Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with author Joseph McBride on the contradictions of Frank Capra

By April 12, 2019 April 14th, 2019 No Comments

Joseph McBride is a film professor and author who has written or edited 18 books about the history of cinema, including compelling and extensively researched biographies of John Ford, Steven Spielberg and Frank Capra, as well as three books on Orson Welles.

McBride is perhaps best known for penning “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success” — his controversial 1992 biography on the legendary film director. He spent seven years working to bring his book to print, including a four-year legal fight. Completing the Capra biography was so “harrowing,” McBride recently published a new book about it — “Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra.”

McBride, a professor at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema, doesn’t just write about film legends, he’s collaborated with several of them. He appeared as an actor in “The Other Side of the Wind,” a Welles movie that was filmed between 1970 and 1976 and for many years was tied up with legal, financial, and political problems. The movie was released last year — more than 40 years after filming wrapped — and can be watched on Netflix.

McBride is scheduled to appear twice this Sunday, April 14, at the Tiburon International Film Festival. He will sign books at 2:30 p.m. at the Tiburon Library, 1501 Tiburon Blvd. And he’ll moderate a discussion about Golden Age film director William Wellman at 6 p.m. at the Playhouse Theater, 40 Main St., Tiburon.

Local News Matters recently chatted with McBride via email and phone. Below is a Q&A based on those conversations, in which McBride discussed his controversial Capra books, film history, and his scheduled appearances in Tiburon this weekend. (Part of the Q&A has been edited for space and continuity.)

You’ve done so many books on film legends. What is it about old Hollywood that fascinates you?

I think we’ve declined a lot in American films since what we call the Golden Age. I think the 1920s might be the best period in American film, but I’ve also written about filmmakers of the 1930s and ’40s — Howard Hawks, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch and others.

Things started going haywire in the 1960s, when the big Hollywood studios were breaking up. It was really a factory system. Although the old studios had their flaws, it was easier in some ways to make a good film in those days. Today, it’s more difficult to get a good film financed and made through the system. Today, with the blockbuster mentality, film has been dumbed down. There are fewer films about people. That’s what I’m interested in, dramas and comedies about people instead of explosions and superheroes. All the trailers today look like the same movie — a $200M superhero spectacle.

How did you get interested in doing a book specifically on Frank Capra?

It started with Capra’s 1971 autobiography (“The Name Above the Title”). His book about his life is like a novel, it’s very misleading. I found it was almost completely a lie. I wrote my book, “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,” to tell the truth about him. But it caused a lot of internal controversy, and when my original publisher, Capra’s archivist, and some members of his family sought to stop the book from being published, I kept it quiet. I thought it would be more effective to just get the book out.

Joseph McBride and Frank Capra in 1985. (Photo courtesy of Joseph McBride)

What were some of the things that your publisher and other antagonists did in hopes of preventing your first Capra book?

The whole incident is a good story by itself. It’s dramatic and harrowing; kind of a black comedy like Kafka’s “The Trial.” I was enmeshed in this case of people lying to me and trying to thwart it, to remove the material that was most damaging to his reputation.

The second book tells the story of the making of the book, but it also reveals a lot about Capra’s life. The making of the book gives a different window into his life and into the corruption of the archival world and the publishing world. And it’s about the story of the writer who has to fight to tell the truth. Capra has a lot of fans who weren’t thrilled to learn that their hero was a liar and a phony. When you tell people their beloved mythology is not true, that upsets them. There’s a Brecht quote: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” I once thought Capra was a hero, but he wasn’t. It’s more interesting to face the reality of people.

Capra and his wife gave his papers to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And the Wesleyan cinema archivist, Jeanine Basinger, tried to stop me from telling his story. Alfred A. Knopf, the original publisher, tried to stop me. Some of the Capra family were involved as well. It was a complicated group of characters.

That’s what my book is about: how difficult it is to tell the truth about a famous and powerful person. My first book on Capra took seven years to write; four years of it largely were consumed by the legal battle. He was a very complex man, which is what made him fascinating to write about.

What were some of the negative things about Capra that you uncovered?

He was an informer during the blacklist period, for example. Nobody knew this, though I suspected something had gone wrong after World War II. He made “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and after that, he made films that were far below his previous standard. I wanted to know what made a great director implode like that. I co-wrote the AFI Life Achievement tribute show for Capra in 1982 and I interviewed Capra himself for about a year.

When I first met him in 1975, I found he was not the man he pretended to be. The rich guys are usually the villains in his films. He’s for the so-called common man against the forces of wealth, privilege and power. As Capra said about his screen heroes, “I didn’t think he was common, I thought he was a helluva guy.” Yet, I was interviewing him at a country club where he told me he hated bankers and rich people. Then a man approached, showed us photos of him playing golf with (U.S. president) Gerald Ford, which Capra loved. It’s the ultimate immigrant fantasy — the president holds your pin while you putt. Then afterward, Capra went back to saying how much hated bankers and rich people. I realized then that he was not the man he pretended to be.

Capra’s films are complicated ideologically. Capra was confused; he was always a Republican but during the Depression era he was something of a social critic, and he worked with a lot of left-wing writers, which got him trouble during the blacklist period in the late 1940s and the ’50s. He was angry with America because after the war he was accused of being disloyal to America. After he had worked with the government during the war making propaganda films, they then denied his security clearance. During the Red Scare, he blamed his writers and sort of blacklisted himself. He moved to Fallbrook and lived on a ranch. He was consumed by self-loathing and doubt. Capra went into a tailspin. He was never the same after the blacklist. It shattered him.

McBride is a professor at San Francisco State University’s School of Cinema. (Photo courtesy of Locarno International Film Festival)

Capra, an Italian-American immigrant, did so much to craft the positive and enduring mythology that 20th-century Americans embraced about themselves — with films such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Did the immigrant experience influence his filmmaking?

