John Ford and Frank Capra: A Study of Their Movies
"A great man and a great American, Frank Capra is an inspiration to those who
believe in the American dream" John Ford
"The megaphone has been to John Ford what the chisel was to
Ford Cannot be pinned down or analyzed. He is pure Ford--Which
means pure great" Frank Capra
Frank Capra and John Ford have directed many classic movies and it is
unfair to only view two of their works and summarize all there is too say about
their styles, so I won't. Instead, I will be discussing different styles and
conventions that Frank Capra and John Ford used in the four movies I viewed.These movies are Mr.
Smith goes to Washington, Mr Deeds goes to Town both
Capra, films and The Informer and Grapes of Wrath by Ford.America in the 30's was a time of hardship economically, politically and
socially. If you have taken an American history course you know all about the
depression and the crisis that it bestowed upon the land. Hollywood, the movie
making capital of the world tried its best not to reflect the problems of the
country in its products.
Instead of the grim realities of world, Hollywood lured
in the audience with escapist movies. The classic thirties genres like screwball
comedies, glamourous musicals and fantasy movies, were mere ploys to divert the
sad reality of the time and in doing so Hollywood firmly defined its role as
entertainer not critic. Capra and Ford can also be accused of following this
pattern too, with other movies they made. The 30's were also a time of the great
studio system and one had to work under the control of these institutions,
although both directors managed to achieve enough fame and power that they could
create their own visions.
With this power and fame, Capra and Ford were able to
turn out movies that went against the usual Hollywood style; critical of society,
authority, government, newspapers, the police and political rebels. These men
where able to make movies about the injustice in the world and they created
simple folk yet(much like Forrest Gump in Capra's case) complex enough to deal
and in some cases win against the evils of the world. Although they deal with
similar topics and understands about society and man, they have different ways
of delivering their message. Capra used humor, fantasy, splendor, and a quick
moving camera. Ford on the other hand used gritty realism, harsh environments,
and a static camera, with slower cuts and movements. They both can be considered
anti-establishment directors, but I would say that their movies go beyond simple
anti-establishment attitudes and actually try to and establish a new more
Ford and Capra believed so much in America that during
her time of great crisis in WWII, they left Hollywood and all the money to work
for the U.S. Forces. Ford became an Admiral in the U.S.
Navy and Capra a
Colonel for the Army.Of the four movies by Capra and Ford, The Informer is the only one that
was not a box-office smash at its time of release, however all four movies carry
the prestigious titles of being called some of the greatest films of all time.All these films can be enjoyed on a simplistic entertainment level, but there is
so much hidden between the texts that makes them great, therefore they were
obviously made for more than just enjoyment.There are strong issues being dealt with about man and his relationship
within the society he lives in. From the most basic problems about individuals
suffering from lack of shelter and starvation to mass starvation and political
corruption. There also seem to be the tone in Capra's and Ford's movies that man
was doing fine until society interfered with him, not just society in general
but more city society.
There is a feeling that city people are corrupt and
infect all that they touch, while the simple country folk are pure and good.This point is proven over and over again, it is not the individual that is
corrupt it is the society that corrupts the individual. Deeds and Smith both
from there respective self titled movies are happy and fine living quiet
sheltered lives in their small town. As soon as city society comes knocking on
their door trouble begins. Whereas when we meet Fonda in Grapes of Wrath,
society has already beaten him down and now he must rise again or perish. Gypo
too in The Informer has been defeated by society and he too must rise or perish.
So as Capra's hero's are virginal, Ford's have already been around the block a
few times but insist that they are still virgins.The character's in Ford and Capra's movies are microcosms for all that
is happening and these movies are mainly character centered and driven so it is
a fair way in dealing with their idea's. Capra's characters are modeled on the
belief that one man can make a difference and help society, while Ford's
characters are almost incapable of helping themselves. (although Fonda in Grapes
of Wrath speaks of wandering the earth to bring truth and justice to the world,)
Fonda will only effect small minorities of people, while Capra's characters
change the world. Yet both styles of character are modeled on the simple and
common folk. They are naive to the world and as the movie progresses, they and
we, the audience learns how corrupt the world is, but whereas Capra gives you
the golden ending, (believable and happy) Ford takes a much more cynical look.
