The Depression's Not Depressing… If You Watch the Right Movies
This may sound surprising but the Depression was a pretty miserable time. People didn't have a whole lot of money, and no one had work. It was (like the name says) depressing.
You might think that the iconic filmmaker of the Depression, therefore, would make downer films about being sad and having no money and the world generally being a cold place that kicks you in the butt.
But this would be wrong. The most iconic filmmaker of the Depression did not make depressing films. He made happy films. Films that not only didn't kick you, but which pulled you to your feet, brushed off your coat, and told you that you were awesome and America was awesome and the world is a great place. "Be of good cheer," these films said. "Gosh darn, we like you."
And who made those cheerful Depression films? Our man Frank Capra.
Rags to Riches
Capra's own life had the same sort of you-can-do-anything-and-have-fun-doing-it quality of his films. He was born in Sicily in 1897, and was one of seven children. When he was six they all traveled to America by sea, a voyage that Capra later recalled by saying of such passenger ships, "There's no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They're all miserable. It's the most degrading place you could ever be" (source).
Despite the initial bumps, Capra embraced the American Dream; he insisted on finishing high school, even though his family wanted him to work (they "thought I was a bum" he said.) He even went to college in engineering, but he found his career in entertainment, first writing for vaudeville and then directing silent films.
When he started to work in the early 1930s for Columbia Pictures (see Production Company) with Robert Riskin (see Screenwriter) he really made his mark, releasing a series of classic films that made him the most celebrated director of his time.
It Happened One Night (1934) swept the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, while Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), featuring Jimmy Stewart, is still regarded as a classic. After leaving Columbia, Capra directed his greatest triumph, 1946's It's a Wonderful Life, again with Stewart. The film did poorly at first, but has gone on to be Capra's most admired film, and the most iconic Christmas movie of all time.
Never seen It's A Wonderful Life? Here come some spoilers.
It's a Wonderful Life is about a small town guy who is convicted of financial impropriety and despairs. Then an angel shows him that if he had never lived, everyone would be sad. So he takes hears, and it all turns out okay. Happiness is distributed like confetti, and God puts everything right.
That's how Capra movies work. He was the Spielberg of his day; his films were about how people are decent, America is great, and the world is just. He even went so far as to say:
My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other. (Source)
So if You Can't Take It With You seems like its happy ending is a little too easy, or if you wonder how on earth Grandpa supports himself —well, that's Capra's thing. Realism isn't where he's at; realism is depressing.
In the world outside the movies, bad people sometimes win, sadness isn't banished at the end of two hours, and the Depression is depressing. On Capra's screens, though, all is well, always, no matter what. Only Mr. Kirby would deny it—and even he can be turned around with a harmonica.