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The Younger Generation
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The Younger Generation

The Younger Generation

Frank Capra's first sound film was a part-talkie, The Younger Generation (1929), adapted from a Fannie Hurst play entitled It Is to Laugh. Capra described it as "about a social-climbing super-Jew who denied his parents." The story depicts the rise of one Morris Goldfish (Ricardo Cortez), the son of Jewish immigrants on New York's lower east side. As he ascends to Park Avenue success, he changes his name to Maurice Fish and becomes more and more ashamed of his ethnic origins, much to the dismay of his parents (Jean Hersholt and Rosa Rosanova) and sister (Lina Basquette). The tale builds to a memorable and devastating conclusion.

The cast had good memories of working with Capra on this film. Ricardo Cortez later described him to authors Victor Scherle and William Turner Levy (The Films of Frank Capra) as "a warm, friendly man and a very fine director. I never heard him raise his voice to anyone. He is an actor's director." Jean Hersholt said during the making of the film: "This man, Frank Capra, will emerge as a giant amongst the pygmy minds of Hollywood."

Lina Basquette was a promising actress whose personal tragedies overwhelmed her professional career, leading to two suicide attempts - including one in 1930, not long after The Younger Generation opened - and an early retirement from the screen. One of her nine husbands was Sam Warner, whom she greatly encouraged to pursue talkies; he did, but he also died unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage the night before The Jazz Singer (1927) opened.

The Younger Generation alternates between silent and sound sequences. "We couldn't rent a sound stage for a long duration of time," Capra wrote in his memoir, The Name Above the Title, "both because of the great demand and for economic reasons. So for The Younger Generation all the silent scenes were shot at one time [on the Columbia lot] and all the sound scenes at another time [at one of the few sound stages available in Los Angeles]. Later they were intermixed.

"Shooting your first sound picture was an etude in chaos. First of all, no one was used to being quiet. Shooting of silent scenes had gone on with hammering and sawing on an adjacent set, the director yelling at actors through a megaphone, cameramen shouting 'Dim the overheads!' ... 'Slower on the dolly!' ... while everyone howled if the scene was funny. Suddenly, with sound, we had to work in the silence of a tomb. When the red lights went on, everyone froze in his position - a cough or a belch would wreck the scene. It was like a quick switch from a bleacher seat at Ebbett's Field to a box seat at a Wimbledon tennis match."

The actors, Capra pointed out, had to memorize dialogue for the first time; as a result, they "shook with stage fright." They also melted under the heat of the extra light that had to be pumped in now that film was being exposed at 24 frames a second rather than the silent standard of 16.

Camera noise had to be muffled, and the only way to do it was to stuff the camera - and operator - into a soundproof booth. "There was more air in the cameraman's lungs than there was in the booth," wrote Capra. The camera operator, Ben Reynolds, weighed 300 pounds. "It took two huskies to shove Big Ben into the airless booth and sit down next to his camera, but it took half a dozen to pull him out. As soon as the camera-start bell rang, and his booth barred shut, Ben went peacefully to sleep. It didn't matter much to the scene because his camera was pre-set and locked into position. But it meant Ben's life to get him out in a hurry at the end of the scene - and snatching 300 pounds of limp, stuck flesh out of that hot box wasn't easy."

Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, quoted in Joseph McBride's The Catastrophe of Success, recalled details from the set that sound right out of Singin' in the Rain (1952): "We had to hide mikes in bouquets of flowers and in people's pockets. That's why everybody would walk up to a spot and talk to it, because that's where the mike was. I remember doing a sound sequence in The Younger Generation in which the characters all sat around a dining room table, and we had the mike in a bowl in the center. It was an experience."

According to Tetzlaff, most filmmakers didn't know much about the new technology or how to shoot with it. Capra, he said, was an exception. "He was one of the few directors who knew what the hell they were doing. Most of your directors walked around in a fog - they didn't know where the door was."

Reviews of The Younger Generation were positive, especially for Hersholt's performance, though The New York Times declared that the "dialogue sequences...did not add to the story. In several of the talking scenes there were long, unnecessary pauses between the word passages."

Nonetheless, the film was viewed in Hollywood as a technical success, so much so that other studios believed Capra to be an expert in talkie films because of his science background. (He had studied at Caltech.) Requests poured in to borrow Capra from Columbia. Studio chief Harry Cohn turned them all down, telling the trade papers, "Not available. Capra will make nothing but 'specials' for Columbia from now on." This amused Capra, who noted in his memoir that "to the major studios, Columbia 'specials' were about on a par with the Blue-Plate specials the majors dished up at their extras' lunch counter."

Producer: Jack Cohn
Director: Frank R. Capra
Screenplay: Sonya Levien; Howard J. Green (dialogue); Fannie Hurst (play "It Is to Laugh")
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Harrison Wiley (uncredited)
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts (uncredited)
Cast: Jean Hersholt (Julius 'Pa' Goldfish), Lina Basquette (Birdie Goldfish), Ricardo Cortez (Morris Goldfish), Rex Lease (Eddie Lesser), Rosa Rosanova (Tilda 'Ma' Goldfish), Syd Crossley (Butler), Martha Franklin (Mrs. Lesser).
BW-75m.

by Jeremy Arnold

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