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The Little Man on the Big Screen

Everyone knows Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but it was director Preston Sturges who captured the volatile reality of success, failure, and the American dream.

A still from Sullivan's Travels(1942).

In the early 1940s, there was a cinematic battle raging between two populist filmmakers — Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. If you watch their movies today, you’re almost certain to like Preston Sturges’s better. They’re wild, chaotic, hilarious films that assume all governing officials are ridiculously corrupt and pretty much all ordinary citizens are scrambling and hustling and stuttering and screeching and flailing in their mad slapstick efforts to succeed in America.

It’s telling that the Coen brothers, the contemporary filmmakers most overtly engaged with conveying the American experience, cite Sturges frequently. One of their most popular films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), was directly inspired by Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), in which a successful Hollywood director of comedies, John L. Sullivan, yearns to make a serious, socially conscious drama entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a movie Sullivan explicitly sees as his own Capra picture. And The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), perhaps the Coens’ least popular film, was directly inspired by Capra’s film Meet John Doe (1941). Though the plotting is Capraesque, the tone of the film is far closer to Sturges — hectic and satirical. The combination was an uneasy one.

Frank Capra in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Sturges himself had better luck taking on Capra. In the 1930s, when Sturges arrived in Hollywood, Capra had reached the dizzying peak of his career, directing hit after hit with It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra was the Spielberg of his day — world-famous, revered, loaded up with Academy Awards, and celebrated on the cover of Time magazine. He rivaled director John Ford in presenting America to itself in instantly mythologizing terms that the public loved. Decades later, actor and independent filmmaker John Cassavetes would say, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America. Maybe there was only Frank Capra.”

It was this towering patriotic mythology that Sturges riotously satirized in a series of frenetic screwball comedies such as The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. For Sturges, American life was the experience of being whipsawed around by unseen forces of corruption and incompetence. Kicking the slats out from under meritocracy by showing the ways sky-high success and abject failure result from a fundamentally insane system are signature Sturges moves.

A good example of a Sturges plot is Christmas in July (1940), in which a lowly office worker, desperate to earn money to support his mother and marry his girlfriend, submits a slogan to a coffee company’s contest advertising a $25,000 prize. His coworkers send him a prank telegram telling him he’s won, his boss promotes him on the basis of his apparent success, and he goes on a jubilant spending spree before discovering the truth. Then, just as the repo trucks pull up and the movie’s becoming unbearably dark, it turns out that due to total confusion among the coffee executives, he wins the contest after all with his terrible slogan that no one understands: If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.

Among cinephiles, the reputation of Sturges grows shinier every year, even as Capra’s becomes more tarnished. Both directors were conservatives who fundamentally distrusted politics. Both were also enamored of their own ideas about America and its people, and both were egomaniacal auteurs, film “authors,” long before that term came into use.

But beyond those similarities, the two directors could hardly have seemed more at odds. Capra was the driven child of impoverished immigrant Sicilian laborers. Like many people who come up the hard way, he grew to love the idea of its hardness, and to romanticize the lone individual struggling for success as the figure that should be at the center of American society, a moral paragon setting the bootstrapping standards for others to emulate.

Sturges, on the other hand, came up the soft way. He was the son of a bold American self-creationist named Mary Dempsey, who changed her name to D’Este and convinced herself she truly was the daughter of Italian nobility until one of the real D’Estes sued her for using the family name on her line of cosmetics. She altered the name to Desti and found some success as an entrepreneur, able to spend most of her time lounging around the Continent having affairs with a wide range of fringe characters including occultist Aleister Crowley and participating in art happenings with her idol and best friend, Isadora Duncan, the modern dance pioneer. Desti gave Duncan the dramatically long scarf that caught on the back wheel of Duncan’s convertible and snapped her neck, a perfect bohemian death.

Preston “got dragged through every museum in Europe” by his art-addled mother and came to hate anything smacking of pretentious high culture. Instead, he adored his stepfather, Solomon Sturges, a Chicago stockbroker whose mild, stable, plainspoken character came as a refreshing change. Though Preston was often broke, making and losing several fortunes in his lifetime, he was never poor. He had tremendous cultural capital: he spoke fluent French, wore custom-made suits, and had gone to boarding schools with the sons of dukes and prime ministers.

His vision of America was of a chaotic but protean place where the next person you met might be the key to either dizzying success or total disaster. Sturges attempted to forge a career as a cosmetics tycoon, an inventor, a songwriter, and (reluctantly) the kept husband of a wealthy wife, failing at everything until he tried his hand at being a playwright. Finally, his erratic energies and brilliant facility with language found a home and a hit with Strictly Dishonorable, a title he got from his own line to a date who asked what his intentions were that evening. He loved America, with its fast pace, high risk, and popping energy.

