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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What's Your Favorite Old Movie?

I'm reading bits and pieces from Frank Capra's autobiography, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title. His movies have always fascinated me and I absolutely love a few of them. I think my favorite is Lady for a Day, a black and white picture about an apple peddlar in New York who's spent any money she's ever made (along with donations from her fellow "godparent" beggars) to send her illegitimate daughter to boarding school in Spain and keep her scandalous beginning secret.  Capra remade the film several decades later as Pennies from Heaven with Betty Davis and Ann Margaret, but the original was the real gem.

Capra had a Jimminy Cricket in his background, a hulking fighting Irishman named Myles Connolly who told him early on that he was the "best director in Hollywood" but wasted his efforts creating "picture postcards" when he could be making films like the "Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa." Here's how Capra describes one exchange between Connolly and himself:

"Why do you ask, 'Who is man? Why is man?' I'll tell you. There's something inside your peasant soul hurting to come out...and you're scared. Before you know who man is...you've got to be one." 
"Meaning what?"  
"Meaning put your manhood where your mouth is, and commit yourself. Open up your mind to the immortals -- the prophets, the poets. Yes! The saints and the martyrs.... 
Obviously our relationship was a hate-love affair. We were either embracing or snarling...
And yet -- his words seared like branding irons: "a puny, calculating mind...an oily apostle of comfort...you're scared...a juggler...colored balls that hide the drivel...." 
Connolly hurt because he was right. I feared total dedication to films.
And Connolly was instrumental in Capra's first big hit, It Happened One Night, a film about a rich young heiress (Claudette Colbert) fleeing from her boring life who meets up with a hard-boiled reporter (Clark Gable). The film was turned down by actors and actresses repeatedly and it looked like it would be a bust until some changes suggested by Connolly:
"Sure, you've got some good comedy routines, but your leading characters are non-sympathetic, non-interest-grabbing. People can't identify with them. Take your girl: a spoiled brat....She's a zero. Take your leading man: a long haired...Greenwich Village painter. I don't know know any vagabond painters....And the man I don't know is a man I'm apt to dislike, especially if he has no ideals, no worms, no dragons to slay. Another zero. And when zero meets zero you've got zero interest."  
Then Connolly made the all important suggestions:
"Now. Your girl. Don't let her be a brat because she's an heiress, but because she's bored with being an heiress. More sympathetic. And the man. Forget that panty-waist painter. Make him a guy we all know and like. Maybe a tough, crusading reporter -- at outs with his pig-headed editor. More sympathetic. And when he meets the spoiled heiress -- well, it's The Taming of the Shrew. But the shrew must be worth taming, and the guy that tames her must be one of us." 
Capra with writer, Harry Riskin, rewrote the story in a week, shot it in four, and the film won five Oscars at the Academy Awards.

Yup, I love Frank Capra's films and I'm glad he was freinds with Myles Connolly because I was looking for information on Connolly and that's the only place I could find it. So I got a two-fer, Capra and Connolly. Ah, yes, it's a wonderful day in a wonderful life!

2 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Try as I might, I can't come up with only one favorite old movie! There's too many really good ones. I have a good collection of classics on DVD which I can watch over and over. But I agree with you, I love Capra also.

Anita Moore said...

I have a number of old favorites myself. It's sobering to think, though, that most of my favorite movie actors are either dead or in their 90s.

And just to prove how old us old-movie buffs are getting...I was in a salon getting a haircut one day, and the little girl cutting my hair asked me if I liked movies. Yes, I said, I like old movies. "You mean like from the Eighties???" she chirped.

Sigh.