Frank Capra’s Wonders of Life





The “battle” between science and art dates back pretty far in the Western canon. For every great thinker of antiquity who saw no distinction between the different schools of knowledge and discovery, there was another who was convince their field ruled above all. For every Keats angry at “science” for reducing mystery and wonder to seemingly objective fact, there is a Dawkins who feels artists should be subservient to science and that “objective” and “hard” sciences have nothing to learn from anyone else. The debate can get exhausting, especially since its based on a number of faulty premises. “Science” does not undo the mystery of poetry, nor does the existence of subjective experiences and aesthetics pose a threat to objective facts. Understanding how we feel is as important as understanding why we feel, and all knowledge compliments each other. Scientists can and do learn from artists and artists can and do learn from scientists. Frankly most of us know and live that fact every day. But the debate rages on because of the loudest voices and occasionally arbitrary designation of canon sources.


I only bring up the curmudgeonly “angry old white dudes arguing over whose phd is better” debate because it serves as the lens for understanding and analyzing the Wonders of Life series of educational films written and directed by Frank Capra. These programs, aired in the 50s, were produced after Capra’s film career was in decline. Even before his decline, Capra was a bit of a curmudgeon himself. He was an idealistic propagandist who wholeheartedly believed in America exceptionalism and the triumph of the individual. Even when those beliefs invariably ended in hypocrisy, even when his ideals failed in practice, even when the world marched on around him, even when the forces he saw as anti-American ended up saving and helping people, even when his own countrymen turned on his religious and political views as some kind of “secret socialism,” he never lost that idealized, utopian view of the world. He was a man possessed with the kind of cognative dissonance that praised the “individual” while railing against “degenerate homosexuals,” that condemned those in power for not caring about the poor even when he fumed about “hemophiliac bleeding hearts” wanting to actually do something about it. I love It’s A Wonderful Life, but don’t forget that the main horror of alternate-reality Pottersville is that of hedonistic swing music. That unshakable ideal, even in the face of reality and outcome, infuses all his work, creating a tapestry of films that tell us a great deal about the man directing them and how a brilliant, flawed, compassionate, hateful and stubborn person reconciled an equally complicated reality.


For all his faults, Capra understood that science and art were not at odds. A huge part of this series’ message is based around showing how different kinds of knowledge compliment each other. This message, ironically, is why these films are both extremely interesting and also extremely inappropriate for classrooms today. The animation in these films is gorgeous, animated (and uncreditedly so!) by animation veterans William T. Hurtz and Shamus Culhane. Hurtz was a director for Rocky and Bullwinkle and had also worked on a number of Disney and UPA shorts and features. Culhane worked for no less than 18 different studios, and is the only animator to have worked on all four of the first Disney feature films. The character designs and animation appropriately draw from these many different styles, and animation scholars will note the influence from their time at Disney, UPA, Warner Bros and others. This animation still holds up today, but the material being taught is a little more uneven. The scientific explanations tend to waver between too simple for older students and too complicated for younger ones. They tend to work best as a kind of refresher course for adults or, as probably intended, as something to spark a discussion between children and adults watching together.


The other reason these movies are inappropriate for classrooms, but are worth watching anyways, is the overt religious content. Capra insisted that he be allowed to bring religion into these educational science films. Its not subtle, the scientist character will liberally sprinkle scripture into his talks, and even when denouncing pagan superstition will stop to assure the audience that Jesus is totally real (and loves evolution!). Capra’s worldview was a mix of conservative and progressive thinking. To Capra, certain moral imperatives HAD to be objective and unchanging, but at the same time people needed to move forward and improve. Ignoring traditional values and objective scientific study were both anathema to Capra’s understanding of both god and country. As a result, we have a film from the 50s that is surprisingly progressive even as its overt religious politics keep it from being useful for its intended purpose today. How often in today’s climate do you hear an extremely religious person arguing that God wants us to learn as much as we can about evolution? That breaking down and understanding the forces of creation is the best way to celebrate the divine? That skepticism is commanded of us in the scripture? Capra even argues caution against man-made climate change, and that environmentalism is an imperative of both science and religion! As religion in the US grew increasingly fundamentalist in the 20th century, these views became less and less common in the media.


While Capra’s connection of science to religion is as overt as you can get without a tap-dancing apostle, this same focus on integrating fields and mediums is handled more subtly and skillfully in regards to science and the humanities. The plot of nearly all of these films is that of a Scientist and a Writer trying to explain to a collection of quasi-mystical animated figures the importance of science. The Writer dreams up some group of cynics or skeptics, and the Scientist must help him convince them that they are not as far removed from humankind’s understanding of the world as they thought. In Hemo the Magnificent this dialogue is between Hemo, poet god of blood, who feels that humans look down on him, seeing blood as a gross symbol of death and disease rather than the source of life itself. He is accompanied by a collection of woodland creatures, all anti-intellectual by default as their only relationship to science has been in how science can help humans kill them more effectively. In The Unchained Goddess this dialogue features Meteora, goddess of weather, and her retinue of lesser gods, who feel threatened that humanity’s newfangled “meteorology” will rob them of their titles.


Interestingly, it is the Writer who is the most hostile to the mythical characters. He sneers at them, dismisses them, and gleefully uses every fact the Scientist brings forward to put them down. Meanwhile, the Scientist, while never letting them get away with unscientific statements, is quick to point out where their use as metaphor is important, or when art or poetry inspired humans to think and investigate. It is the Scientist who sprinkles in poetry and scripture along with facts, not the Writer. Hemo is moved by the Scientist seeing beauty in blood and knowing that the facts he uncovers only make the circulatory system seem more remarkable. He declares the Scientist a fellow poet even as he dismisses the Writer. The animals are amazed at the chance to ask their own questions and use tools previously used only to oppress them to understand themselves. Meteora finds that humans’ investigation of her “mysteries” is not meant to destroy her but to understand her, and she and her fellow gods find a new pride and status in being praised through loving research rather than ignorant worship. The Writer’s creations all find kinship in the Scientist over their creator. The Writer is so desperate to please the Scientist that he never connects to his own creations. The Scientist finds humor even in not knowing the answer. These are INCREDIBLY fascinating metaphors and subtext for a film about how wind works or why you have a heart.


These films may not be useful for young science students today, but they are valuable viewing material for scientists, artists, theologians and film historians. These are less educational films and more personal explorations of understanding the world, and as the films themselves insinuate, those personal stories of how we perceive and understand objective facts are as necessary as the facts themselves.

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