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Researcher Beware! – Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra by Joseph McBride

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A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.

Joseph McBride’s latest mammoth book, well-written and copiously documented as usual, is an unusual production in the field of cinema studies. It is a companion volume to his earlier 1992 text, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, which took issue with the traditional estimation of this classical Hollywood studio director who had already decided to “print (his own version of) the legend” in his 1971 autobiography Frank Capra: The Name above the Title. McBride’s book is a meticulously documented and plausibly argued study of an American “hero” whose personal faults, lies, evasions, and later career problems were an inextricable mixture of the political and the personal. This led to tragic dimensions originating from the complex and problematic nature of an American culture still displaying these issues today. The 1992 study is not a personal, patho-biographical demolition of a once cherished icon in American society, but more a carefully researched study raising deep issues relevant to the twentieth century and beyond, one that compliments the scholarly nature of McBride’s other major studies. To dismiss or ignore the findings of McBride’s original study on Capra and continue to “print the legend” is to do a great injustice to the critic’s pioneering work. This recent book should be essential reading, not only for those interested in Hollywood cinema but also others attracted to painstaking, documented research that took many years to complete. The book’s also for readers who may be unaware of certain problems associated with archive research designed for publication.

The completion of McBride’s book was not the end of one particular story but the beginning of another. That original quest took a grueling physical and psychological toll on the author not just unique to his situation but also to others who have ventured (or will venture) on the same path. Future victims may encounter obstruction from forces they initially thought would be receptive. If a certain American logo reads “Buyer Beware,” then any future novice researcher needs to be wary of the academic, ideological, institutional, publishing, and other traps awaiting anyone undertaking their own unique educational voyages of discovery and destroying cherished illusions in the process. Accompanying the detailed research that went into the author’s initial study was a dark, frustrating personal odyssey in which McBride lost his “Mr. Pister” naiveté in the world of publishing in the same way as his youthful character in Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind (2018) would have had if he eventually entered Hollywood with all its various traps. McBride soon realized that “the genius of the system” was much more complex in nature than ivory-tower definitions of auteurism he once cherished. They would soon change towards understanding more pragmatic realms of multiple authorship in which other factors, in addition to the director, were of equal, if not greater, value. This occurred in his recognition of the role of Capra’s screenwriters, such as Robert Riskin, who were deliberately overshadowed by Capra’s self-created role.

Frankly 01The personal hardships of trying to write his own book against overwhelming forces, such as academic archive guardians, scholars with vested interests, and publishers with their own agendas, represents a major story in its own right, one as documented as the sources McBride explored in his original study of Capra. As he points out, during periods of depression and hopelessness during his darkest hours, he “did not realize at the time that all the notes, letters, and memoranda I was assembling during those years would themselves amount to material for a book – this one. I was working on another book without knowing it” (321).

Thanks to his own independent publishing company, the author now presents his own version of a cinematic and literary bildungsroman that not only represents a fascinating story in its own right, but is also a warning to any idealistic researcher who believes his/her academic pursuit of a “Holy Grail,” based on reliable academic archive resources, will receive unquestionable affirmation and recognition on the grounds of impartial objectivity that have nothing to do with any personal motivations. Life does not work that way. Neither do certain areas of academia or the publishing world that also have equal claims to be regarded as parallel forms of a “criminal enterprise,” as McBride eventually regarded the compromised world of Hollywood screenwriting! Discovering certain unwholesome aspects in the life and work of a director he once wholeheartedly admired, McBride struggled to get the facts out into the light, but faced many obstacles from academics, lawyers, and publishers who all collaborated in trying to wear him down mentally and physically in the hope that he would just give up and allow the sanitized, traditional version to remain both “the fact” and “the legend,” as Carleton Young’s newspaper editor in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) hoped it would.

