True Hollywood Stories

Books About Film

True Hollywood Stories

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

by Joseph McBride

St. Martin's Griffin, 798 pp., $24.95 (paper)

It is both a curse and a blessing that director Frank Capra will forever be best known as the man who drove Jimmy Stewart to contemplate suicide. While Stewart's harried bank manager George Bailey never quite goes through with that desperate act, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) remains one of Capra's darker moments. These days we're apt to recall the film through rose-colored, holiday-cheerful lenses, but if you return to it, you'll discover the bleak schadenfreude at its core. Death, discontent, and that scurvy spider Mr. Potter make for a heady mix, and while Wonderful Life is both Capra's most personal and favorite of his films, it's also, according to McBride, heavily representative of the Sicilian-born director's inability to come to grips with his own success in Hollywood. Similar in tone to Stefan Kanfer's recent biography Groucho, which paints a troubling, emotionally dyspeptic picture of the comedian, McBride's exhaustive (and exhausting) book at times feels like a personal attack on an American icon. He opens by recounting the director's abysmal return to his birthplace of Bisacquino, Sicily, in 1977 where Capra, unable to speak a word of Italian, suffers the positively hideous double whammy of simultaneous panic and diarrhea attacks, forcing him to flee a festive, relative-packed dinner thrown in his honor. And that's just in the first 25 pages. The Catastrophe of Success is anything but a glowing memoir: Capra is portrayed as wildly egotistical, as well as anti-union, anti-commie (though the House Un-American Activities Committee thought otherwise), and generally anti-fun in a very Henry Potter-esque manner. McBride, to his credit, doesn't skimp on the details, whatever vile revelations they might encompass. There's nothing too unappetizing in Capra's rags-to-riches-to-forced-retirement career that McBride won't wade through with occasionally vicious glee, and while this is a far, far cry from the more palatable Capra legend related in the director's 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title, it's probably that much closer to the truth. Nobody wants to read about a nice genius, and McBride's version of Capra is anything but nice.

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Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, joseph mcbride

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