Devin McKinney

I wonder …

Month: July, 2012

I thank Frank Capra

From the winsome silent comedies of Harry Langdon through ‘30s farce and fantasy to the life- and flag-affirming comedy-dramas for which he is most famous (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), Frank Capra was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors. He made several vaunted films, guided actors through career-defining performances, and shot a vision of small-town American life so consistent that “Capraesque” long ago joined “Hitchcockian” as shorthand for a uniquely identifiable set of values and aesthetics.

“People don’t want to think,” Capra told an interviewer in 1934, the year he directed the multi-Oscar-winner It Happened One Night.

ImageFrank Capra

Exactly thirty years later, Capra was engaged to direct The Best Man, the film version of Gore Vidal’s hit Broadway play. Vidal evidently brought Henry Fonda onboard early to play Senator Harold Russell, the presidential candidate based on Adlai Stevenson. I’m not certain how Capra’s name became attached to any script originating from Vidal’s acid pen: True, Capra had attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, as had Vidal and Fonda; and he’d directed political films before—or films set partly in government buildings, anyway. But his attitude of right-leaning Americanism would seem almost diametrically opposed to that of the empire-critiquing Vidal. Yet Capra in his autobiography claims to have had an initially favorable impression of the writer as “possessor of an eloquent bitchiness that I found entertaining.”


Gore Vidal

According to Vidal, Capra and his co-scenarist, Myles Connolly, rewrote the stage play for the screen, conjuring a “grotesquely sentimentalized” script which made the hero “the guileless young mixed race governor of Hawaii,” a nonentity who ascends to the nomination when the frontrunners force each other out. “He was deeply reactionary in his politics,” Vidal wrote of Capra. “Communism was triumphing everywhere and only Nixon could have stemmed the Red tide, but since he had lost, ‘our’ best man—the movie’s best man, that is—must offer the nation hope under God.

Though Capra’s script was already written, he excitedly narrated his new climax for Vidal as if it were a gift of the inspired instant:

“I got it.  Listen.  The good guy—maybe Fonda—he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln and he comes down on the floor just when the vote is going against him and he talks to the delegates and turns them around.  Yes. …  Yes!

For a moment, I thought that one of us had gone mad.

The embarrassing spectacle of Henry Fonda, of all actors, done up as a Halloween-pageant Lincoln could so easily have sprung from Capra’s simple mind. I think of James Gregory’s costume Lincoln in The Manchurian Candidate; but there the intent, I’m confident, was ironic.

Capra remembered the Best Man meeting slightly differently. He voiced his concern that the two candidates at the center of the scenario were clearly (to him) atheist. Whereupon Vidal, wicked fellow, bluntly avowed his desire to convert the world to atheism. Capra did not take to the joke, if joke it was. “This gay blade,” he concluded, “wants to use my next film as a brochure for his anti-religious vanities.” The eloquent bitch had slipped its leash, and Capra didn’t like its bite. “So I bowed out.”


Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda, The Best Man

Looking at The Best Man as it reached the screen, recalling what a fine, funny, fleet-footed, far-seeing, and generally damned entertaining movie Vidal and Franklin Schaffner made of it, we can only say “Thank you, Frank Capra.”  Leaving aside the broad political disparities between himself and Vidal’s conception, Capra had long since lost whatever touch, whatever populist elan or snake-oil facility had once greased his homiletic hits.

And Capra directing Henry Fonda really wouldn’t have worked. Apparently, he had a longstanding distrust of what Fonda represented—or didn’t represent. Asked late in his career why he had never worked with the consummate populist hero of the Hollywood screen, Capra said, “I didn’t think he was America. He represented to me some kind of stylized, eclectic—is that the word I want?—elite intellectual.”


It is certainly true that Fonda lacked much talent for playing the starry-eyed sap who was Capra’s customary protagonist. (The proof is 1942’s The Magnificent Dope, directed by Walter Lang but in all respects a Capra film, with Fonda as the rube whom fortune’s favor allows to triumph over Don Ameche’s adman.) But Capra didn’t mean that. What he meant is what he said, and what he said is that the conservative distrusts eclecticism because to him it looks like elitism—for both encompass such sticky wickets as diversity, ambiguity, contradiction, the sense that one thing can be many things. “We hate this both shit,” as David Foster Wallace once wrote about the American popular audience. E unum pluribus is another way of putting it. For many, that reversal of the national motto goes against the American grain of assimilation, conformity, finding and staying in one’s place.