Gypo the main character is killed while the Joad family future in Grapes of
Wrath is not that much better than when they statred out.Capra's heroes come from small town, happy middle America and are the
epitome of the common man. They are well liked and respected in the community
that they live in. Capra's men have greatness thrust on them by luck, while Ford
s characters have trouble thrust upon them.
Both Smith and Deeds achieve their
honored positions by the misfortune of someone else. In both cases it is the
death of a famous individual who perishes and Deed's and Smith are called up
from the ranks of the common people to eventually achieve greatness. However,
their call is based on pure luck. Deeds luck was due because he was an heir of a
wealthy relative, and Smith because a coin toss ends with the coin standing
erect. Ford's men come from the outside of society, Fonda from prison and Gypo
had been kicked out of the IRA.
They have been disgraced and are at low points
in their lives, while Fonda tries to redeem himself in a society that keeps
dropping him down. He is released from prison, finds out the authorities have
taken his home and starts out with nothing. Fonda tries his hardest not to
become a "Mean Man".(Ma Joad's name for what happens when you go to prison and
become evil) Gypo also wants redemption but is so lost in a society that rejects
him. The society in this case is the IRA and once Gypo is kicked out he has no
money and becomes lost.
He wants to do good but is helpless until the end when
he begs and is granted forgiveness and dies redeemed, religiously speaking.Ford used religion in both movies as turning points and a way to reflect
the inner struggle of characters, the death of the preacher changes Fonda
forever and Gypo's redemption in the church where he has at last found peace.Capra on the other hand uses real American monuments in the same way. Grant's
Tomb and the Capitol building are seen by Deeds and Smith as great American
institutions that symbolize the truth and greatness of their nation.
monument scenes we learn a lot about the inner emotions of the characters. No
one else see's the beauty and ideological importance of these monuments as we
are told by supporting characters but this reflects that twentieth century man
has lost his faith in the institution. Although Capra's movies can be considered
to show American society and authority in poor light, he on the surface can be
considered anti-establishment or anti-American, but on a deeper level he is more
pro-establishment and American because he wants the institutes to work and mean
something, not just to be hollow houses to be used by the wealthy and cunning
to swindle the land. Smith actually argues these point when he is holding the
filibuster and is trying to explain why kids must learn to understand an
appreciate the Constituent. So when they grow up they hold them of value and the
principals of the founding father actually meaning something.
Ford too shows
the same if not even stronger anti-establishment views. At the same time as
tearing down the institution they support but not in its present corrupt form
making these directors super-patriots, they are willing to go against something
they believe to be wrong in the hope it will get better. In this way both Ford
and Capra can be seen as Caprasque heroes both men somehow achieved enough luck
that they where in a position to change the world and they did.Ford and Capra also make comments on the society of the educated man
and the written word.
In fact the written word is used by both directors in
various forms, it motivates, destroys and can redeem. The written word is always
paralleled with money or prosperity but, once unmasked is usually wrong or bad.Gypo sees a poster of his friend that reads reward 20 pounds, Gypo out of
confusion turned to this poster and betrays his friend and his society for the
money. The Joad family is of on a quest to California on account that they read
a pamphlet, this could be compared to the newspaper clip Ma Joad has of her
son's imprisonment. In both these Ford movies the news or the written word is
somehow a motivation for people to do something.
But the written word always
leads to misfortune. Comparing the pamphlet with the article on Fonda's
imprisonment could symbolize and verify that nothing good ever comes from the
written word. Ford way of secretly criticizing the learned man. Perhaps he is
commenting on the fact that we pay to much attention to what is written, which
could lead to our downfall. Don't just believe what you read investigate to find
out the truth.
