A new documentary on legendary director Frank Capra explores his legacy as the personification of the American can-do spirit. Matthew Wells’s Frank Capra: Mr America explores the themes that ran through Capra’s iconic films, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

The documentary has been premiered on BookMyShow Stream. Frank Capra: Mr America (2023) is an absorbing examination of a complicated man whose movies are regarded as simple life-affirming tracts.

While the tone is largely laudatory, the 93-minute documentary benefits from a rigorous emphasis on the context within which Capra worked. Biographers and filmmakers set out the circumstances that contributed to Capra’s reputation while also acknowledging his conveniently apolitical streak and dissonance with later filmmaking styles.

It Happened One Night (1934).

Frank Capra: Mr America is part of the centenary celebrations of Columbia Pictures (now owned by the Sony group). We learn that when Capra went to work at Columbia in the 1920s, the studio was a shadow of the economic powerhouse it later became. Capra, the son of Italian immigrants who grew up rough and worked odd jobs, including as a janitor, before making movies, soon became a star director for Columbia.

The folksy optimism, resilience and community spirit in Capra’s cinema inspired several filmmakers, not least in India. The films of Raj Kapoor and Rajkumar Hirani have the touch of Capra. Capra’s masterpiece, It Happened One Night, was unofficially remade in India several times, including as Chori Chori (1956), Nau Do Gyarah (1957) and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1997).

It Happened One Night was a huge financial and critical hit, with a five-Oscar haul. Capra had a rare knack, filmmaker Alexander Payne observes in the documentary: the kind of films Capra wanted to watch were what the audience wanted to watch too.

Capra taught viewers “how to hope”, another expert observes. Capra rose to prominence during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the documentary tells us. While his films didn’t avoid the economic catastrophe, he used comedy as a means of escape as well as aspiration.

Capra’s heroes were often individuals trumping the odds, arrayed against a political or economic system bigger than them. In his films, viewers recognised the real America as well an idealised version of it, another expert observes.

Some of the most valuable insights come from Joseph McBride, author of the biographies Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success and Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra. McBride points to Capra’s tendency to hog credit for team efforts, as well as Capra’s self-mythologisation as the archetypal immigrant who struck gold in the Land of Opportunity.

Alexander Payne observes that Capra’s genius for comedy was his greatest strength. Comedy directors are the most adept at calibrating drama and pathos, says Payne, who himself uses humour in his movies.

The documentary’s emphasis on unpacking the meaning of Capra’s relationship with the “American Dream” doesn’t allow for much discussion about his craftsmanship, or the manner in which writing, cinematography and editing contributed to his success. Although the framework is constricting at times, we get a vivid sense of how Capra connected with audiences in his heyday, and why he endures. If you do something real and true in the moment in which you are living and you do it well, it will always remain enduring, Alexander Payne says.

Frank Capra: Mr America (2023).