May 18, 2004
Poem: "Easter Morning," by Jim Harrison. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We're not supposed to have "peasants"
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a '51 Dodge and a '72 Pontiac.
When his kids ask why they don't have
a new car he says, "these cars were new once
and now they are experienced."
He can fix anything and when rich folks
call to get a toilet repaired he pauses
extra hours so that they can further
learn what we're made of.
I told him that in Mexico the poor say
that when there's lightning the rich
think that God is taking their picture.
Like peasants everywhere in the history
of the world ours can't figure out why
they're getting poorer. Their sons join
the army to get work being shot at.
Your ideals are invisible clouds
so try not to suffocate the poor,
the peasants, with your sympathies.
They know that you're staring at them.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Frank Capra, born in Bisaquono, Sicily (1897). He directed some of the most popular films of the 1930s and '40s, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Most of his movies were about a naive and idealistic man from small town America who goes up against greedy politicians and lawyers and journalists. Capra said the moral of his movies was: "A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment."
His movies were so distinctive and so influential that the word "Capraesque" has made it into the dictionary. The 2000 American Heritage Dictionary defined it as "Of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage."
Capra lived in Sicily for the first six years of his life, until his family immigrated to Los Angeles. Capra later said he spent his sixth birthday "in a howling Atlantic storm, in the Germania's black steerage hold, crammed with retching, praying, terrorized immigrants." He sold newspapers in the Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles, and made money playing the banjo at nightclubs so he would be able to go to college. He studied chemical engineering at Cal Tech, paying his way by running the student laundry, waiting tables, and wiping engines at a power plant.
In 1922, he was poor and unemployed and living in San Francisco, when he read in the newspaper that a man named Walter Montague was launching a new movie studio in an abandoned gymnasium. Capra called him up and talked his way into getting a job directing his first movie, a one-reel film based on a Rudyard Kipling poem.
For the next six years, he worked as everything from a prop man to a comedy writer. In 1928, he signed a contract with Columbia for 25,000 dollars a year. Five years later he made his first big hit, the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1933), for which he won the first of three Academy Awards for Best Director. In the next fifteen years he made a string of successful movies, and he became one of the most famous directors in the world. He once said that he was the first director to have his name come before the title of the movie in the opening credits.
Capra spent World War II making documentary films for the United States government. The first movie he made after the war was It's A Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart. It was still about a small town hero who battles corruption, but it was darker and more cynical than any of his earlier movies, and it didn't do very well at the box office. For some reason, Capra didn't renew its copyright in 1974, and it fell into the public domain. PBS was the first station to play it every year around Christmas. They didn't expect it to do very well, but after a few years it had become extremely popular. Other stations started picking it up, and now watching It's a Wonderful Life on TV is a holiday tradition for families across the country.
Capra said, "The strength of America is in the kind of people who can plant a seed, sow the grass. I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire."