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Capra's America

'BUFFALO girls won't ya come out tonight, won't ya come out tonight!" was the sweet and innocent refrain Jimmy Stewart sang to Donna Reed in "It's a Wonderful Life as the now famous George Bailey wanders through peaceable moon-drenched Bedford Falls at midnight and tells his wife-to-be he will "lasso the moon" for her.This was Frank Capra's America - a place where basic values of home and hearth, of hard work and honesty, overcame the suffering and greed found outside the cinema in the 1930s and '40s. Director Capra's common touch made heroes out of ordinary people who face down adversity. Capra, who passed on Tuesday, did portray an idealized America. His sensibility did not survive the popular doubts and sophistications of the faster-paced 1950s and '60s. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It Happened One Night" are cultural icons, windows into a more precious world and time. Yet Capra's films survive. Even in the "knowing90s, films like "It's a Wonderful Life" appeal. Perhaps it's because Capra is true to the basics. His characters who fight city hall and exploitative bankers, while a bit overearnest by today's standards, don't sell out. They don't lie to themselves, and they acknowledge a debt to others and to the idea of community and country. They have a kind of nobility. It would be good to think Americans are still looking for such virtues. Capra was himself an American story - one of six Sicilian children who came to the US in 1903. His "Why We Fight" series on World War II was a masterpiece. Capra was first "shaken" by the visual virtuosity of Nazi propaganda. But he decided to replay Nazi film of goose-stepping Hitler youth and the 1938 Nuremberg rally in a detached manner - and took great delight in exposing the Nazi menace using its own words and images.

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