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Capra’s love of America shines at the Orpheum this week

November 2, 2012
By Tom LaVille ( , Times-Republican

On any list of the greatest American directors of the 20th Century by film historians and movie lovers, Frank Capra would be in the top 10 of anyone's list. Capra immigrated to the United States with his Italian parents at the age of 6. They immediately moved to Southern California to join the rest of the Capra family. Following World War I, Capra began taking jobs as an extra in silent films. His evolution as an iconic director in the 1930-50 was slow but steady. His first work in silent films was with Iowa-born Harry Landon, of Council Bluffs. Landon was considered one of the top four major silent movie comedians along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. His film with Capra, "The Strong Man," was one of his best.

Once Capra hit his stride he laid out a string of hits that were amazing, beginning with "It Happened One Night," in 1934). This was the first motion picture to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colburn) and Best Writer (Robert Riskin). Films that followed were just as good: "Mr. Deeds goes to Town" in 1936, "Lost Horizon" in 1937, "You Can't Take it With You," in 1938 and "Meet John Doe" in 1941.

Capra's films all reflected his love of the United States. Coming here as an immigrant gave him a special fondness and belief in the spirit of America. It was in 1939 that Capra teamed with Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Harry Carey, Sr., and Edward Arnold to make one of the best political dramas in movie history and this week's Orpheum movie, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." The story centers around a small town Boy Rangers leader who is appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy in the senate. Smith is a wide eyed optimist and runs smack dab into the political machine. At first, Smith is a joke to the members of Congress, but they come to appreciate his naivet, heart and conviction.

The cast is made up of hundreds of extras and stock players. Iowa actors are well represented in the film as well. White haired Pierre Watkin (Sioux City) plays Senate minority leader Barnes; Eddy Chandler (Wilton) is a reporter; and Neal Dodd (Fort Madison) is the Senate chaplain. Dodd was a real life minister known as "The Padre of Hollywood" for his many movie appearances and the real weddings of the stars that he performed.

I love this movie and all of Capra's films from his golden age. Now is your chance to see one of his best on the big screen.

The show times are 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Visit the theatre for tours, or call the Orpheum Theater Center movie hotline at 641-844-5907 or visit


Tom LaVille is a retired Marshalltown drama and literature teacher. LaVille's Critic's Corner column appears Friday in the Times-Republican.



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