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Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success [Kindle Edition]

Joseph McBride
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Moviegoers often assume Frank Capra's life resembled his beloved films (such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life). A man of the people faces tremendous odds and, by doing the right thing, triumphs! But as Joseph McBride reveals in this meticulously researched, definitive biography, the reality was far more complex, a true American tragedy. Using newly declassified U.S. government documents about Capra's response to being considered a possible "subversive" during the post-World War II Red Scare, McBride adds a final chapter to his unforgettable portrait of the man who gave us It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Hollywood's champion of the "common man" during the Depression, director Frank Capra (1897-1991) kept the American dream alive with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's A Wonderful Life . In this captivating biography the Sicilian immigrant filmmaker, admired for the liberal and proletarian sentiments of his movies, emerges as a deeply contradictory figure. Spurning his ethnic roots, ashamed of his parents, Capra lusted to be accepted by mainstream America. He was affiliated with conservative Republicans, spied on labor in the 1930s for powerful producers and collaborated surreptitiously with the McCarthyite witch hunt. Biographer of Orson Welles, McBride presents a man seething with bitterness, rage, self-doubt and sexual anxiety with his two wives. He analyzes Capra's reactionary idealization of small-town America and the misogynist undertones of his films. In a canvas crowded with stars like Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, McBride convincingly paints a great director who lost his touch after the late 1940s, unable to adjust to postwar Hollywood or to function independently. Photos.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Capra is largely remembered today as a director whose films champion all-American optimism in a world where good ultimately triumphs. This exhaustively researched and densely--perhaps overly--detailed biography uncovers the man behind the camera and simultaneously debunks much of what Capra wrote in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title ( LJ 4/15/71). The director's flag waving concealed shame about his Sicilian heritage, writes McBride, and he was not adverse to being one of the greedy rich his films derided. The analysis of Capra's oeuvre, including his days as a gag writer, reveals much about his psyche. The author of well-regarded biographies of Howard Hawks ( Hawks on Hawks , LJ 12/15/81) and John Ford ( John Ford , Da Capo, 1975) has written the definitive work about another major American director. For general audiences. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/91.
- Roy Liebman, California State Univ. Lib., Los Angeles
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2315 KB
  • Print Length: 800 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (February 1, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0051NZXN0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,415,570 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
71 of 81 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Biased Attack on Capra December 22, 2000
This book, though it does have much interesting detail, is essentially an attack on Frank Capra, with many dubious conclusions drawn, and is so unrelentingly negative and unfair that it at times borders on the ludicrous. The theory of the book is that Frank Capra was a pathlogical liar and unrelenting egotist, who used the talents of others to make his films and then tried to hog all the glory himself, culminating in his famous autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," which is a "self-aggrandizing fairy tale." Capra was essentially a front man for the brilliant work of screenwriter Robert Riskin, who is the main reason behind Capra's success. When you finish this book, however, you stop and say, "How did this pathetic fraud produce such a staggering array of classic films, in such a distinctive style, and in such a variety of genres (comedy, drama, documentary, and even educational films)?" None of McBride's conclusions makes the slightest bit of sense. One key flaw of the theory is that Capra's two greatest films, "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," were not written by Riskin. McBride attempts to answer this by saying that they "followed the Riskin formula," as if by watching a few Disney Classics we could each make one ourselves, simply by following the formula, as if any decent movie was ever made by a "formula." In actuality, the brilliant screenplay of "It's a Wonderful Life" bears little resemblance to anything written by Riskin, although Capra's directorial style is easily recognizable (his style is almost as easily identifiable as Hitchcock's). Read more ›
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Ego Above The Title June 30, 2000
Poor Frank Capra who had to fall into the hands of a biographer who rejects the "Auteur" school of film theory. Capra is not a modest man and in his autobiography "The Name Above The Title" he should have given more credit to those talented people such as cinematographer John Walker who helped make so many of his finest films. But author Joseph McBride seems to have been so taken up with with Capra's egotism that it overcomes his appreciation of Capra's films. Some of McBride's criticism is simply petty such as his carping that Capra exaggerated his college grades over sixty years after the fact. It's almost as if McBride expected the director of "It's A Wonderful Life" to be as nice a guy as George Bailey.
Worse of all, Frank Capra is - gasp - a rich man. Maybe even a Republican. How can a great, humanistic film be directed by a Republican?
The book is not without some virtues. It does give a detailed and impeccably researched account of Frank Capra's life starting from his arrival in America until his reluctant and forced retirement.
In "Lost Horizon" Capra created a perfect world inhabited by less than perfect people who do not suffer in the words of wise old Change from an "excess of virtue". A biography written by someone who had a bit more tolerance for his subject's imperfections would have done a better job.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lots of research, questionable conclusions December 12, 2006
Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra is good in the sense that he amassed painstaking research and shares a fair amount of it in this extensive tome. We can thank him for all of his hard work piecing together factual material surrounding the fullness of Capra's life.

