furnace would have exploded like a bomb, blowing up Capra and starting a big fire. Joe McBride points out that Frank Capra self-aggrandized everything about his life in the exact same way.


I highly recommend Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra for serious film students, for writers of any stripe, and anyone eager to read a tale of a knock-down-drag-’em-out battle with the ‘powers that be.’ The welcome spoiler is that the author’s ordeal has a happy ending.

And read my review-essays on the above ‘wonderful movies,’ to see how I struggle with their slippery, sometimes deceitful values. Also see my review of Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries. Joseph McBride’s hour-long lecture about the director’s wartime work satisfies me that the author has no built-in animus against the director. He champions Capra’s immeasurable patriotic contribution to the war effort.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson