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FLICK PICKS: Capra, not so corny
December 7, 2009  | By Diane Werts
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We're as willing to quibble as the next guy (gal), so we'll salute the tougher side of legendary director Frank Capra, often cited for his sentimental Capra-corn in movies like It's a Wonderful Life.

When Turner Classic Movies starts showcasing him Monday night as its December director of the month, the four-star slate includes such hearttuggers as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. ET), where suddenly rich rube Gary Cooper and wisegal Jean Arthur learn lessons about honesty, decency, et al.

But there's social and political commentary underneath it all -- and under most of Capra's movies -- which wasn't exactly the norm in the escapist '30s and '40s. Though his approach may seem more emotional than cerebral, Capra delivered real meat from his Columbia base when most other studios' filmmakers were satisfied with sauce.

And he could be daring, too. Let's not forget Capra's 1934 hit It Happened One NIght (8 p.m. ET, TCM), that rare comedy to sweep the Oscars, and a virtual blueprint for the screwball genre. Clark Gable made a Bitter Tea General Yen.jpgmanly newsman on the road retrieving runaway rich bride Claudette Colbert -- and their lessons got learned in motel rooms from opposite sides of that textile "wall of Jericho." (Moviegoers in the 1930s weren't confronted with dirty words or imagery, but they needed dirty minds to fill in the unsaid/seen.)

TCM's Dec. 14 lineup spotlights Capra's early talkies, a largely precode lineup of sharpies, skirmishes and scandalous sex. That last attribute comes in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. ET, TCM), the 1933 Radio City opener that outraged audiences when nice white missionary Barbara Stanwyck fell for a Chinese warlord (although he was played by Swedish actor Nils Asther). Yes, that passed for scandal then. It also passed for "art," as did 1937's paradise picture Lost Horizon (Dec. 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET, TCM).

But we're into Capra's grittier side (grit being a relative term, since he wasn't at Warner Bros.), and that's revealed in his earliest sound films. Overnight on Dec. 14, TCM has two airborne love-and-action adventures, 1931's Dirigible and 1929's Flight (midnight and 1:45 a.m. ET), plus two overtly topical titles -- 1929's part-talkie of Jewish identity, The Younger Generation, and 1933's Depression banking tale American Madness (3:45 and 5:15 a.m. ET). In its view of "mad" financial risk-taking, it's unfortunately relevant today, too.

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Politics is obviously Capra's point Dec. 21, when TCM lines up State of the Union, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe, which tackle government, corruption, "the common man" and leadership values. The classic Mr. Smith may be known for Jimmy Stewart's golly-shucks sincerity and emotional arc, but Capra was saying something sharp with the suds. (And any movie with Jean Arthur has juice.)

As always, TCM's fine web site adds historical essays on Frank Capra and each of his featured films. It's another example of the way this channel doesn't merely present its programming, but appreciates and honors it.

By the way, the TV rights to It's a Wonderful Life belong to NBC. Its annual holiday broadcasts come this Saturday (Dec. 12) and Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), both at 8 p.m. ET.

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