Is This Still Frank Capra's America?

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On a cold night just after New Year's, I watched one of Frank Capra's movies--not a bad way to keep warm, if you choose the right Capra. I wanted to tune in on an old American wavelength. A Capra resonance, an atmosphere, seemed to have returned off and on during the fall. It suggested some earlier American self-image, a kind of innocence arising from vulnerability and loss: post-traumatic sweetness. (The trauma in Capra's case, of course, was the stock-market crash and the Great Depression.) Had we renewed our citizenship, for a little while, in Frank Capra's America?

Capra's movies are the garden from which Americans were expelled, years ago, by their success and power and diversity--and by their bitter internal wars over, among others, Joe McCarthy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ho Chi Minh. The films archive the country's grainy common-man myth of itself, more generous and neighborly and decent, and a lot whiter (in a Norman Rockwell way) than America has proved to be, decades later, having made all that money and opened its doors to the world.

That night I did not want to see one of Capra's heavily political films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe, for example), all chicken fat and diatribe, in which endearing little people go up against incipient corporate fascism. I wanted the pure, innocent allegory of It Happened One Night, which won five Oscars in 1934.

Movies don't change. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is still a rich, spoiled heiress with a daddy problem who thinks she wants to marry a phony named King Westley, an "aviator" who arrives for their wedding by landing on Daddy's sumptuous lawn in an autogyro. Peter Warne (Clark Gable), an unemployed newspaperman and wisecracking paragon, rescues Ellie from the phonies at the last moment and bears her away to the true America, for a honeymoon in a roadside motor camp in Michigan.

All of that occurs in the last few minutes of the movie. Most of the story takes place aboard a bus making its slow way up from Miami toward New York City, with Gable acting as Colbert's chaste protector--honorable knight disguised as roadwise cynic--as she tries to elude her father's detectives. The bus is the real Frank Capra America, a gallant little vessel pushing through sparsely settled American countryside, the passengers, ensemble, singing The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, checking into roadside motor cabins when a bridge washes out and waiting in line next morning for the outdoor showers.

It Happened One Night dances charmingly along the fence between lark and allegory. It is, among other things, a dissertation on what it means to be an American phony. King Westley--"the pill of the century," as Gable says, a cafe society parasite with the face of a small reptile--wants to marry Ellie for her money and in the end accepts a bribe of $100,000 to go away. King's narcissistic autogyro is a sort of 1930s version of the Osprey, or of those personal motor-scooters-of-the-air that the writer James Fallows envisioned, pre-9/11, as universal transport in a coming yuppie paradise. In Capra the real Americans take their chances with one another traveling overland. (Contemplating the current plan to use $15 billion of taxpayers' money to bail out the aviation industry, one thinks that Capra, long ago, had his heart in the right place.)

As often in Hollywood's version of the '30s, the rich are sleek, fat, boozy, faintly ridiculous. The media (newspapers and their editors, in this case) make idiots of themselves in a montage of pinwheeling banner headlines: LOVE TRIUMPHANT! screams the "New York Mail" over the phony "yarn" of Westley and Ellie being madly in love.

When love actually triumphs (after the long journey in which Gable's newspaperman has almost prudishly refused to take advantage of Ellie's ardor and has declined her father's reward of $10,000), it is the victory of an ordinary American's honor over the opulent phoniness of too much money and of gaudily dishonest media.

Capra had an eye for basic American themes that keep reformulating themselves from one generation to another. You watch It Happened One Night with a sense that it's a contemporary story. Play a game: set down the Peter Warne character and the King Westley character as American archetypes and relocate them in the present. Which of them, would you judge, emerges triumphant in 2002?

Until Sept. 11, I would have said the sleek fraud King Westley (with his autogyro and chiseled money and bogus media) would get the girl and take over America. Now I am not so sure. We shall see. The movie's not over.