McBride did not allow this to happen. His monumentally epic, late-twentieth-century struggle, in many ways matching Homer’s The Odyssey, revealed how this baseball enthusiast eventually made his successful home run against what must have appeared overwhelming odds. This 601-page study cannot really be summarized if one has to do full justice to the contents. It must be read in depth, since the story is so personal often achieving the serious heights of a Douglas Sirk melodrama along with dark, comic Kafkaesque interludes that also reveal the author’s familiarity with the type of important literature regarded with disdain by most media departments today (yet whose significance is crucial not just to the production of good, enduring critical writing but – dare one say it? – the type of worthy cinema we once experienced decades ago?). References abound not just to James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, but also Robert Caro’s detailed biographies The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974); The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1: The Path to Power (1982), Leon Edel’s Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (1984), Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918), as well as McBride’s own investigative journalist background, that make this study much more than a remarkable fusing elements from different sources that transcend its biographical structure. I find it disheartening, though not unexpected, that McBride encountered ignorant and dismissive reference to his work on biographies as “anecdotal” from “colleagues” who wished to deny him tenure in his current institution (529)! Ironically, when signing a contract with Knopf, McBride discovered that his assigned editor Robert Gottlieb had also edited Robert Caro’s books. He would begin a trail that not only brought revelations about an ailing Capra but also encountered people he believed he could initially trust, like Gottlieb and Wesleyan University professor Jeannine Basinger. Capra had donated his archives to the university, and Basinger curated the collection, as well as others including those of Elia Kazan with whom she was a close buddy!

McBride mentions that his desires to begin writing a Capra biography followed an ugly meeting with a Hollywood story editor whose remark “made me understand that I was in the wrong business and that I had given power over my life to despicable people who treated me with contempt…into a business that was little more than a criminal enterprise” (53), an observation that can today, more than ironically, be applied to most incarnations of academia with its ugly administrative bureaucracy! Believing in the myth of Capra, he began exploring his idol’s life and career, only to find that not only did the director have feet of clay but also that many powerful figures in the realm of archives and publishing companies preferred that the inaccurate myth remain a reality amongst the general public.

As McBride states, writing is a personal quest and, as a result of his experiences over his Capra book and the commodification of publishing today, it is not surprising that he has begun his own press.

My goal as a writer of books has always been to expose the hidden machinery that runs our lives. That viewpoint is a result of my profound disillusionment in my teenage years while growing up under the onerous spell of mythology – the Catholic Church, the American political system – and having those myths violently shattered. (194)

Frankly 02McBride would soon experience the shattering of some other myths – the fairness and supposed objectivity of those in academia, the supportive role of the publisher, and found (rather than “collegiality”), many examples of devious betrayals by friends and supposed colleagues. The writing of this book does not only involve detailed chronicling of a frustrating process in which the author eventually emerged as victor, despite intermittent feelings of just giving up as a result of unhelpful suggestions by associates, but also a struggle which we all need to understand.

One key merit of his book relevant to any archive researcher involves revealing the obstructive behavior of family members and archivists in guarding material that should be accessible from those who do not gain their seal of approval. I remember clearly some years ago an eminent scholar confronting me outside the entrance to a university library, like Fafner guarding the treasure in Wagner’s Siegfried, and demanding what right I had to be there, when permission had already been granted by the library itself! Fortunately, McBride had contrary positive experiences from some archivists “that stood in stark contrast to the unprofessional conduct of Basinger and others of withholding the truth from scholars and the public in order to protect their donors” (284).

Even when he rejoined The Daily Variety in 1984 following a period of great economic hardship, McBride found that the business of film journalism had changed and that “initiative on the part of entertainment reporters was discouraged” (381), due to corporate control. One sees another parallel to contemporary academia with its legion of exploited adjuncts and classes taught according to mechanical applications of metric and rubric formulas that discourage any form of creativity and independent thought.

Pernicious establishment influences often color attitudes of the most well-known figures. While one is not surprised at the “warm relationship” (159) between Basinger and Kazan, the latter avidly defended by the late Richard Schickel, himself known for his “corrupt careerism” (472), one is surprised to learn of the reluctance of Kevin Brownlow to read McBride’s book, despite the urging of Robert Riskin’s widow Fay Wray (416). McBride draws obvious conclusions: “But Brownlow is an establishment figure with an Oscar and maintains his status with a keen sense of how not to rock the boat he’s riding with beloved, if cantankerous, industry figures” (416).