Later on in Grapes of Wrath we find out that the pamphlet is
actually a tool of the rich man to lure lots of workers out to California so
they can offer really low wages. The wealthy man controls the news and will
always use it to his advantage, even though most common folks believe what they
read they must learn not to be so blind.The use of newspapers and written words are more obvious in the two
Capra films. They not only affect the characters but they also help explain the
story to the audience. In the Capra films we learn that news is subjective to
mistruths and when silly stories appear of Deeds in the paper we know they were
not meant in the context that they were printed.
Yet it seems that in Capra's
films the society believes without question everything they read in the paper,
yet as spectators we learn the truth about the media. Babe the reporter who
loves Deeds says in the court room she colored the articles to sell more papers.Finally when we are introduced to Taylor in Smith we realizes how corrupt the
news actually really is. Taylor's name can be used as a metaphor for tailor as
someone who alters something.
Although control of the paper is done in typical
Capra fashion, by the power of one man. The newspaper is another institution
that must be unveiled because it has the power to confuse and corrupt people.Taylor is the ultimate in corruption and when Babe was working for the paper she
too cheats. Anyone associated with the written word is portrayed in a cynical or
Finally the most destructive theme in Ford's and Capra's movies is money.Money is used in many ways in these four films sometimes their is plenty and
some times their is not any. Money ends up playing a big role in each of these
films, money is also used as a device to show how characters behave when serious
matters occur.Deeds and The Informer are very similar in their dealing with money.Both movies begin with a large written banner about money.
Gypo is faced with a
poster claiming reward money, while Deeds begins with the newspaper proclaiming
millionaire heir not found yet. In both cases death is the cause that there is
the transfer of money to the main characters. Gypo becomes paranoid and drunk
indirectly due to the money. Deeds also misuses his fortune at first, getting
drunk and running around New York naked. With money comes responsiablity and
both Gypo and Deeds in the beginning are not capable of handling responsesablity.
It takes them many lesson to learn the real value of money and when they firgure
it out they end up givening their money away to help someone less fortunate.Deeds gives his millions to the out of work people, while Gypo gives his money
to a lady in need of transportation home. Both cases the money is used for the
purpose of good. In Deeds the twenty million dollars brings many leeches, the
same happens to Gypo with his 20 pounds. Gypo starts to spend money more and
more frequently as the night wares on. He attracts leeches who care little about
Gypo but a lot about his money.
These leeches end up guiding the character into
deeper and deeper trouble. Wheras Deeds has professional leeches like lawyers,
because Deed lives in the world of high fainace the thief where suits and have
offices. Both films end up using money as a test of a persons strength in the
case of Gypo he fails at first but eventually learns right even though it is too
late. Deeds on the other hand passes the test at first easily, but there are
moments when he is close to failing.
Smith and Grapes of Wrath are also very similar with the use of money
potrayed in these pictures. Both are centered on the fact that society through
money is being abused and the little guy can not fight these odds. The big
buisness men who smoke fat cigars and buy up land and kick off the farmers in
Grapes of Wrath are the same men that work in the Senate in Smith. These men the
wealthy are extremly greedy whereas the Joads just want enough money to feed the
family and live.
These rich land owners are willing to starve children just to
make more of a profit. coincidently while the rich steal and make illegal deals
to become richer the Joads do not even try to steal a loaf of bread. Which is
the point of these moves that there is more important thing than money, even
thought are society is based on it.Capra and Ford worked very hard to achieve the positions in society they
did, both grew up in poor large families and hence started at the bottom and
worked their way to the top.
They lived the American dream yet they were not so
blinded by their success that they did not see the misfortune of others. They
knew the American system was corrupt and unfair and set out to criticizes and
even help change it. Either men cannot be labeled as liberal or socialist
because there political allegance was not towards a party or a theory, it was
rooted in simple and obvious universal truths. And because their movies deal
with universal themes and truths I believe there movie do not or will not ever
appear old or dated.