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Capra, Frank

CAPRA, Frank



Nationality: American. Born: Bisaquino, Sicily, 18 May 1897; emigrated with family to Los Angeles, 1903. Education: Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles; studied chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, graduated 1918. Family: Married 1) Helen Howell, 1924 (divorced 1938); 2) Lucille Reyburn, 1932, two sons, one daughter, Ballistics teacher, U.S. Army, 1918–19. Career: Lab assistant for Walter Bell, 1922–23; prop man, editor for Bob Eddy, writer for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, 1923–25; hired by Columbia Pictures, 1928; began to work with Robert Riskin, 1931; elected President of Academy, 1935; elected President of Screen Directors' Guild, 1938; formed Frank Capra Productions with writer Robert Riskin, 1939; Major in Signal Corps, 1942–45; formed Liberty Films with Sam Briskin, William Wyler, and George Stevens, 1945 (sold to Paramount, 1948). Awards: Oscar for Best Director, for It Happened One Night, 1934, for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936, and You Can't Take It With You, 1938; Distinguished Service Medal, U.S. Armed Forces, 1945; D.W. Griffith Award, Directors Guild of America, 1958; honorary doctorates, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1971, and Carthage College, Wisconsin, 1972; American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, 1982. Died: 3 September 1991, in La Quinta, California.


Films as Director:

1922

Fultah Fisher's Boarding House

1926

The Strong Man (+ co-sc)

1927

Long Pants; For the Love of Mike

1928

That Certain Thing; So This Is Love; The Matinee Idol; The Way of the Strong; Say It with Sables (+ co-story); Submarine; The Power of the Press; The Swim Princess; The Burglar (Smith's Burglar)

1929

The Younger Generation; The Donovan Affair; Flight (+ dialogue)

1930

Ladies of Leisure; Rain or Shine

1931

Dirigible; The Miracle Woman; Platinum Blonde

1932

Forbidden (+ sc); American Madness

1933

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (+ pr); Lady for a Day

1934

It Happened One Night ; Broadway Bill

1936

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (+ pr)

1937

Lost Horizon (+ pr)

1938

You Can't Take It with You (+ pr)

1939

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (+ pr)

1941

Meet John Doe (+ pr)

1942

Why We Fight (Part 1): Prelude to War (+ pr)

1943

Why We Fight (Part 2): The Nazis Strike (co-d, pr); Why We Fight (Part 3): Divide and Conquer (co-d, pr)

1944

Why We Fight (Part 6): The Battle of China (co-d, pr); Tunisian Victory (co-d, pr); Arsenic and Old Lace (+ pr) (filmed in 1942)

1945

Know Your Enemy: Japan (co-d, pr); Two Down, One to Go (+ pr)

1946

It's a Wonderful Life (+ pr, co-sc)

1948

State of the Union (+ pr)

1950

Riding High (+ pr)

1951

Here Comes the Groom (+ pr)

1956

Our Mr. Sun (+ pr, sc) (Bell System Science Series Numbers 1 to 4)

1957

Hemo the Magnificent (+ pr, sc); The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (+ pr, co-sc)

1958

The Unchained Goddess (+ pr, co-sc)

1959

A Hole in the Head (+ pr)

1961

Pocketful of Miracles (+ pr)



Other Films:

1924

(as co-sc with Arthur Ripley on films featuring Harry Longdon): Picking Peaches; Smile Please; Shanghaied Lovers; Flickering Youth; The Cat's Meow; His New Mama; The First Hundred Years; The Luck o' the Foolish; The Hansom Cabman; All Night Long; Feet of Mud

1925

(as co-sc with Arthur Ripley on films featuring Harry Langdon): The Sea Squawk; Boobs in the Woods; His Marriage Wow; Plain Clothes; Remember When?; Horace Greeley Jr.; The White Wing's Bride; Lucky Stars; There He Goes; Saturday Afternoon

1926

(as co-sc with Arthur Ripley on films featuring Harry Langdon): Fiddlesticks; The Soldier Man; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp

1943

Why We Fight (Part 4): The Battle of Britain (pr)

1944

The Negro Soldier (pr); Why We Fight (Part 5): The Battle of Russia (pr); Know Your Ally: Britain (pr)

1945

Why We Fight (Part 7): War Comes to America (pr); Know Your Enemy: Germany (pr)

1950

Westward the Women (story)

1973

Frank Capra (Schickel) (as himself)

1980

Hollywood (Brownlow, Gill—doc) (as himself)

1982

The 10th American Film Institute Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Frank Capra

1984

George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (as himself)



Publications


By CAPRA: books—

The Name above the Title, New York, 1971.

