Talk about capraesque. According to Frank Capra’s American Dream, which celebrates the director’s birth 100 years ago last month, Capra’s life was not unlike those of his can-do heroes. A poor Sicilian immigrant who became a three-time Oscar winner (for It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and You Can’t Take It With You), the director inspires adoration from narrator Ron Howard and a bevy of critics, directors, and actors. Since this is a tribute, written and directed by Kenneth Bowser and executive-produced by Capra’s sons Tom and Frank Jr., some intriguing aspects of his life are omitted; for example, he was a longtime Republican who despised Roosevelt. Still, the clips do clue us in to the director’s durability: His brand of optimism and sentimentality, very much of its time, flew on the wings of seductive cinematography, lively editing, and the charisma of such stars as Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jimmy Stewart.
As two new-to-video Capra titles offered as part of the American Dream package make clear, the elements of his style were there early on. American Madness offers, in Walter Huston’s portrayal of a bank president at odds with a greedy board, a template for subsequent Capra idealists. Huston is terrific, though the drama is overplotted (a robbery at the bank causes a panic among depositors, his wife may be unfaithful) and toward the end clumsily melodramatic. But, as we know, Capra smoothed out such kinks during his canny career, or at least made them go over a lot easier. C+