He provides us just enough source material to clue us in that his conclusions about Capra are highly suspect. While I'm sure there is a darker side to Capra that is well documented here, the Frank Capra presented in this book remains to me a strange cardboard construct that McBride uses to argue some dubious points about filmmaking and politics.

His critique of Capra's films, which is one instance where we are on equal footing with the author in terms of source material, often come across as frustratingly uninsightful, even narrow-minded. The lack of insight is truly perplexing when surrounded by evidence that McBride spent thousands of hours analyzing Capra's life and work. In terms of Capra's films and their enduring appeal with millions of moviegoers, McBride to me in places comes across as dismissive, even slightly insulting to Capra and those who find worth in his works. I don't know if McBride intended to come off this way, but judging from other reviewers I'm not alone in my dismay.

Instead of presenting Capra as an enormously complex person who somehow managed to harness his strengths, hopes, fears, loves, and hatreds into vibrant, challenging cinema, McBride often paints Capra as small-minded and relying on the talents of others to succeed. McBride's views simply don't line up with the unparalleled body of work Capra has left us. This book feels like one of those tomes that tries to inform us how Shakespeare really couldn't have written all of those remarkable plays.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Want revenge? Write a biography! December 10, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
One gets the same feeling finishing Frank Capra's autobiography The Name Above the Title as one does finishing a Capra film: thrilled with the zigs and zags of life and optimistic about one's own future.
But following up The Name Above The Title with Catastrophe of Success is akin to washing down Thanksgiving dinner with a rotten-egg-and-sour-grape smoothie. McBride has tainted a seven year odyssey of painstakingly documented research (175 interviews! weeks with Capra's personal papers! archive searches! FOIA releases! federal declassifications!) with an animosity uncommon in academics, at once vilifying Capra and his father while portraying those who loved and associated with Capra as selfless victims of Capra's insecurities, inner torments, and anticommunist political convictions.
In reading McBride, one senses that behind it all, there exists an even better story than the one McBride has scratched out from the voluminous source material. Why did McBride seek to so vehemently deconstruct what he called "the Capra myth," and soil the dignity of Capra's image by using such tactics as only quoting those interview passages in which his subject used expletives, or subjectively interpreting Capra's blinks and nods in a This Is Your Life episode as queasy squirming in the face of some underlying "irony"?
Was it because Capra declined to direct a made-for-TV sequel to It's A Wonderful Life, one which McBride hints he may have been involved in on page 644 of the paperback edition? Did Capra at one point step on McBride's toes as had done with so many insufferable fools?
McBride's perseverant scholarship is self-evident, yet his shamefully slanted execution degrades the whole presentation, making the book unreadable except to Capra enemies and eternal sourpusses. Readers are advised to reserve a second helping of "legend" for after the egg-and-grape "truth" sauce.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is a masterful biography. It is a complex portrait of a beloved director, one who
became increasingly frightened with the magnitude of his success when LOST HORIZON... Read more
Published 26 days ago by Donatfan
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A very good and candid book on Frank Capra and his career.
Published 2 months ago by Clinton L. Spurrier
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and honest account of Capra's complex dualism
A central question emerges from of the various criticisms leveled at Joseph McBride's Frank Capra; The Catastrophe of Success, which boil down to this: does McBride have an axe to... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Ford Fan
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ambiguous Flavor of "Success"--McBride's as Well as Capra's
For me, "Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success" remains Joseph McBride's best book, but in order to appreciate it properly you have to hold two seemingly contradictory... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jonathan Rosenbaum
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Great Cinema Biographies
This book is one of the classic biographies of all time. Wonderfully researched and written. Five big stars for this special work. Kudos to Joseph MacBride.
Published 18 months ago by Rick Lertzman
4.0 out of 5 stars A horrifyingly touching biography
Frank Capra, one of my favourite director of 1930 films, suffered from the hysteria of the Red Menace Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s -- one of the factors contributing to the... Read more
Published on January 12, 2013 by charles borremeo
1.0 out of 5 stars Mean-spirited hatchet job
Let me get this straight: Capra was supposedly an egotist who cared only about his own ambition?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Read more
Published on December 18, 2009 by Themistocles
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't waste your money!
This was the biggest waste of time and money! The author (Joseph McBride) obviously despised his subject and it comes through on every page. Read more
Published on June 25, 2008 by All-Things
1.0 out of 5 stars SAD HATCHET JOB
after about more than halfway through this book (I'm not finished yet, but not sure if I want to), I don't know who I feel more pity for... Read more
Published on May 20, 2006 by Andrew M.
2.0 out of 5 stars A Biography from a Prosecuting Attorney
This was a disappointment. I don't like everything that Capra made ("Platinum Blonde" and "You Can't Take It With You" do nothing for me)but this book proved... Read more
Published on August 4, 2002 by Michael Samerdyke
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More About the Author

