Now that the holidays are over, many of us must return to the wintery world of work without the warmth of those lucky enough to holiday in Hawaii. Despite its being either the beginning of a new decade or the last year of the old one, 2009 left us in the usual way, entertainment-wise. The season was awash with feel-good movies, some even paying tribute to the holiday that dare not speak its name, albeit with only a cursory mention of the child whose birth was responsible for this sometimes confusing system of numbering our years.
Many broadcasters, like Turner Classic Movies, featured the films of Frank Capra; particularly his saccharine Christmas saga It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra, a naturalized American citizen who fought in two wars for his adopted country, was famous for his optimism and his emphasis on the value of the individual versus that of powerful interests; sort of a cinematic Ayn Rand.
Now although he was a registered Republican and an informer for the FBI during the McCarthy era, Capra’s movies are still popular with progressives today because they often beat up on those who ran “the system”; even though those in charge at the time were mostly Democrats, since his best films were made during the reign of liberal lion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it’s true, when you view them through the modern mindset, you can’t help but feel that those rascally villains really are all Republicans.
Yet Capra’s personal feelings viewed alongside his cinematic legacy prove that, at least during the Golden Age of Hollywood, some filmmakers managed to keep their politics off the silver screen and their views to themselves. Of course, the same cannot be said of today’s filmmakers, much less today’s journalists.
But Capra was certainly not alone in skewing the rich and powerful, particularly in the 1930s when wealthy establishment figures were favorite targets of cinematic abuse, providing entertainment for those suffering the depredations of the Great Depression. Today, the eras most representative to portray American hardship would be those of Republican presidencies. And so it’s ironic how often the Depression was invoked in the eight years of the previous administration; how George W. Bush was compared, ad nauseam, to Herbert Hoover when it came to job losses. Yet now, when the unemployment rate has jumped into double digits, there’s nary an Okie to be found.
One wonders if those classic movies could be honestly remade today by folks who had the integrity of a Frank Capra or Elia Kazan, another man who had the courage of his convictions. Which political party would be indicted by the smarmy anti-Semitism so bravely rooted out by Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement? Who would be in bed with the labor thugs so excoriated by his On the Waterfront? Who would be the senators making the sleazy, backroom deals in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Would Hollywood have the guts to portray liberals like George Soros as corrupt powerbrokers behind a Democratic newcomer, as did Capra with Republicans in State of the Union?
If your answer to all of the above is a resounding, “when pigs fly,” then congratulations! You’ve won an all expenses paid trip to a modern Hollywood film festival where they’ll be round-the-clock showings of such fair and balanced fare like The American President, Frost/Nixon, Reds, The Day After Tomorrow, The China Syndrome, Syriana, Bob Roberts, Bulworth and All the President’s Men.
Yes, things have certainly changed in Tinseltown since the days when it was populated by real Americans interested in entertaining other real Americans. But perhaps the biggest difference is Hollywood’s lack of desire to produce anything truly important or inspiring — short of animated pap — to lift the spirits of our nation in time of war and economic downturn. Quite the opposite.
That’s why the most interesting thing about TCM’s December schedule was the inclusion of all seven installments of Why We Fight, a series of short films made during World War II by Capra and commissioned by the U.S. War Department. This documentary was and still is sneeringly referred to as “propaganda,” but compared to what passes for facts as presented by today’s mainstream media, it should be regarded as gospel truth.
Watching the opening installment, Prelude to War, was not only stirring, but invaluably informative in a way that only pre-1960s U.S. history books used to be. Far from mere propaganda, it served to inform Americans about the differences in the goals and cultures of democratic societies and their sworn enemies, and graphically pointed out the perils of leaving those powers intact to pursue their murderous ends. It was also a demonstration of the way Hollywood once used its talents to help our nation win a war instead of working toward its defeat. Would that we had a few Frank Capras now.