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It's not very often that a film buff can sit down with a masterful classic film director and learn how the director created his art. This is especially difficult since most of the directors from the classic film era are dead. The American Film Institute (AFI) had a great idea when they started their Harold Lloyd Master Seminars that allowed students to ask filmmakers about their craft. I remember watching the video of the 1977 Frank Capra seminar a few years ago and being fascinated with it. Now documentary filmmaker Allan Holzman has used this event as the basis for an engrossing film about Capra's approach to film-making.
As Capra talks about silent film comedy, working with actors, filming close-ups and much more, Holzman illustrates his words with some excellent clips from Capra's movies. For example, a student asks how Capra handles stories that require a lot of exposition, which can be deadly to pacing. Director Holzman shows us the lightning-fast exposition of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), as a Senator dies and the governor gets the idea to nominate Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) to replace him.
Capra explains how he would film the master shot first, and many times playback a sound recording of the scene when shooting the close-ups hours or days later, just to keep the actors familiar with the mood and pacing of the original scene. As he explains this, we are treated to dozens of expressive close-ups from many Capra films where you just can't look away from the screen.
Capra was very much a maverick in Hollywood. He chose to work away from the major studios in the 1930s just so that he could make films his way with no interference. By the end of the 1930s, he had won three Academy Awards, and Columbia was a major studio. This put a lot more pressure on him, as audiences and studios always expected great films from him, and his bigger budgets made it harder for him to experiment. He repeats the story about the disastrous preview of LOST HORIZON (1937), and how he removed the first two reels and saved the film. It wasn't exactly like that, according to biographer Joseph McBride. About a reel of film was edited (not completely removed) from the beginning, and the film was shortened greatly throughout. (Editors Gene Havlick and Gene Milford ended up winning an Oscar for their masterful work on this film.)
If you love classic films, and have ever wondered why those old films worked so well, this is the documentary for you. It is playing at the Dallas Video Festival on October 22nd where you can spend an hour learning from one of the greatest directors ever.
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