Sadly, the power of the blacklist that crippled Capra’s later career still exists today in academic and fan circles. On the latter aspect, I’ve recently, and sadly, had to leave the Facebook page of one critic when she lavished unjust praise on Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), excused his blacklist activities, and refused to recognize the humiliating aspects of the ignominious posturing of De Niro and Scorsese escorting their idol to gain his last Academy Award, when he already had so many! When the discussion threatened to become ugly over refusal to discuss these wider implications, I immediately left the site. McBride notes that this attitude of “carefully cultivated amnesia” has not only resulted in the downfall of Hollywood cinema in the postwar years but also has other dire effects. “The same determination to look the other way when the blacklist issue is raised also has infected academia to some extent, and Basinger’s attempt to shield Capra from my investigative efforts on behalf of Wesleyan University was part of that coverup process” (445). “You go into this writing business for love, not money” (539).

This is a very true statement. But economic and psychological survival are also important. McBride was very fortunate to have the emotional and financial support of his then wife, to whom he graciously dedicates this book as he did with his previous study on Capra. The final chapter “Writing Directors Lives” is a retrospective on the past and towards the future. Now teaching, “a phase that seems natural after my previous experiences” at a university (that should count itself fortunate that he is securely there as a tenured professor), he can continue as a writer, communicating his love of cinema to students as well as “help them improve their writing skills, a role I relish because it is so urgently needed” (541).

That is also my goal, and I hope that we do not find our current sanctuaries becoming the type of “criminal enterprise” we equally detest.

This is a very fine book relevant to the complexities of human life in more than one aspect. McBride underwent a very trying process that would have broken a lesser person. But he succeeded in writing a book on Capra the way he wanted it to appear, and finally “was able to illuminate more clearly the poetry of his best work by revealing its roots and contradictions” (544).

However, I have two comments to make on items that I hope will be remedied in future editions. McBride does not mention that Basinger had at least written one book that cannot be described as “relatively inconspicuous” (157) – namely, her 1979 Twayne Series book Anthony Mann that noted his significance at a time when he was virtually neglected and stimulated future work on this director. McBride will not be surprised to learn that Wesleyan University Press republished it in a new and expanded edition in 2007. Also, in describing changes in academic film studies, he unfairly refers to Robin Wood as becoming a “brainwashed film-studies zombie” (527) who succumbed to the virus of post-’68 film theory. This is both a caricature and sweeping statement that does great injustice to the late critic who rather responded creatively and critically to changes in film studies following his own version of McBride’s “quirkily individualistic path” (527). This is not the place to launch into a detailed defense. but I will state that Robin did not blithely ignore challenges that this new criticism made to his own position. Rather he read the material very carefully, took what he found was valuable into his own work, and rejected the rest. His late recognition of the value of certain Hitchcock pre-Hollywood films (rather than total dismissal in his 1965 monograph), reading Blackmail (1928) as both a Hitchcock film and related to Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1974) concepts, revealed his openness to new developments in much the same way as the New Worlds related work of J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) reflected challenges from the modern world that called into question previous narrative models of literature. (1) Like the reference to the misleading comments of Spielberg’s rabbi in the second edition of his book on the director, such remarks against someone who cannot answer back should not remain in future editions of Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra since I feel they are offensive and detract from the fine scholarship the author is noted for. (2)

References

  1. For Wood’s later work reading classical films in the light of post-68 theories in accessible and novel ways see, for example, his “Notes for a Reading of I Walked with a Zombie,” cineACTION! 2/4 (1986): 6-20; and “Symmetry, Closure, Disruption: The Ambiguity of Blackmail”, cineACTION! 15 (1988-1989): 13-25. The second reading became incorporated in the 1989 and 2002 revised editions of Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. For the development of J.G. Ballard’s work see Jeanette Baxter, J.G. Ballard’s Surrealistic Imagination: Spectacular Authorship. Farnham, England, Ashgate, 2009. McBride’s remarks bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Kingsley Amis who also resented new developments in science fiction in the 1960s! (see Baxter,61-62). But like Wood, Ballard approached these concepts and reworked them according to his own inimitable brand of authorship.
  2. See Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Second edition. Jackson, MI.: University of Mississippi Press, 1997, p. 517.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a contributing editor to Film International.

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