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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington / It Happened One Night / You Can't Take It with You / Mr. Deeds Goes to Town / American Madness / Frank Capra's American Dream) (1934-39)

"Lincoln said, 'With malice toward none, with charity to all.' Nowadays they say, 'Think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights out of you.'"
- Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore)

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: December 04, 2006

Stars: Walter Huston, Pat O'Brien, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Claude Rains
Other Stars: Kay Johnson, Gavin Gordon, Sterling Holloway, Walter Connolly, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, John Wray, Ann Miller, Mischa Auer, Eddie Anderson, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Carey
Director: Frank Capra

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nothing objectionable
Release Date: December 05, 2006
UPC: 043396152182
Genre: comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A B+BB B

DVD Review

Sony's new Premiere Frank Capra Collection gathers five of the director's Columbia films in one classily packaged set, beginning with 1932's less heralded bank-run drama American Madness, and then getting into the big guns: It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A sixth disc includes the documentary Frank Capra's American Dream, hosted by a later symbol of wholesome Americana, Ron Howard. Capra has long stood as some kind of representative of the "common man," whatever you want that term to mean. This set, assuming you don't already have most of it, is a good starting place for exploring his particular slant on America.

American Madness isn't a rare film especially, given various cable screenings over the years, but coming before Capra's first truly major success in It Happened One Night, it has fallen through the cracks for many, along with other deserving films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen (a title sadly not included in this set), but it does get a welcomed spot here. Walter Huston plays Thomas Dickson, a free-wheeling bank manager who raises the ire of his board by making loans to people the board considers losing propositions. Dickson argues that for the country to recover from the Depression, money needs to be in circulation, not squirrelled away, adding that he knows his customers and has faith in them. The polemical aspects of American Madness are more than evident, indeed we're just about clubbed over the head with them, and the script uses contrivances more than it should. But the whole things works thanks to Robert Riskin's snappy script and the performances, led by Huston's immensely likeable Dickson. The events later in the film will be quite recognizable to anyone who's seen It's a Wonderful Life.

Following Madness, Capra directed The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Lady For a Day before turning his attention to the Riskin-scripted It Happened One Night, a film that ignited the romantic comedy as we still know it today. All the hallmarks of that classic genre are here: the mismatched couple, seemingly never to get along before the slow thaw reveals them to be made for each other, culminating in the near disastrous wedding of the woman before second thoughts lead to a last-minute happy ending. The film would be important even if it weren't a classic, but fortunately it is one. Gable re-shaped his movie persona with this role, and the film swept all five major Academy Awards, giving Capra and company some deserved validation. It's the only film of the bunch without a heavy message, and it's the most enjoyable as well.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra first indulges what he sees as an obligation to do something more "meaningful" with the talent given him, after a serious illness laid him low. Robert Riskin again contributes the script, based on a short story by Clarence Budington Kelland. Deeds is the story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a small-town poet who writes doggerel for greeting cards. When an unexpected bequest of $20 million comes his way, he travels to New York, encountering snobbery and machinations intended to bilk him of everything. While the film is beloved by many, I find it dishonest bunk; we get the old cliché about small-town folk being so innocent and good-hearted, while the city is home to every conniving sleazebag imaginable. And were the rich Republican Capra and the well-off Democrat Riskin donating their fortunes to the poor after making the film? Not that I've read. Even Deeds keeps a couple million for himself, after all. The film's portrayal of the intelligentsia as snobbish and mean-spirited comes off as petty pandering to the unwashed masses. Cooper is stripped of much of his charisma, playing a wise innocent with a violent streak, but Jean Arthur is super as always.

Following that "statement" film, Capra and Riskin made the expensive boondoggle Lost Horizon, and its relative failure left Capra needing a hit. A subsequent Capra lawsuit against Columbia ended with studio head Harry Cohn acquiring for Capra the film rights to You Can't Take It With You, which had enjoyed huge success on the stage. Riskin again does the screenplay honors, and Capra turns in an immensely enjoyable if sometimes uninspired film, again following the pattern of the individual against the big money/machine/bureaucracy. While I enjoy the film, it really is just cheap escapism; no doubt many people would have loved to live carefree like the Vanderhofs, but it isn't exactly like that in the real world. As with other Capra films, too much is lacking in subtlety; for example, Kirby's (Edward Arnold) business rival can't just lose out, he needs to commit suicide. Arnold carries the film, as it's his rebirth into someone less reptilian that anchors the otherwise shallow plot. James Stewart and Jean Arthur make a great couple, though it's hard to believe that a character like Stewart's ever would have emerged from such a family. Riskin's script is stuffed with great moments and lines, and whatever discomfort one may have with the underlying phoniness of the story is swept away by the potency of the dialogue and the performers.

