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It's all Capra Director's work focused on same themes

It's easy, especially at this time of year, to think of filmmaker Frank Capra only in terms of "It's a Wonderful Life."

But the themes in that timeless classic -- the little guy vs. big business; honesty vs. corruption; family, compassion, valor -- are the trademarks of nearly every film the Oscar-winning director made.

His unabashedly sentimental movies were lovingly defined as "Capra-corn" years ago, so you can imagine how today's audience might react to seeing his wholesome, inspiring stories for the first time. Corny as they may be, they are also very entertaining and funny. They pulled at the heartstrings, yet weren't afraid to show the darker side of human behavior.

Capra's movies were filled with the "every man," people who were naive, innocent and had hearts of gold. When studios criticized Capra's character of Longfellow Deeds from "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" as "not being a hero" because he played the tuba and would be tried in the movie for insanity, Capra responded "He's my hero."

That's the voice heard through the movies of Capra. The son of a poor immigrant family, Capra created loving tributes to the American dream he held in such high regard (as a middle-aged father, Capra would enlist in the U.S. Army). His characters were often "the salt of the earth," as his son Frank Capra Jr. says in the extras for the wonderful new boxed set "The Premiere Frank Capra Collection" ($59.95, Sony Pictures).

Included are Capra's wartime effort "American Madness," plus four of his best-loved movies: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "You Can't Take It With You" and "It Happened One Night" (the first movie to win all five of the major Oscars -- actor, actress, director, screenplay and film -- a feat that wasn't duplicated for another 41 years until "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest").

A bonus disc has new interviews and the "Frank Capra's American Dream" documentary hosted by Ron Howard. A terrific 96-page scrapbook is packed with Capra quotes ("Evidently what rings true in one heart will toll the same bell all over the world"); marvelous classic photos; script pages with notes for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"; plus Capra's thoughts and a historical review for each movie included in the set.

You'll hear from many actors and filmmakers who worked with or were inspired by Capra, including Angela Lansbury, Fay Wray (whose husband, Robert Riskin, co-wrote many of Capra's movies), Oliver Stone and John Milius. Cinematographer Allen Daviau calls a close-up of actor Ronald Colman from Capra's "Lost Horizon" (the one film I would have liked added to this set) one of the best in the history of motion pictures. "This is what it's all about," he says passionately.

One of the biggest treats is the inclusion of clips from some of Capra's silent movies and early films such as 1933's "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" with Barbara Stanwyck, one of a stable of actors that included Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur that Capra set on their road to stardom.

Director John Cassavetes said it best about Capra: "Maybe there was no America -- maybe there was just Frank Capra."

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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DVD extra

CHARLIE CHAN: VOLUME TWO: Charlie Chan goes to the opera, the Olympics, the race track and the circus in the four films here starring Warner Oland as the highly quotable detective. Bonus features include restoration comparison and featurettes such as "Number One Son: The Life of Keye Luke." ($59.98, Fox Home Entertainment. Available now).

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