It was an altogether different America that Capra loved. Capra, unlike Sturges, was generally and erroneously regarded as a highly political, left-wing populist, always bravely willing to court controversy in order to make “significant” films celebrating the common man and exposing the ways the system didn’t work. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was considered borderline seditious by members of Congress, who raised a ruckus over its portrayal of a US Senate rotten with corruption. The Daily Worker even praised Capra for his “notable progressive films in the 1930s.”

And the French public, given the chance by the Vichy government to vote on which Hollywood movie they’d like to see before the Nazis ended the import of American films, chose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as an inspirational representation of a still-thriving democracy that can speak truth to power.

Capra created heroes who are idealists full of small-town American values, brave and adventuresome in their Boy Scout–ish endeavors, generally tongue-tied except when quoting their role models Jefferson and Lincoln. They’re often played by tall, lanky, all-American actors like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. They go to the big city and meet the cynical, self-serving representatives of financial and state power and are almost undone by the depths of their corruption. But then, at the climactic point, they come back strong and show that the individual can go up against the capitalist forces of darkness and save American democracy.

This last-ditch triumph always occurs with the crucial help of a tough, brainy, and cynical career woman typically played by Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck, who actually has the know-how to fight the system she learned from the inside, once she’s won over to the hero’s cause.

One idealistic man saving American democracy, aided by one formidable woman, can still only do it by inspiring the people to action, starting with that man’s hordes of friends. Like the angel says in It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Especially friends who show up with money when the shit hits the fan, as occurs at key points in It’s a Wonderful Life and You Can’t Take It with You, defying the machinations of the rich and powerful with heartwarming hatfuls of crumpled dollar bills. And don’t think you won’t be moved by these scenes either — they still work like magic.

Because Capra was a great director, even if he was also a right-wing bastard whose most famous work owes a lot of its populist appeal to his screenwriters, all of them strongly left wing: Jo Swerling, Robert Riskin, and Sidney Buchman. Buchman, for example, who wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was a Communist who was later blacklisted when he refused to name fellow party members.

Capra always downplayed the politics of his screenwriters while dismissing their overall contributions. He especially shafted Robert Riskin, who is credited with co-creating the “Capra formula” in their hit films, It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It with You (1938). The Riskin-Capra partnership ultimately broke down over ideological tensions as well as Capra’s mania for claiming credit for every aspect of his films. This led to a Great Moment in Screenwriting History, when Riskin supposedly threw 120 blank script pages on Capra’s desk and said, “Put the famous ‘Capra Touch’ on that.”

Yet that credit-hogging, Roosevelt-hating, McCarthy-supporting sumbitch Capra built tremendously dynamic and affecting scenes representing working people. How about that desperate, dispossessed, middle-aged farmer (John Wray) in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town who crashes Longfellow Deeds’s mansion to berate him for not sharing his newly inherited wealth with the destitute? This memorably heartbreaking, unshaven man in a worn-out suit pulls a gun and threatens to murder Deeds (Gary Cooper) before breaking down in tears, dropping the gun, and sitting huddled and broken in an ornate oversize chair.

I thought of this scene immediately in that charged moment at Bernie Sanders’s recent Carson City, Nevada town hall, when a veteran named John Weigel stood up and said he owed $139,000 he couldn’t possibly repay, and he suddenly announced, “I’m going to kill myself.” Sanders’s automatic response of alarm for the man made him cry out, “Don’t! Hold it, John. Stop it. You’re not gonna kill yourself.” Sanders calmed him by asking him to meet afterward, with the implication that together they would navigate the problem of the veteran’s overwhelming debt.

It was a poignant moment in American political history that got major media coverage. Capra and his collaborators would have recognized it as one of their film scenes come to life. The suicidal urges of a desperate working-class man who can see no other way out was a specialty of theirs in both Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the latter of which was a notable financial failure when it came out. It was right after the end of World War II, when Americans were in no mood for the film’s bleak look at an unhappy life consumed by relentless money troubles, capped by watching the despairing Jimmy Stewart plunge off a bridge into icy black water on the night before Christmas, even if an intervention from heaven makes it all turn out fine in the end. The 1940s public probably saw the film more clearly than we do now, when it’s considered a cornball Christmas classic.

Capra’s reputation has suffered badly over the course of several decades, as his films came to represent populism’s supposedly slippery slope to fascism. It was shrewd of Capra to obscure his actual politics during the 1930s and ’40s, when most people were fooled by his films into believing the director was “quite liberal,” as Katharine Hepburn did when she agreed to star in State of the Union. Capra was, in fact, an open admirer of both Mussolini and Franco. During the McCarthy era, he served as an FBI informer, helping to persecute his fellow film industry professionals as a way of making sure his own history of working with left-wing writers didn’t come back to bite him.

Trailer for Palm Beach Story (1942).