That’s a big part of my story and it was a key thing to his experience. He was a man who embraced America, and waved the flag fervently, but was also aware of the flaws in the system, which made his films complex and interesting. Being an immigrant was part of his drive, and he felt compelled to prove himself worthy as an American. (Film professor and author) Jonathan J. Cavallero wrote that Capra’s films are disguised immigrant stories because they’re often about a person who comes from the country to the big city and is confronted with corruption; there’s a conflict between naïve goodness and harsh reality, which makes his films fascinating

A lot of immigrants were looked down on in his era. I interviewed a lot of people who went to high school with him, and some of them put him down in ethnic ways. He was relatively poor and Italian, and back then the ideal was the so-called melting pot. You were supposed to be someone who assimilated.

His heroes were not Italian, they were WASPs like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. He looked down on his own family and fellow Italians. He felt he was a self-made man and he looked down on people who didn’t succeed. He was very bigoted toward just about every other ethnic group and race. Mention any ethnic or racial group to him, and he’d malign them. He mostly covered up this ugly part of his personality in public, but he was candid with me about it.

Did your research findings change your view of Capra the filmmaker?

I still like Capra’s films. I was a huge Capra fan, and I think the films are even more fascinating when you understand the contradictions that once baffled me and other critics. Works of art are interesting because of the artists’ conflicts. So, I still feel much the same about Capra’s as I did before I wrote these books. He was a terrific director of actors, and his themes of innocence against power are still powerful.

I think you can draw a distinction between a man and his films. We’ve lost some of that today in film. One example is Woody Allen: the controversies over his personal life have clouded some people’s views of his films. I don’t like John Wayne’s politics, but I like his work. We tend to expect too much from artists and romanticize them too much. That’s why I think it’s a good corrective to write truthfully about them. Most great artists have a lot of problems or are jerks. That’s one reason why they become great artists, they have so many conflicts. Look at Hemingway or Mozart or Tolstoy or John Ford. They have good and bad traits. It enables them to identify with all kinds of characters, even if their own behavior sometimes is objectionable.

Was there a specific instance or final straw that led you to decide the resistance to the truth about Capra could be its own book?

It built up over the years. One reason I was able to write this book so thoroughly was I kept a good paper trail. I had good lawyers who told me to keep thorough notes. I took notes of everything, my talks with the publishers, the archive, Capra, my lawyers and agent, and everyone else. My first Capra book was published by Simon & Schuster. It took years to extricate the book from Knopf, and it weighed on me for a long time. Writers often don’t tell about their bad experiences with publishers and companies, but it happens more often than we know. It’s a painful thing to write about, but I found it liberating to write this book because I was getting it off my chest. It’s a service to the public to know how these things work. I believe in writing about an injustice or some false conception that needs to be corrected, stories that stir my passion for telling the truth.

For my first Capra book, I initially worked with Robert Gottlieb and Jeanine Basinger. Gottlieb, who was my first editor at Knopf, is considered one of the nation’s best editors. And Basinger, Wesleyan University’s longtime cinema archivist, is considered by many to be a leading film teacher and historian. But with my book, I think they were trying to keep out the damaging political revelations about Capra. They were trying to sanitize the book. I resisted, and I didn’t give in. I feel I didn’t compromise my voice in the book, and it’s a better book because it took so long. Trying to kill a book is a terrible thing to do in this country, where we’re supposed to have free speech. Perhaps the final factor in making me decide to tell the story was Gottlieb’s burnishing of his inflated reputation in his 2016 autobiography, “Avid Reader: A Life.”

At first, I felt it was better to not go public. Now I’m telling the unvarnished truth.

Are there parallels between the difficulties you encountered with the Capra book and the JFK assassination, which you’ve also written about?

It’s a very destructive thing for a country to live a lie. With the JFK assassination: most of the country doesn’t believe the Warren Report. The official lie is really damaging to the people’s trust in government and the media. The public — give them credit because they’re smarter than some people think.

President Trump misuses the term “fake news” just to describe news about himself he doesn’t like. But, in fact, we do get a lot of fake news — such the coverage of Vietnam and the history of Watergate. The job of historians is to expose the things that have been covered up. That’s why I’ve tried to do. So, I think people will be interested in my books for a lot of reasons, not just film historians.

The cover of McBride’s book, about the difficulty publishing his first work about the director.

What should visitors to the Tiburon film festival expect at your book signing next Sunday (April 14), as well as the William Wellman tribute you’re set to moderate?

Saeed Shafa (the founder and director of the Tiburon film festival) is a terrific guy, and the festival has a personal touch. He loves bringing people in from all over the world for the festival. The festival will screen “A Star is Born,” the version made in 1937 by William Wellman. I’ll interview his son — William Wellman Jr. — who will introduce the film. Wellman Jr. wrote a 2015 book about his father called “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel.” The senior Wellman, who was a good friend of Capra’s, would get into fistfights with producers, fighting for his creative rights. People admire him for that. He was an exuberant guy and his films have that energy. I’m amazed by certain things about him. In 1933, for example, he directed eight films. The films have tremendous brio, charm, energy, and social messages.

What can you tell us about your appearance as an actor in Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” which was shot in the 1970s and finally released last year?

It came out 48 years after I started working on the film. I spent five-plus years acting in “The Other Side of the Wind.” I play a pretentious young film critic who’s asking questions of a legendary old director played by John Huston. Welles let me write my own dialogue with him. People seem to find my performance funny, which is gratifying. Someone said I was believable because I’m playing a film nerd, which is what I was. I’m an average person in the story, an outsider, not part of the Hollywood scene. I’m representing all of us.