The five American stories included in the Premiere Frank Capra Collection thrive on the tension between dewy idealism and screwball cynicism, daft purity and worldly corruption. In 1932's American Madness, Walter Huston embodies that idealism as a populist bank president whose faith in the common man puts him at odds with fat-cat bankers eager to push through a lucrative merger. When Huston's bank is robbed, rumors spread of its imminent demise, and Huston is forced to take drastic action to save his business. Though American Madness lacks the elegance and emotional heft of the other films in this anthology, it compellingly explores one of Capra's pet themes: how quickly a crowd can turn from a band of angels to a lynch mob and back again.
Screwball cynicism is the order of the day in It Happened One Night, Capra's romantic comedy about a rascally reporter (Clark Gable) who falls in love with runaway heiress Claudette Colbert during an eventful bus trip. Like much in Capra's oeuvre, Night is about people who live their lives in screaming newspaper headlines, and it pops with speed and manic energy. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and You Can't Take It With You both center on loveable eccentrics who refuse to let work interfere with having fun or following their wandering muses. In Deeds, Gary Cooper plays a small-town poet who inherits a fortune but retains his fundamental decency, while in You Can't Take It With You, James Stewart plays the gently bent scion of a prominent family who hopes to marry into his secretary's oddball brood over his parents' objections.
Stewart returns in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as an overgrown Boy Scout who runs afoul of the entrenched power structure in his bid to establish a national camp for boys. Washington is an unabashed valentine to democracy and the American way, but it's still funnier and faster-paced than most comedies. Capra's democratic spirit extends to how he used actors. Capra gave huge stars like Gable, Colbert, Cooper, and Stewart their most iconic roles, then let them be upstaged by his formidable repertory of colorful character actors. Capra's stirringly optimistic masterpieces, which are simultaneously timeless and rooted in the historical eras that spawned them, show us not just who we are, but also who we can and should be.
Key features: The solid documentary Frank Capra's American Dream joins audio commentaries from Frank Capra Jr. and a nifty "Movie Scrapbook."