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Mr. Capra Goes to Washington

John Houseman, Frank Capra, Pare Lorenz

I often associate my intersection with famous people as limited to my days as Director of Public and Congressional Affairs at the National Archives. However, my earlier days at the Archives’ National Audiovisual Center produced its own star gazing opportunities. (see blog Equal Justice)

I was watching the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the family last Christmas (a Constance family tradition), and as the credits rolled over the strains of Auld Lang Sine, I saw Frank Capra’s familiar name on the screen as both producer and director of this classic. I thought, I’ve met Frank Capra. A light went on in my head about an incredibly special night in the old theater of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The year was 1979.

Jimmy Carter was President and my role at the National Audiovisual Center had changed from full time acquisitions of new films (federal films for resale to an educational and industrial marketplace), to implementation of an information collection initiative of the Administration on federal filmmaking. Carter wanted to know, how big “Hollywood on the Potomac” was and were we doing everything to manage it properly?

In the meantime, the Center had hired a new Assistant Director named Kevin Flood. Out of the academic world of Wayne State University, Kevin saw a great deal of untapped potential in the documentary film holdings of the National Archives. The New Deal had funded the Federal Theater Project and other initiatives to employ out-of-work photographers, cinematographers, artists, and actors. Both new and established artists had created priceless works that became the property of the federal government.

Ansel Adams had documented the National Parks for the Department of the Interior with some of his iconic photos. Pare Lorenz had produced documentary films that are still considered classic examples of the genre. When World War II began, Hollywood shifted its focus to the war effort and John Ford, Frank Capra, Disney Studios, and countless other film professionals turned out federal films to rally the Homefront, sell war bonds, and improve troop morale.

All these efforts had lined the shelves of the National Archives with photo negatives and cans of priceless film whose commercial potential had not been realized. Under the direction of Kevin Flood, the National Audiovisual Center issued a catalog of thirty-six documentary film classics produced by the government between 1934 and 1965. We made them all available for sale or rent on a cost-recovery basis.

To promote the catalog, an evening of screenings for potential film buyers and other interested professionals was held at the old classic National Archives theater at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, DC. With its dark paneling, velvet-like folding theater seats, and a fully equipped projection booth, the atmosphere of 1935-era room perfectly matched the vintage of the films.

The star-studded line up for the evening included Frank Capra and Pare Lorentz as guests of honor and John Houseman as the moderator. Probably best known for his role as Professor Charles W. Kingsfield in the film The Paper Chase (1973) for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Houseman had a long career as a stage and screen director/producer with such credits as Citizen Kane (1941) on his resume.

Pare Lorentz, whose documentaries remained highly influential for decades after they were created, talked about filming The River in 1937 for the Farm Security Administration. Capra discussed his World War II series Why We Fight, seven films made between 1942 and the end of the war utilizing German and Japanese news and propaganda footage. In Capra’s words, the purpose of the series was to "let the enemy prove to our soldiers the . . . justice of our [cause]."

As part of the greeting party that night, I had the chance to spend time with each of our guests, but Capra stands out as the most interesting. Short, stocky, and still full of energy, he was 82 years old. It was a black-tie evening and Frank stood out as the guy in the wild window-paned checked jacket. He had the gift of gab and between stories, one liners, and an elfish smile he entertained all of us.

Born in Italy, he is a classic example of how those once disparaged as “hyphenated” Americans built this country. Just think of this list of his motion pictures: It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. This Italian American defined American Cinema for a generation.

He not only taught us “why we fight”. He taught us who we are.


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