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.
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.”
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.