Saturday, August 08, 2009

Rod Bennett--Chesterton and Frank Capra

Rod Bennett is speaking now on the connection between Chesterton and Frank Capra, and in particular, the movie It's a Wonderful Life.

George Bailey is the Manalive, says Bennett. He began by telling us some of his personal biography, the story of his seeing the movie as a fourteen year old. The movie was, it seems, a turning point in his life.

Bennett then gave us a brief biography of Frank Capra's life. He's been described as the cinematic Normal Rockwell. But his life wasn't all a road of ease. He valued education, and loved science, attending CalTech and becoming a bit of a scientist. He even considered becoming a priest. He has written an autobiography, which Bennett quoted from. Capra, during college, left his Catholic religious faith behind, and embraced science, and fell in love with a Presbyterian; although he still attended Mass on Christmas and Easter.

He was given the opportunity, as a scientist, to make a big amount of money as a still maker from the mob. But instead, he was connected with a scientist name Hubble, who got Frank to do some science work on some lights for a film, and thus, he entered the film world.

He quickly began to work in film, and married a woman who was a member of the Church of Christian Scientist. He never became a Christian Scientist. Now it was the early 30s, and he met a man named Miles Connolly (author of Mr. Blue). Capra described him as "violently Catholic". (This reminds us of Chesterton meeting Belloc, doesn't it?) Connolly actually knew of Chesterton and Belloc, and succeeded in getting them to write for his magazine. Connolly was also involved in the film business as a "script doctor". Connolly quoted Hilaire Belloc to Capra on their first meeting.

Connolly determined to bring Capra back into the fold, and he planned to do it with Chesterton and Belloc. Connolly began to goad Capra into using his great talent for a better purpose. Capra was making simple silly films, and Connolly told him is was wasting his talent. Capra described this period of a love/hate friendship time.

The best Connolly scholar, a priest in Boston, says that Connolly's book, Mr. Blue, was a direct response of Connolly's to his reading of Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi. Another scholar states that Mr. Blue was based on Chesterton himself.

The films Capra made after this period of time all are based on the temptation to faith. Capra continuously felt the pull between faith and science, and his films work out this skepticism. He begins the film with a family and a faith as a hypothesis. Then, he experiments with doubt, despair and tragedy, gets the situation to boil and burn, and find out whether the man will break or survive.

His characters then split into two characters, the idealist and the cynic. The idealist is the good guy, and the cynic is the bad guy. What will happen when their two world collide?

Mr. Deeds is the first film Capra made under the influence of Connolly. Mr. Deeds is based on Mr. Blue.

The reason the world invalidates Capra's films is that he resolves the doubt of the film. His characters doubt, wonder, think, work, and eventually resolve their issues. The modern world doesn't like this resolution, it wants to continue in its doubt.

After his retirement, Capra spent most of his money secretly on Catholic evangelization efforts.

At the end of his life, he made films for the Bell Telephone Company. Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, etc. Bennett says these films are wonderful.

Capra was also influenced by Eric Gill, and claimed he was a major influence in his life, and Gill was the man who designed Gilbert and Frances Chesterton's gravestone.


  1. My childhood experience seeing "It's a Wonderful Life," was curious. I must have been six or seven. My father was a good and popular man and well-liked like George Bailey. I thought him the ordinary thing.
    I thought the hypothetical world marred greatly by the absence of George Bailey was what the world would be without any single ordinary person at all. It was a mystic vision in a way.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I was trying to retell this lecture and even with consulting my scribbled notes, it lost the magic in my paraphrase but you captured it so well.


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