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The most Dickensian filmmaker since D.W. Griffith; Life through Frank Capra's eyes

Frank Capra is the filmmaker who sent Mr. Smith to Washington and Mr. Deeds to town. He told us ''It's a Wonderful Life'' and ''You Can't Take It With You.'' He introduced us to John Doe and explored Shangri-La.

Although he hasn't made a Hollywood movie in 20 years, Capra is very much in the news lately. The prestigious American Film Institute has given him its 10th Life Achievement Award, in a ceremony broadcast last Sunday night on network television.

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Meanwhile, in a neatly timed tribute, the Regency Theater in New York is holding a retrospective of 20 Capra films, from his first in 1926 (''The Strong Man,'' with Harry Langdon) to his last in 1961 (''Pocketful of Miracles,'' with Bette Davis), and plenty in between. The series runs through April 20.

Capra's influence has been enormous. Moviegoers flocked to his films for decades, and continue to watch them on TV and in ''revival'' movie theaters. Critics have hailed his humanism, his populism, his enduring love and respect for ''the little guy.'' Younger directors have followed in his footsteps, emulating his optimism and good faith. It has become almost commonplace to hear a filmmaker announce a new project as ''my Capra film.''

But there's another side to the story. More skeptical viewers accuse Capra of using simplistic arguments, contrived stories, and manipulative methods. They see his populism as a disguise for unthinking conformity, or even demagoguery, and they resent his sentimentality. To these observers, the worst epithet you can hurl at a movie is ''Capra-corn!''

Probably the truth lies between these extremes. Capra was a first-rate storyteller, with a flair for entertaining and a sure hand with actors. But gradually, his tendency to preach crowded out his other gifts.

At his best, he was the most Dickensian filmmaker since D.W. Griffith, with a genius for characterization that enhanced his humanism and redeemed his sentimentality. At his worst, he was a peddler of cheap ideas and easy answers. His most famous films reflect both sides of his artistic personality.

Capra began in films by making silent comedies for Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon. Soon he switched to action pictures like ''Dirigible'' and soap operas like ''The Miracle Woman,'' both released in 1931 and rousingly enjoyable today. He made his name in 1934 with ''It Happened One Night,'' a freewheeling comedy that has been credited with killing off the heavier ''expressionistic'' style of the early '30s.

By 1939, though, his pictures were getting dangerously windy - see ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' - and by 1941 the preachiness of ''Meet John Doe'' was in full bloom. At the peak of his career, he was less a tale-spinner than a message-monger. In the '30s and '40s audiences welcomed his brand of pop sociology in films as varied as ''Lost Horizon'' and ''State of the Union.'' Today, the renewed popularity of his pictures may indicate a similar hunger for easy answers in a troubled decade.

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Friends and foes agree that Capra's watermark film is ''It's a Wonderful Life.'' The hero is James Stewart, a small-town financier. The villain is Lionel Barrymore as a money-grubbing banker. Caught between them is not only Donna Reed , as Stewart's wife, but the whole town of ''little guys'' who rally at the finale to save our hero from undeserved humiliation and untimely death.

Admirers of Capra have pointed out the dark underside of his vision, which plays a large part in this so-called comedy. After all, James Stewart comes close to suicide near the end, and the climax gives a lengthy view of what the town would have been like if he had never lived: a mean, violent place full of greed and corruption.

True. But the trouble with Capra is not a rose-colored attitude. Rather, it's his willingness to exploit all aspects of human nature - the sad as well as the sublime - in pushing his exaggerated and sometimes mindless populism. After admitting that even the most all-American town has its problems, he drags in a literal ''guardian angle'' to set things right, concluding the picture with a scene of mass sentimentality that Walt Disney would have blushed at.

As pure film, it's ingeniously put together. As a delirious kind of fantasy, it works well. What's unsettling is that Capra seems serious about it all! And it's hard to trust an artist who confuses frantic escapism with trenchant social commentary.Capra was undeniably an ''auteur'' - an artist with a vision all his own, and the skill to stamp that vision on film after film. For proof, consider how the militant crowd in his first feature (''The Strong Man'') prefigures similar groups in many a later movie, including such hits as ''Meet John Doe'' and ''It's a Wonderful Life.'' Such consistency has boosted Capra's reputation among critics who espouse any director with the savvy to make ''personal'' films inside the assembly-line Hollywood system. Yet other moviegoers wonder if this consistency is another name for mere habit and self-repetition.The debate has gone on for years. The great comedy director Preston Sturges took a swipe at Capra in his ''Sullivan's Travels,'' starring Joel McCrea as a filmmaker who realizes it's more important to make people laugh than to bore them with sermons. Film theorist Andrew Sarris has called the celebrated John Doe character ''a barefoot fascist'' and dismissed Shangri-La as ''an anti-intellectual paradise, a rest home for the troubled mind.'' By contrast, Capra specialist Jeanine Basinger defines the Capra touch as a powerful blend of ''optimism, humor, patriotism . . . darkness, despair, and the need to fight for things you care about.''If audiences rather than critics have the last word, as they always do, Capra may emerge a clear winner. Frank Rowley, manager and programmer of the Regency Theater, notes that he is one of the few great Hollywood directors who still have many films in ready 35-mm circulation, and that many of them are excellent draws with today's audiences. Similarly, writing in American Film magazine, Professor Basinger notes a current tidal wave of enthusiasm for his movies - with ''It's a Wonderful Life'' being turned into a Broadway musical; President Reagan quoting ''Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'' in a speech on economic policy; the title of ''It Happened One Night'' used as a laugh line on a recent TV show.In sum, it seems clear that audiences love Capra as much as he loved the ''little guy'' himself. But whether his films maintain their popularity may depend on what their underlying values really are - enduring truths about the human condition, or seductive pipe dreams with little foundation in art or actuality.

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