Frank Capra behind the camera
Frank Capra behind the camera

Capra-corn: ever since 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life morphed into an American pop culture staple, that’s the pejorative term often used to describe the work of director Frank Capra. Pacific Film Archive is doing its part to put the term out to pasture with their new series, Before “Capraesque” (the preferred label for admirers of the Sicilian-born director’s homey, sentimental style), which focuses on the silent and pre-Code features that preceded his later commercial successes.

The series begins at 8:40pm on Saturday January 16 with a screening of American Madness, a drama about the banking crisis of the Depression era. Walter Huston stars as Union National Bank President, Tom Dickson, an executive more concerned with the well-being of his customers than with the robust health of his bottom line. Dickson’s position runs contrary to that of the other members of the Bank’s Board of Directors, however: they’d like to merge with the New York Trust, tighten up on the small business loans Tom’s been approving, and pad their paychecks, too. The opportunity to oust their adversary arises when Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien), one of Tom’s personal hires, is accused of stealing $100,000, sparking a run on the bank that will end Dickson’s career unless he can convince either his fellow Board members or the firm’s loyal depositors to come to the rescue and stanch the bleeding. No prizes for guessing who delivers the goods.

The series continues at 2:00pm on Sunday January 17 with a very rare screening of Capra’s first feature-length effort, the 1926 comedy The Strong Man, featuring forgotten comic genius Harry Langdon as a guileless immigrant trying to adapt to the American way of life.

The arrival of the New Year also marks the time when studios annually dump the misfit toys left under their Christmas trees onto an unsuspecting market. We’re in for a spate of mediocre horror films, failed would-be-blockbusters, and other films that didn’t turn out quite the way they were supposed to.

One film that fits into at least two of these categories is Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which has been in the can for a while, but experienced the inevitable editing problems that Gilliam films always seem to encounter. Shooting the film was no bowl of cherries, either, as star Heath Ledger died midway through production, leaving his un-shot scenes to be divvied up between Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.

With Avatar still setting records, and with its own reviews of the decidedly mixed variety, it’s going to be very hard for this Frankensteinian fantasy to make much of an impression at the box-office — but, as with all Gilliam films, it will offer, at the very least, dazzling visual delights, cheeky humor, and inventive plotting. It’s currently playing at the Shattuck, and by the time you’re reading this, I’ll have already slapped down a sawbuck to see it.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...