Film historian explains difficult journey in ‘Unmasking’ famed filmmaker Frank Capra

Originally posted: Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican and

By Ray Kelly |

Writing a biography is often a voyage of discovery.

But for noted film historian Joseph McBride, writing the 1992 biography “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,” took him into unchartered waters.

McBride, a former reporter and critic for Daily Variety, was no stranger to Capra’s work (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) when he started work on the biography. He had spent two months writing and rehearsing with Capra on his acceptance speech for his 1982 Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

But as McBride discovered that Capra’s own autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” had been a whitewash, he found himself at odds with the celebrated filmmaker’s archivist and some of his family — and his original publisher.

In the end, McBride found another publisher and was rewarded with glowing reviews from coast to coast. The Los Angeles Times called the book “superbly researched and almost continually surprising,” while the New York Times described it as “masterly, comprehensive, and frequently surprising.”

In his 21st book, “Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra,” McBride looks back at his struggle to present his work, his clash with publisher, Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House, and the fragility of the First Amendment.

McBride discussed his work in a recent interview with The Republican.

What were some of the flagrant misrepresentations contained in “The Name Above the Title” that you uncovered in “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success”?

Virtually all of Capra’s autobiography is fictitious. Among the few points of accuracy are his date of birth and the date he left for America, both of which I checked against official documents. He misrepresents his upbringing (his family was not as poor as he claims, and they gave him more help than he admits), his education (he did not have a degree in chemical engineering, so he had to turn to films as a second-best occupation), his relationships with his screenwriters and other collaborators (he takes too much credit for himself), and his politics (he obscures the fact that he was a lifelong conservative Republican and does not tell the truth about how he informed on his colleagues during the blacklist era). And those are just some of the autobiography’s most important lies and omissions. I needed to correct the record and fill in the gaps, because most people who read the autobiography believed it, and that made it necessary for me to reinvent the wheel of Capra scholarship. A New York Times reporter told me in 1992 that my biography was “a great story and a scoop — a fifty-year scoop. A great American saga.”

Your original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, published the flattering “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Book,” and its parent company, Random House, had the paperback rights to “The Name Above the Title.” When did you suspect the roadblocks thrown up might have been because of a possible conflict of interest?

I began work on my biography in July 1984, and it was a shock in February 1985 when my editor at Knopf, the celebrated Robert Gottlieb, revealed to me that he was going to publish a book on “It’s a Wonderful Life” by the archivist of Capra’s papers, Jeanine Basinger of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She was already trying to thwart my research into Capra’s informing and other issues by withholding some key documentation, and I had put Gottlieb on notice about that problem. So it was a blow to realize my editor was in business with her. Soon after that I learned that Random House was reprinting Capra’s autobiography. So I realized I was in deep trouble trying to write my biography and get the permission to quote from Capra’s correspondence and other unpublished work Basinger had promised but was, in the end, never given. Basinger and Gottlieb became friends, and he has published other books with her as well. It took a long time to figure out the machinations behind the scenes, which suggested to me that Knopf and Basinger were working together to gut or sanitize my book, if not to stop it from being published.

How active do you suspect Capra and his family were in attempting to thwart publication of the book?

Some members of the Capra family were helpful to my research. They wanted to help me tell the true story of his immigrant parents and his upbringing and to give a more accurate portrait of the man. But his three surviving children were roadblocks. Frank Capra Jr. in particular was reported by Random House to be in opposition to my book. It became clear to me that he was involved in the efforts to thwart it and that the relationships he had with both Random House and Basinger were strained to some extent. After my book was published, Frank Jr. told a British reporter, “As a family we objected to it. But I recognize it’s very complete. Perhaps there’s some reality to it.” He said of his father, “We tried to keep him away from much of that.” But Frank Sr. gave me interviews for a year before he had a series of strokes in 1985, and Frank Jr. prevented me from seeing him again. Capra was sometimes argumentative but gave me a great deal of valuable material, even if he was not always candid; I corrected and augmented his versions of events by interviewing 175 other people and studying many documents for more than seven years.

More than a quarter century has passed since “Catastrophe of Success” was published by Simon & Schuster, so why revisit it now? What lesson does it contain about journalism and the First Amendment?

We have to be vigilant in defending the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights, including the freedom of the press and other rights of free speech. Publishers are often pressured by individuals and organizations and the government to sanitize or lie about history, and it’s a battle journalists and historians must wage to tell it accurately and fully. My struggle with Knopf and Wesleyan was unknown at the time, because I felt it was more important to work behind the scenes to get the book out than to go public about the problems. But the thoroughly documented story I have to tell — which a distinguished fellow author told me at the time was “the most bizarre story I ever heard. The worst thing I ever heard” — is a cautionary tale for authors as well as for the reading public who want to know the truth about public figures and how they have influenced our cultural and political history.

Capra’s sons, Tom and Frank Jr., were clearly not fans of “Catastrophe of Success” after its publication, but they have not attacked the reporting or its accuracy. Is it more a case of them not wanting to see their lionized father portrayed as a FBI informant, and a bigot who suffered from mental health issues?

Yes, it is significant that even though Tom Capra disparaged my book on “The Today Show” as “a hatchet job,” he said in that same interview, when asked why he put me into a documentary he and Frank Jr. made about their father: “His research was really good.” People who still idolize Capra as a man despite my revelations of his lies and his many questionable actions are living in denial or delusion. It’s paradoxical to praise a book’s research but argue with its conclusions, but then, that’s part of what free speech is about. What I object to is people trying to kill a book. I quote Ray Bradbury, the author of “Fahrenheit 451,” who observed, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

After researching these unpleasant parts of Capra’s life and then fending off efforts to scuttle your book, do you find Capra movies less enjoyable to watch now?

It may seem ironic that I still enjoy Capra’s films as much as I did before I began my research — film historian David Thomson described me as having been a “leading fan of the director” — and that I like some of them even more. But I believe that knowing more about the man and the context in which he directed his films makes them more meaningful. They are full of contradictions, political and otherwise, but many works of art are, and artists tend to be riven with contradictions. That’s one reason they create. So I now understand Capra and his work much more fully, and I hope my two books contribute to a greater public understanding of this major American artist.