Originally posted on SilentComedyMafia.com
by Richard M Roberts » Mon Apr 15, 2019
Joseph McBride published his veil-lifting and controversial biography of Frank Capra, THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS in 1992, a fascinating and enlightening read that debunked the myths of Capra’s basically fictional and self-serving autobiography THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE, showing Capra to have been essentially living the lie in his pose as a great liberal man of the people filmmaker who claimed single-handed auteurship of his films, while actually being a FDR-hating Republican who tried to deny or certainly ignore the contributions of the true-liberal screenwriters like Robert Riskin, Sidney Buchman, Michael Wilson and others who actually held the beliefs Capra’s films were espousing, even as Capra ratted on some of them to the U.S. Government in the era of the blacklist. Through thorough and impeccable research, as well as intricate but entertaining writing, McBride exposed the genuine Frank Capra to such an expert and understanding degree that the reader in the end did not so much vilify the Director, but understand the forces both within and outside of Capra that brought him to the choices and mistakes he made and explained the odd, post-WW2 decline that Capra went through after his greatest successes. It was an epic biography, that shook up a lot of general thinking about Capra, possibly upsetting some of his most worshipful fans, but making better sense of the man to so many more of us (and we in the Silent Comedy Mafia also much appreciated McBride taking on and disproving much of Capra’s slander of Harry Langdon in his own book as well).
Now, McBride has published another 601-page book just about his writing and publication of his Capra biography, FRANKLY: UNMASKING FRANK CAPRA details the adventures and battles to get a book’s completion which was eight long years in researching, composing, and conflict in the midst of many forces and factions trying to either stop the book’s publication, or to publish it in an eviscerated form with the troubling facts McBride uncovered about Capra removed from its text. While one not as versed or immersed in the area of film history might think a book about writing a book would be the end all of navel-gazing, FRANKLY: UNMASKING FRANK CAPRA is anything but dull and futile exercise, it is a riveting tome that rings true to one as myself who has also toiled in this frequently nonsensical rabbit hole of the Film History Community, buffeted by academic and archival fiefdoms on one side, fandom on the other, and actual film production, the business of Hollywood, and publishing stuck in and around it as well. Somewhat autobiographic in nature, McBride chronicles his years in and around writing the book, including his work as an investigative reporter, his work and frustration as a screenwriter, and speaks of some of the effort that went into other books he published before and after his Capra Biography.
McBride has no problem naming names as he chronicles his fight to get the Capra book published the way he intended, Jeanine Basinger, film historian and then curator at the Weselyan Cinema Archives where Frank Capra’s papers are housed does not come off smelling of roses, nor does Robert Gottlieb, McBride’s editor at Knopf who apparently conspired with Basinger and some members of the Capra family to attempt to squelch the book. The middle of this book may bog down slightly as it gets mired in legal details as McBride played a veritable chess-game with his then publisher to get the book away from them or at least published in full, but that is because McBride himself was mired in that crazy sort of legal detail but was strong enough to see it through, and see it through he did, obviously and fortunately extricating the book from Knopf and getting it to Simon and Schuster, who published it to McBride’s satisfaction, acting in the fair and professional manner one would expect and hope a major publishing house to act, but alas, does not always do.
McBride settles a few other scores as well, and to this writer, the arrows appear to hit their targets with accuracy, my favorite is a two-page takedown of critic Richard Schickel, whom readers of the mafia will know has few admirers here, and there’s even a gentle poke or two at Kevin Brownlow, not un-earned I might think, though I have to say a little shot taken at archivist Sam Gill when he was working for the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences Margaret Herrick Library is a bit unfair, but it’s a minor jab at best.
McBride also chronicles his own gradual awakening to the facts of life in trying to survive in Hollywood, though in the beginning he may have been more like Mr. Pister, the naive and pretentious film nerd he spent many years playing and we all finally got to see last year in Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, yet by the time he finished playing that role, the rose-colored tint over the movies had disappeared from his glasses. A decade of writing and sometimes selling screenplays had left McBride in the early 80’s with the accurate realization that the motion picture business was “little more than a criminal enterprise” that had no interest in making films that had any sort of message, political or otherwise, the sort of films Frank Capra made, and perhaps this prepared him as he left screenwriting to begin the Capra book for the discovery that even Frank Capra was not the man the Director publically promoted and pretended himself to be.
All of this is told here in this frankly important book, one that needs to be read by every fan who has ever once suggested “why isn’t there a book about so and so” or “why don’t you write a book about so and so”, or whined publically or on the internet about why whatever they were obsessing about hadn’t been written about in book form or come out on a DVD and the horrible people who keep it from them, and really has no idea how these things come to their hot widdle hands or to their own doorsteps. This is what it can be like folks, on every level of this area of interest, these are the kind of people you unfortunately frequently deal with, with their own petty little agendas and nonsenses sometimes setting against one’s project with no more impetus than general mischief.
McBride opens the book with a brilliant quote from Ray Bradbury:
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
and that dead-on line sums it up, truer than most would like to admit. Joseph McBride is a survivor of too many of those sort of wars who has not let them stop him from doing good work, and we salute him, and say get FRANKLY: UNMASKING FRANK CAPRA and read it, you just might learn something, and if you haven’t read FRANK CAPRA: THE CATASTROPHE OF SUCCESS, get that and read it first, because If you haven’t and love Frank Capra’s work, you really aren’t informed about the Director.