The final film is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, written by Sidney Buchman, stepping in for Riskin, the latter having left to work for David Selznick. Again, the film is an "innocent against the powers that be" tale, with James Stewart perfectly cast as the aw-shucks Jefferson Smith, leader of a Boy Scouts-type organization picked to be an unknowing Senatorial stooge for a media baron (Edward Arnold) and his political machine, led by Claude Rains. Jean Arthur again steps in as the world-weary, smart-talking dame who sees her dormant idealism given a jolt by Smith. The finale, in which an embattled Smith tries to prove his innocence during a lengthy filibuster, is a rightfully famous scene, though the aftermath with Rains' character goes overboard. It's superbly made, like all the films here, though again devoid of subtlety.

Capra would follow Mr. Smith with Meet John Doe, his first film away from Columbia, and during the war made propaganda documentaries (the Why We Fight series). After the war, there was of course It's a Wonderful Life, but the rest of his career declined rapidly, with Capra reduced to making inferior remakes of his earlier films. Those earlier films more than make up for any later disappointments, as the period of 1932-1939 includes some of the best pictures of that decade.

Hopefully we'll get some of the films not included on this set in a future set, allowing some of the more neglected titles some deserved attention.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: With the exception of American Madness, the films included here have been released previously, with You Can't Take It With You considered the worst-looking of the previous bunch. Described in its earlier review here as "very inconsistent at times," while other reviews note a good deal of speckling and scratches. This transfer appears to have been improved, but contrast levels still vary, usually on the high end. I haven't seen the original disc to compare. If this is the best the film can look, it isn't optimal, but it's certainly watchable. American Madness looks very nice, better in fact than YCTIWY, with excellent detail and sharpness. Presumably the film's lack of success led to elements not being beaten to death over the years. The other three transfers are presumably the same as the previous releases, given the sameness of extras, though I have not been able to compare them.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: All the films are presented in their original mono mixes, and they all sound largely as you'd expect, with some occasional hiss, with music causing the only real difficulties, given the age of soundtracks.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 104 cues and remote access
5 Original Trailer(s)
6 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
5 Feature/Episode commentaries by Frank Capra Jr on all films, Catherine Kellison (on American Madness, You Can't Take It With You
Packaging: Boxed Set
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage advertising materials
  2. Stills gallery
  3. Lux Radio presentation of It Happened One Night
  4. Movie Scrapbook
Extras Review: Let's start with the non-video extra, a Movie Scrapbook covering the films included; each film gets its own section, with quotes from Capra's often bogus autobiography as well as background info on each film, illustrated with promotional art, stills, and more. The on-disc extras all feature heavy involvement from Frank Capra, Jr., guaranteeing a bland time for all. That's perhaps overly harsh; this isn't to say these are bad, but unless you're new to Capra, there isn't much here that's especially deep, and little that really gets into the deeper meanings and craft of the films. Two commentary tracks feature NYU professor Catherine Kellison, but she takes a back seat to Capra Jr on both. When she does chime in, it's with comments rarely any more illuminating than his. A real disappointment. Recycled solo Capra Jr tracks are on the rest of the films. The Frank Capra Jr Remembers... documentaries on American Madness and YCTIWY are new; the other three are recycled. The ones for American Madness (25m:08s) and YCTIWY (25m:41s) all feature Capra Jr, with additional comments by film scholars Richard Pena and Jeanine Basinger, though Capra Jr dominates the proceedings. If you watch these, you needn't bother with the commentaries, frankly.

The sixth disc includes the previously released Frank Capra's American Dream, a 1997 feature-length documentary hosted by Ron Howard. The film functions as a biography of the director, with plenty of celebrity and scholarly commentators (Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and so on). It's well made and well worth watching for the Capra fan. The only drawback to the presentation here is the lack of chapter stops, a needless aggravation in a 108-minute film. Also included on the disc are four featurettes: Conversations with Frank Capra Jr: A Family History (25m:55s), which presents precisely what the title says it does; Conversations with Frank Capra Jr: The Golden Years (17m:52s), in which Capra Jr rambles on about the Capra golden age of the 1930s; Frank Capra: Collaboration (19m:19s), which takes brief looks at each of Capra's chief collaborators (Riskin, Joseph Walker, and others); and The Frank Capra I Knew (13m:05s), in which Jeanine Basinger, who curates the Capra papers at Wesleyan University, discusses her memories of the director. To me, all of these are more or less of marginal interest, unless you're either new to the information or a hardcore fan.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Three of the five discs here look to be ports of previous releases, with American Madness and You Can't Take It With You getting the attention. The choice then for collectors is whether to upgrade, given the lack of individual releases based on this set. Packaging aside, unless you're a Capra completist and must have American Madness (assuming it doesn't receive a later single release), I'd say it's probably a pass; but, if you don't already have most or any of these films, then this concise set gathers some of the most acclaimed American films of the 1930s, though the lack of meaningful extras dilutes its value as a scholarly tool of any kind. The deeper implications of Capra's work and its larger context in American society then and now are ignored for more superficial stuff, which has its interest, mainly to newcomers.

 


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