Joseph McBride is an American film historian, biographer, screenwriter, and professor in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University. McBride has published seventeen books since 1968, including acclaimed biographies of Steven Spielberg, Frank Capra, and John Ford. His most recent work is Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit, published in June 2013; this book, both epic and intimately personal, is the result of McBride's thirty-one-year investigation of the case. It contains many fresh revelations from McBride's rare interviews with people in Dallas, archival discoveries, and what novelist Thomas Flanagan, in The New York Review of Books, called McBride's "wide knowledge of American social history."

Before Into the Nightmare, McBride published Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless (2012) and updated editions of his 1997 book Steven Spielberg: A Biography in 2011 and 2012. The American second edition of the Spielberg book was published by the University Press of Mississippi, which also reprinted his biographies Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992; 2000) and Searching for John Ford (2001). McBride's other books include: Orson Welles (1972; 1996), Hawks on Hawks (1982), The Book of Movie Lists: An Offbeat, Provocative Collection of the Best and Worst of Everything in Movies (1999), and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career (2006).

His screenwriting credits include the movies Rock 'n' Roll High School and Blood and Guts and five American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials on CBS-TV dealing with Fred Astaire, Frank Capra, Lillian Gish, John Huston, and James Stewart. He also was cowriter of the United States Information Agency worldwide live TV special Let Poland Be Poland (1982). McBride plays a film critic, Mr. Pister, in the legendary unfinished Orson Welles feature The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76). McBride is also the coproducer of the documentaries Obsessed with "Vertigo": New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece (1997) and John Ford Goes to War (2002).

McBride received the Writers Guild of America Award for cowriting The American Film Institute Salute to John Huston (1983). He has also received four other WGA nominations two Emmy nominations, and a Canadian Film Awards nomination. The French edition of Searching for John Ford, A la Recherche de John Ford, published in 2007, was chosen the Best Foreign Film Book of the Year by the French film critics' association, le Syndicat Français de la Critique de Cinéma.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, McBride grew up in the suburb of Wauwatosa. He attended Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, where he received a National Merit Scholarship, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and worked as a reporter for The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison before departing for California in 1973. A documentary feature on McBride's life and work, Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History, written and directed by Hart Perez, had its world debut in 2011 at the Tiburon International Film Festival in Tiburon, Marin County, CA, and was released on DVD in 2012.


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