“How Did Lubitsch Do It?”: Joseph McBride’s engaging study of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch [with questions about “Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra”]

Originally posted on World Socialist Web Site


By David Walsh, April 24, 2019

. . . [After interview questions about Lubitsch:] 

DW: Finally, tell me about your new book, Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra.

JM: This is a book about my struggle to tell the truth about Frank Capra, the celebrated American film director. I’ve long been an admirer of Capra’s films, and I still am. When I began to get to know Capra, in 1975, and then when I co-wrote the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award to him in 1982, I realized he was starkly different from the way he portrayed himself in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title [1971].

His films are often seen as promoting New Deal sociopolitical values. In fact, Capra was politically conservative—he hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, he admitted to me. His films are very mixed-up politically. There are moments that are progressive, some that are reactionary. He was all over the map.

Although Capra was deeply conservative, he worked with many writers who were liberals or leftists, some of them Communist Party members and others who also were later blacklisted. I found out, from going through his papers, that after World War II, during the Hollywood Red Scare, he had informed on some of his writers to the Defense Department and also to the FBI. That was a shock. He violated the principles, for example, of his finest film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939], which was written for him by a Communist Party member, Sidney Buchman.

To his credit, Capra in his prime was able to work with people from a wide political spectrum, partly out of commercial calculation, but also there were aspects of progressivism he could relate to. He came from a peasant background in Italy, but he identified with the ruling class.

So when I wrote my biography Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success [1992], it was riveting work. He’s such a contradictory character, a figure of Dostoyevskian complexity. He waved the American flag fervently but betrayed the principles of the Bill of Rights by informing. I was trying to figure this out in writing the book. I had access to him for a year of interviews. I also interviewed 175 other people. Most of them are gone now.

I faced a lot of opposition from his archivist, Jeanine Basinger, of the Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She let me see his papers, and then she started making my life difficult. The book’s original publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and my editor was Robert Gottlieb, one of the most illustrious editors in the country. But it turned out that Knopf and Wesleyan and Basinger had a compromising relationship, and they blocked my book. They kept throwing up obstacles during the seven years I was writing this big book. I had to fight a Byzantine legal battle. Gottlieb said to me at one point, “You know it all—you may know too much.”

Eventually, I extricated myself from Knopf, which took about four years. It was Kafkaesque. Much of the obstruction was subterranean. I kept voluminous notes and correspondence files, which form the basis of the new book. We finally got the original biography freed and went to Simon & Schuster, and they published it, but I had to cut out a lot of the quotes from Capra’s writings since I couldn’t get the permissions I had been promised. But ultimately it helped the book, because I was able to summarize Capra in pithier, hopefully clearer language. In any case, I prevailed because I found an honest publisher.

No one knew this story, I kept it under wraps. Now Frankly tells the whole story. It’s a disturbing episode of how a major publisher in America can work against an author trying to tell the truth about an iconic cultural figure and how an archivist, who should be helping scholars, does the opposite.

Sometimes we think we live in a relatively free country, but there are immense obstacles to exercising our First Amendment rights. This book is about those issues. It’s an eye-opening saga, I think.