The life of Frank Capra is a reminder that real-life stories are often the most powerful we will ever hear. When real men like Frank Capra speak, truth trumps fiction.
Like many in Generation X, I was raised on television by Boomers who chose to co-parent with the idiot box! I was one of those taught to sit in front of the television and told to “speak only when you’re spoken to.” I was to be seen, not heard.
There’s no disputing the downsides. Television was a terrible babysitter, but there’s little point in playing the victim.
Insert here some lengthy, flowery, nuanced prose about “not all boomers”, “I’m not meaning to generalise,” dark clouds, and their silver linings.
Truth Trumps Fiction
Television as a teacher and a co-parent connected my generation with both useless and useful facts about the world around us. We had our heroes. We had our villains. We had our heroines and our jesters. We had our fantasy worlds.
The upside is that the tube gave Generation X an awareness and interest in the lives of those who lived in an otherwise plastic and fabricated world.
Truth trumps fiction. That is why some of the best bubble-breaking examples come from autobiographic reflections from those involved in the film and television industry.
Autobiographies not written from a place of tell-all revenge are usually brutally honest.
The recounts that are actually worth taking the time to read ditch Hollywood’s infamous, vain paybacks and pettiness. They peel back the layers of gloss, polish and over-the-top perfectionism.
Fiction makes way for non-fiction; real faces pierce through the dissolving fog of fantasy.
The Story of Frank Capra
To illustrate my point, some years ago, I picked up an autobiography written by celebrated Hollywood director Frank Capra. Capra was the genius behind It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s also the man behind the famous World War Two film series Why We Fight.
When summoned by General George C. Marshal in February 1942, Capra was on the verge of signing a major deal that would have moved him up into the multi-millionaire club and out of the reach of wartime service.
He summed up choosing the Army over joining Hollywood’s protected class by stating, “I was bored with the applause.”
A little further along, he added,
I felt guilty. In my films I championed the cause of the gentle, kind, the poor, the downtrodden. Yet I had begun to live like Aga Khan.
Capra then writes,
The curse of Hollywood is big money. It comes so fast it breeds and imposes its own mores, not of wealth, but of ostentation and phony status. The result: It turns one into an insufferable something one never was, or ever thought he could be.
The Death of Capra’s Son
Capra’s openness adds to the gritty, no-nonsense realism with which he wrote his autobiography about the death of his young son.
Entered as “August 23, 1938, a day circled in red”, Capra recalls the release of his 6th major film, You Can’t Take It With You.
The day of the premiere, with Hollywood’s frills, bells and whistles ready to blare out an introduction, Capra’s young son John was set to undergo a standard surgical procedure.
Capra attended the hospital. The operation was successful, so Capra left for his film’s premiere. Upon arriving, Capra was told to head back to the hospital immediately. There, his wife told him his son had died of a massive blood clot in the brain.
Capra’s deep sense of loss overshadowed any accolades or success his film might have had. His concern was squarely on the film’s message, empowered now by his own loss and the gathering storm over Europe.
Capra dedicated an entire chapter to discussing the film project. He described it as
A golden opportunity to dramatise Love Thy Neighbour. What the world’s churches were preaching to apathetic congregations, my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to audiences…
Grit and Grime and All
For Capra, this film was well-timed. 1938 was not a good year to be considered an undesirable by the state – whether in the American South or the European continent.
You Can’t Take It With You, he said, was about the “conflict between devour thy neighbour and love thy neighbour.” Capra wanted to tackle the challenge of a lamb overcoming a lion.
The grit and grime aren’t filtered out.
When addressing a colleague who was concerned that Capra was receiving too much credit for his films, Capra responded, “all the credit, also means all the blame when things go wrong.”
Substance Overrides Appearances
Even though television was used to co-parent (almost) an entire generation, sifting useful from useless facts can provide an upside.
Reality punches through the fantasy. Substance overrides appearances.
When real men speak from their real-life experiences in a real way, truth often trumps fiction.
As Capra inferred, it’s not about taking credit or being a hero. It’s about carrying the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with the job.
For those Generation X dads who grew up in a speak-only-when-you’re-spoken-to, be-seen-not-heard world, the struggle is not found in listening; it’s found in not being listened to.
Image by David Fanuel on Unsplash.