A Brief Interview w/ Dr. Morris Dickstein

February 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

The following is an interview with Dr. Morris Dickstein, concerning his upcoming visit to the campus to discuss the films of acclaimed American director, Frank Capra. Dr. Dickstein is a celebrated professor at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, critic, and writer, whose works includes Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression and A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World.

Steffen: Why do you think that screwball comedy, which as you argue in your book “Dancing in the Dark” was partially ushered in by “It Happened One Night” and others, became so well received and so important to America during the time that it did?

Dr. Morris Dickstein: One reason for the popularity of screwball comedy was that it made the rich into figures of fun. At the same time, it radiated an infectious delight in their freedom and mobility, which were in short supply then–quite simply, their right to be silly, even empty-headed, at a time when most people had weighty concerns. Yet these movies were also rapid-fire dialogue comedies, perhaps the best ever in American movies. Their high spirits and high energy were a tonic for the times, a period when many felt hopelessly stuck in a rut.

Steffen: The best known Capra film is arguably the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”; to what extent is “It Happened One Night” similar, thematically, to that film?

Dr. Dickstein: These two films have very little to do with each other. “It Happened One Night” is about the battle of the sexes, which is also a kind of class warfare between a working stiff and a spoiled heiress. This kind of movie goes back to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s also full of oblique sexual innuendo, beginning with the title. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is more closely related to Capra’s social films of the late 1930s, such as “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” common-man movies about the fate of the individual in a corrupt but ultimately beneficent and redeemable society.

Steffen: The title of your talk is “Frank Capra: From Comedy to Community.” To what extent do you see film as a communal art form, and do you think that it is more or less effective than literature in regards to creating a sense of community amongst an audience?

Dr. Dickstein: Film was much more of a mass art in the 1930s than today, and certainly more than literature. It had a virtually universal reach, and for a short period, Capra really touched a nerve in a society suffering a terrible social and economic crisis. Overall, his films were optimistic, patriotic, and Pollyannish, which some critics mocked but many people found reassuring. But their values were convincing only because he took full measure of all that blocked and impeded their realization, including media moguls, corrupt politicians, greedy bankers, and the tendency of ordinary people to allow themselves to be manipulated by these forces. This was the dark side of his work, which showed how people could be depressed and humiliated by these challenges. At the same time it made his ultimate optimism, including his faith in American communal values and traditions, that much more convincing.

* * *

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Morris Dickstein to Ave Maria University this Thursday, February 24,2011, as the Amu Film Society presents “It Happened One Night” at 6:30pm outside of the Bean at Ave Maria, with a discussion to follow led by Dr. Dickstein entitled “Frank Capra: From Comedy to Community.”

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