Those are the values evinced in Capra. That, I believe, is why he never wanted to work with Henry Fonda, and that is why he didn’t, or couldn’t, believe that Fonda “was America.” Frank Capra’s America is not eclectic, diverse, or contradictory, but assimilationist, conformist, and segmented.

That same fear of the eclectic led Capra to favor actors like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Glenn Ford, and Jimmy Stewart—actors who, granting their particular charms and strengths, cannot be described as poets of ambivalence, let alone bringers of darkness. Stewart’s portrayal of suicidal depression (followed by affirmative euphoria) in It’s a Wonderful Life is so badly judged, so squawking and flailing and hissy-fit hysterical, that it drains the film of what ought to be its subtext. To say this is Capra’s darkest film, the one that touches the farthest extremities of emotion, isn’t saying so much: George Bailey’s despair as embodied by Stewart is just as shallow and evanescent as Capra wants and believes American despair to be.

I correct a misnomer

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, due October 2 from St. Martin’s Press, is my second book. But all writers, and probably many readers, know that’s a misnomer: Chances are you’ve actually written several books, or at least book-length manuscripts, by the time you get one published. What goes in the record as your “first book” is, simply and more accurately, your first book that was good enough to convince someone to publish it.

In my case, something like seven and a half  books, or book-length manuscripts—let’s call them BLMs—preceded my first published one, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003). I offer descriptions of each, and a précis of what each taught me as a writer:

BLM 1: A biography of the Beatles, written circa 1979. (It was definitely before John Lennon’s murder.) It was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on a recently issued Marvel Comics version of the Beatles’ story. (A comic I lost years ago, then delightedly found again at the New Jersey Beatlefest of 2003.) I typed it up myself and pasted the sheets into a big book of blank pages purchased from a gift shoppe. I even ripped pictures from books and made a photo insert. Crafty little devil! My mother surely still has this somewhere, next to my grade-school clay ashtrays.

What it taught me: Stamina is important, and renewing one’s faith in a project can be difficult. I was more than keen on writing this at the start, and the first two or three chapters were thick with the febrile descriptions and fabricated facts (Liverpool had, I reckoned, a population of about 1,100 people) that poured from my little head. But I ran out of steam toward the end, and my ass dragged over the finish line: The last chapter, detailing the Beatles’ denouement, was little more than a page long. The whole didn’t even make it to 50 pages. But it was, I assert, a book—a long piece of prose with a beginning, middle, and end. It wound down in a funk, but I finished the damned thing.

BLM 2. A critical-historical study of rock and roll music in the 1960s, titled When Soft Voices Die (artsy). The first draft, finished in 1984, was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Beginning. The second draft, done the next year, was much expanded and much more the product of my own tastes and perceptions as opposed to Mr. Cohn’s, but unfortunately just as useless to the world at large. A professor I knew read it, and encouraged me, unaccountably in retrospect, to send the manuscript to his agent in New York (a well-known agent, to whom, as I recall, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid is dedicated). The agent had an associate write a kindly note back, saying that the writing was good but that the book added no new insight or fact to the present picture. Which was undeniable.

What it taught me: Write your own damn book—don’t rewrite someone else’s.

BLM 3. A critical study of ten films, called Modes of Perception: The Director’s Art (heavy), written in 1985 as a senior project in high school. Let’s see if I can recall the films: Psycho, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Once Upon a Time in the West, Midnight Cowboy, The Twelve Chairs, Carnal Knowledge, American Graffiti, and I guess I can’t remember the other. Very auteurist, very Hollywood in orientation; highly influenced by the first edition of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films, the only serious work of analytical film criticism I’d read at that point. The project was pass/fail; I passed and graduated. Whew.

What it taught me: Anyone who selects ten movies to write about, and four of those ten are directed by Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, needs to see more movies.

BLM 4. A novel, written over the summer of 1985 (was I prolific back then or what?), called The Crossing, a Chandleresque mystery set for some lost reason in rural Georgia—a region I had never seen and still haven’t. Gratuitously violent, excruciatingly hardboiled; I stretched my powers of description and empathy to portray the phenomenon of a bullet pulverizing a human jaw. There were, I think, seven characters, counting the detective. Three or four of the others wound up dead. Leaving two suspects, only one of whom was smart enough to have done it. Mystery solved.

What it taught me: Novels aren’t that hard to write. Good novels, on the other hand …

BLM 5. A collection of short stories, polished off in 1987, called On the Ledge and Other Places. The title story, written in my eighth-grade English class, was about a little boy who murders another little boy in a rowboat, by smashing his head with an oar. Luckily, the teacher didn’t report me for having homicidal fantasies, as would happen today. Older stories were collected and newer ones written to be entered into a contest I’d come across in The North American Review. I didn’t win.

What it taught me: a) Work you did last week doesn’t always integrate smoothly with work you did five years ago, especially if five years ago you weren’t shaving yet. b) The short story isn’t really my thing.

BLM 6. A novel, finished in 1988, called Blind. I thought that was a good title, though it had no particular contextual meaning; didn’t know Talking Heads would record a song called “Blind” that very year and steal my thunder. Based loosely on my father’s experiences as a loan officer and repo man in the Midwest in the early 1960s, conflated with a recent case that had gotten much attention in Iowa: In 1983, Steven Hadley, the head teller at the John Deere Community Credit Union in Waterloo—and a professional acquaintance of my dad, who managed another credit union in the area—absconded with over $1 million. Abandoning his wife and children, he escaped by air, dressed in drag. Hadley was still at large when I started the novel; around the time I finished it, the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” was doing a segment on him. By chance, he was apprehended just days before the episode aired.

What it taught me: I can finish a longer novel. And a better novel. This was not a thin slice like the Georgia murder mystery; the stack had weight. I didn’t skimp on scenes, didn’t rush things along just to be done with them. I let rhythms develop and things play out. The story was uninteresting, the characters ambivalent to the point of despondency, the resolution thuddingly foreordained, but again, I’d finished it, and it was a lot better than my earlier attempt at the form.

BLM 7. A book of four longish stories, written in 1993 and 1994, called The Art of Imagination. This was offered as my master’s thesis in English at the City College of New York. While there, I’d had fiction workshops with three very different teachers, two of whom were lovely and encouraging, the other of whom was a bully, but all of whom taught me valuable lessons. These stories (which shared the theme of protagonists discovering hidden aspects of visible life, and following out in deliberate action the fancies of their imaginations) were better than any I’d written back in the ‘80s. That was partly because of these teachers, and partly because in the long interregnum between BLMs 6 and 7, I’d veered away from fiction and back toward criticism, mostly of movies. I’d written dozens of reviews for my college paper and then for the local metro paper, published a few essays in Film Quarterly, and crafted, purely for my own reference and enjoyment, a ton of super-brief movie critiques (not plagiarized by any means, but closely patterned on Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies).

What it taught me: Synthesis. Form and content, voice and thought, are not separate, they are the same. Synthesis.

What I needed to do to grow as a writer was to combine the critical analysis and aesthetic critique I seemed to have a knack for—the deconstruction and reassembly of artists and artworks into new imaginative shapes—with the vivid language and free metaphor that I took for granted made good fiction. Everything sprang from this. I discovered critics (D. H. Lawrence, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler) who’d made the same discovery decades before me. Where I’d never been a particular fan of Norman Mailer, I suddenly saw how great were his achievements. My writing got better, my thinking less regimented. I started getting published more regularly, and what I published began getting reprinted. I began to feel what I’d never really felt before—like I did have a voice, did have a unique mind attached to that voice.

BLM 7 ½. A novel, called—well, I won’t say, lest I go back to it someday. Written throughout 1995 and 1996, it was a) inspired by the O. J. Simpson murders, and b) about a circle of late-adolescent friends living in New York. It was overambitious and underplotted (think Big Serious Novel, early 1960s: Set This House on Fire, Another Country, An American Dream), and it stalled on me at the halfway point, which amounted to more than 300 pages.

What it taught me: In fact, it is very hard to write a good novel—a large, thematically coherent, holistic piece of involving, dramatic, shocking, moving narrative. There can be few harder tasks to set oneself in life than that.

It hurt, but I admitted the novel I’d put everything into for more than a year wasn’t working.  I drawered it, and probably wrote about one movie or another. Soon enough, having read and been disappointed by a couple of highly touted books on the Beatles, I began making notes on that long-cherished subject—the subject, in fact, of BLM 1—and a few years later I had, yes, my first published book.

But far from my first book.

Misnomer corrected, I hope?

(P.S. I persist in typing “misnomer” as “mishomer.” I haven’t seen a Simpsons episode in ages: Perhaps my subconscious is telling me I miss Homer?)

I clear my throat

So: I have a book coming out.