But as corny as Capra looks today, Sturges relied on his films. He couldn’t help but pay tribute even as he wrestled with Capra’s idea of the American experience. It Happened One Night, in particular, obsessed Sturges. His The Palm Beach Story is modeled directly on the Capra film, only reversing its basic movement. It Happened One Night involves heiress Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert, running off to get married before she meets down-to-earth reporter Peter Warne (Clarke Gable) on a long road trip from Florida to New York City and gets an education in the warmth, authenticity, and superior values of working-class life. The Palm Beach Story also stars Claudette Colbert, this time as the unhappily married wife of a failed inventor who takes a road trip in exactly the opposite direction, from New York City to Florida, in search of wealth. She wants a divorce and a second husband rich enough to support both herself and her soon-to-be ex.

It Happened One Night was the movie most responsible for founding the screwball comedy genre that Sturges quickly made his own, and it’s Capra’s funniest film. It was such a colossal success that it led to Capra’s nervous break-down and investment in the idea of “the catastrophe of success.” Capra recovered through a mysterious conversion to a new mode of more serious, “significant” filmmaking, and attributed his return to a curious visit from an unnamed “little man” who counseled him to commit his talents to the service of humanity: “Beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, my films had to say something.”

Sturges makes Sullivan’s Travels his cinematic argument against films that “say something.” He steals shots from One Night, like the starry moonlit river Peter and Ellie have to wade across, never noticing its beauty because it’s just one more obstacle in the life of broke down-and-outers on the road. Sturges has his fake hobo couple pause by Capra’s starry river and gaze out wistfully because, by the time they see it, they’re about fed up with pretending to be poor and seeing nothing but ugly desperation, which is getting a tad too raw for them. Sullivan’s Travels also imitates the “Depression vignettes” of It Happened One Night, scenes of life among the impoverished that include both suffering and communal enjoyment, which were admired by philosopher Stanley Cavell for their quality of reportage.

Strangely enough, with Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges made the most Capraesque film of his career while explicitly mocking Capra films. Sturges seemed to require the monumental vision of Capra’s America that was so dominant when he arrived in Hollywood in order to generate his own filmic rebuttal, an image of jabbering hysteria caused by trying to make it in a crazily rigged system. Sullivan’s Travels served as an impassioned justification of Sturges’s own choice to make all-out comedies, which his film argues serve the poor better than any feel-bad movie about social conditions ever could. He even gives his most admiring shot to the butler who tells John L. Sullivan not to make his experiment of going out to live temporarily among the poor because poverty is not a mere “interesting subject” for dilettantes, but a hideously dangerous “plague” that threatens lives.

“Well, you seem to have made quite a study of it,” says Sullivan.

“Quite unwillingly, sir.”

The butler foretells Sullivan’s true fall into poverty when Sullivan winds up sentenced to a Southern chain gang out of the reach of his wealthy friends. Only then does he learn what “trouble” really is, when he can’t readily end his “noble experiment” in understanding poverty and return to his Hollywood mansion. The startling ugliness of this sequence includes a beating by the brutal chain-gang boss and solitary confinement in a “sweatbox,” clearly based on the influential 1932 “social problem film” I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. But, as in Sturges’s own Christmas in July, a miracle snatches our hero from danger just as the film grows unbearably grim.

Miracles can happen in Sturges’s America because anything can happen in Sturges’s America. Didn’t it all happen to Sturges himself?

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) casts an irreverent satirical eye at small-town life in a clearly implied send-up of Capra’s worshipful attitude. Morgan’s Creek is about a young woman of frenetically high energy named Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) who goes out to a military dance that gets a bit wild, stays out all night, winds up pregnant, and can’t recall which GI she married (presuming she got married at all). After this, getting her respectably hitched to her devoted schnook swain, Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), without embroiling her in a ruinous scandal or charges of bigamy requires a conspiracy of colorfully flawed townspeople, including her explosively temperamental police chief father, her hard-boiled kid sister, the town’s cynical lawyer, and the kindly mensch grocer, in league against the nasty rumor mongering banker who’s a clear holdover from villains in Capra films. It’s still a marvel that writer-director Sturges ever got it past the censors.

Sturges borrowed his beloved characters of McGinty and The Boss from his earlier film The Great McGinty to play the rough-neck ex-goon governor of the state and the gangster who bought the election for him, who wheel and deal to fix everything for Norval and Trudy with a cheerful lack of concern for legalities — annul the first marriage, legalize the second marriage, drop all criminal charges, enlist Norval in the army and promote him to captain, and so on.

They’re no angels, like the one who saves Capra’s George Bailey. But they’re the kind of saviors Sturges understood as typical of the American experience — crooks and con artists who reveal the rigged game we’re trapped in. They’re colorful, self-serving, lovable in their ruthlessness, loaded with personal style, and they appear suddenly and chaotically in your life, just as likely to hurt you as help you.

Because in Sturges’s America, there’s no use hoping for Capra’s “little man” to rise up and set the system working properly again. You’re on your own, and everything depends on the breaks.