Frank Capra's Eastern Horizons
American Identity and the Cinema of International Relations
Cinema and Society Series
London: I.B. Tauris, 2015
Hardcover. xii + 252 p. ISBN 978-1780768694. £58.00
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
Frank Capra is often unquestioningly celebrated as the most “American” of filmmakers. Yet, as Elizabeth Rawitsch demonstrates, Capra's cinematic vision was always structured by “a tension between the national and the global” . This is a detailed book in which Rawitsch's knowledge of Capra's output is set alongside extensive archive research, opening up useful insights into the director-producer's long career from 1922 to 1961.
In the Introduction Rawitsch systematically lays down her approach and methodology to be adopted in this study. Initially designed to be informed by Edward Said's Orientalism, Rawitsch surprisingly soon dismisses this as being “flawed as a theory and even more flawed in practice”  due to its perceived ahistoricity and patriarchal bias when applied to Capra's work. Instead, Rawitsch settles upon a study informed by theories of authorship in respect of the films directed and/or produced by Capra. This does prove to be a useful, alternative, approach because it allows Rawitsch to take issue with previous auteur critics such as Andrew Sarris, who had placed Capra in the second tier and not the “Pantheon”. Utilising the work of Peter Wollen, Timothy Corrigan and others, Rawitsch states that her methodology is a study of representation through “historically contextualized close textual analysis” .
In Chapter 1, “ ‘Give Her Americanism’ : Frank Capra, National Ideology, and the Global Community”, Rawitsch argues that “Capra's films changed over time [and that] America was not a stable construct” . Within his films the tension between the individual and the “system” therefore shifts. So rather than seeing Capra's work as a solid monolith of repeated themes without change, Rawitsch argues for a close reading of the work to ascertain how these shifts might be seen and thus read within the overall body of work.
Chapter 2, “ ‘Can You Be Both?’ : Race, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Capra's America, 1922-1961” provides detailed analyses of the discourses of assimilation of immigrants (the “melting pot”), versus that of condemnation within North American society, and how Capra's work participated in these shifting discourses. As an immigrant himself from Sicily, Rawitsch makes the important point about how Capra's own insecure American identity played a crucial part in his desire to be seen as American in all ways. In framing this chapter Rawitsch adopts the term “Asian / American” from David Palumbo-Liu, to reflect the slippage between categories at a time “when not all Asians in America were – or had the potential to become – American citizens” . She points out that in Capra's films Asian / American characters have only fleeting cameo-type shots, but these are always directly relevant to the story . The use of the solidus between the words is also applied to African / American characters in Capra's films who were perceived as valued but not entirely equal members of their community – “unequal-but-together” – as she puts it .
Chapter 3 focuses upon The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), his first feature film to be set entirely abroad. By a close reading of the film Rawitsch demonstrates how Capra blurs the binary division between East / West, but that the boundary between the two favour the West, “but it is not a simple oppositional relationship” .
Chapter 4 then concentrates on Lost Horizon (1937), Capra's only other feature film set overseas. The history of the film's exhibition is particularly interesting as it was subject to drastic re-editing and shortening with approximately thirty per cent of the film vanishing in 15 years . Rawitsch focuses on the 132-minute restored version via a historical reception study of twelve reviews of the film. She comes to the view that Shangri-La, as depicted in the film, “was both British and American. It was also Tibetan. It was everywhere and nowhere at the same time” . The film marked a step closer to Capra's vision of a global community, but one which, at that period, reflected “a harsher reality, one of economic disparity and social hierarchy” .
Chapter 5 marks a point of departure for Capra studies and auteur theory in that Rawitsch examines the non-fiction films Capra made for the US army during the second world war. The “Why We Fight” and “Know Your Allies / Know Your Enemy” series of films were largely composed of material shot by someone else. Rawitsch's subtle analyses of these films demonstrate how an official ideology of treating entire allied nations as friends, whereas enemy nations had to be depicted as enemies, was used as propaganda. This lead to the result whereby, for example, “Representing China as a unified whole was therefore crucial to the orientation films' ideology, regardless of whether or not it was true” .
After the Second World War Capra's focus shifted to the South Seas and particularly Polynesia. Here, Rawitsch picks out small but telling details from his films and how the South Seas functioned within them. So, for instance, she looks closely at the honeymoon scene in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) where Mary decorates their run-down house with posters of the South Seas, as exotic places George wishes to visit (but never does) , in contrast to the seedy aspects of Pottersville where the exotic is unwelcome and unwholesome. By the late 1950s, in films such as Hemo the Magnificent (1957) and A Hole in the Head (1959), the South Seas function as a domesticated exotic within America rather than as somewhere for Americans to visit.
The conclusion includes an inventive case study which inverts the investigation thus far, in that Rawitsch looks back through the analytical telescope to assess how Hong Kong martial arts director Jackie Chan adapted two of Capra's films – Lady For a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) – into his Miracles (1989). She argues that “Miracles suggests that discourses of the local can be read into the work of the (arguably) most transnational of directors” . As a strategy, this creative reversal of analytical approach works well.
Throughout the book Rawitsch's use of detailed case studies, ranging from whole films to individual shots, and the historical analyses of the reception of Capra's films, enables her to make some very pertinent remarks about his work, asking us to reconsider the films from another perspective. As she points out, Capra's dream of a global community can be seen across his entire body of work . Yet, his representations alter over time depending upon America's foreign relations and shifts in attitude within the United States . Rawitsch asks us to reconsider Capra's career in light of the information she provides about his lifelong engagement with the East in his films. To do so, she suggests that the definition of “transnationalism” needs adjusting to take account of someone like Capra, who has “a tenuous claim to transnational filmmaking” . But also required is an adaptation of auteur studies to take into account Capra's non-fiction films. What comes across is the malleability of definitions and how such a close historical study can bring out details which might be missed in a broader “straightforward” auteur analysis in which Capra's “visions of Americanism” are taken for granted. As an immigrant himself, perhaps never fully secure in his place within America, Capra's cinema always relied upon a global vision, the details of which Rawitsch brings to light in this book.
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