It's a Wonderful Life, with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, New York, 1986.

By CAPRA: articles—

"The Gag Man," in Breaking into Movies, edited by Charles Jones, New York, 1927.

"Sacred Cows to the Slaughter," in Stage (New York), 13 July 1936.

"We Should All Be Actors," in Silver Screen (New York), September 1946.

"Do I Make You Laugh?," in Films and Filming (London), September 1962.

"Capra Today," with James Childs, in Film Comment (New York), vol.8, no.4, 1972.

"Mr. Capra Goes to College," with Arthur Bressan and Michael Moran, in Interview (New York), June 1972.

"Why We (Should Not) Fight," interview with G. Bailey, in TakeOne (Montreal), September 1975.

"'Trends Change Because Trends Stink'—An Outspoken Talk with Legendary Producer/Director Frank Capra," with Nancy Anderson, in Photoplay (New York), November 1975.

Interview with J. Mariani, in Focus on Film (London), no.27, 1977.

"Dialogue on Film," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1978.

Interview with H.A. Hargreave, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 9, no. 3, 1981.


On CAPRA: books—

Griffith, Richard, Frank Capra, London, 1951.

Silke, James, Frank Capra: One Man—One Film, Washington, D.C., 1971.

Bergman, Andrew, We're in the Money: Depression America and ItsFilms, New York, 1972.

Willis, Donald, The Films of Frank Capra, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1974.

Glatzer, Richard, and John Raeburn, editors, Frank Capra: The Manand His Films, Ann Arbor, 1975.

Poague, Leland, The Cinema of Frank Capra: An Approach to FilmComedy, South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1975.

Bohn, Thomas, An Historical and Descriptive Analysis of the 'WhyWe Fight' Series, New York, 1977.

Maland, Charles, American Visions: The Films of Chaplin, Ford,Capra and Welles, 1936–1941, New York, 1977.

Scherle, Victor, and William Levy, The Films of Frank Capra, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977.

Bohnenkamp, Dennis, and Sam Grogg, editors, Frank Capra StudyGuide, Washington, D.C., 1979.

Maland, Charles, Frank Capra, Boston, 1980.

Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Zagarrio, Vito, Frank Capra, Florence 1985.

Carney, Raymond, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, Cambridge, 1986.

Lazere, Donald, editor, American Media and Mass Culture: LeftPerspectives, Berkeley, 1987.

Wolfe, Charles, Frank Capra: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1987.

McBride, Joseph, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, New York, 1992.

On CAPRA: articles—

"How Frank Capra Makes a Hit Picture," in Life (New York), 19 September 1938.

Hellman, Geoffrey, "Thinker in Hollywood," in New Yorker, 5 February 1940.

Ferguson, Otis, "Democracy at the Box Office," in New Republic (New York), 24 March 1941.

Salemson, Harold, "Mr. Capra's Short Cuts to Utopia," in PenguinFilm Review no.7, London, 1948.

Deming, Barbara, "Non-Heroic Heroes," in Films in Review (New York), April 1951.

"Capra Issue" of Positif (Paris), December 1971.

Richards, Jeffrey, "Frank Capra: The Classic Populist," in Visions ofYesterday, London, 1973.

Nelson, J., "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Capra, Populism, and Comic-Strip Art," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Summer 1974.

Badder, D.J., "Frank Capra," in Film Dope (London), November 1974 and October 1975.

"Capra Issue" of Film Comment (New York), vol.8, no.4, 1972.

Sklar, Robert, "The Making of Cultural Myths: Walt Disney and Frank Capra," in Movie-made America, New York, 1975.

"Lost and Found: The Films of Frank Capra," in Film (London), June 1975.

Rose, B., "It's a Wonderful Life: The Stand of the Capra Hero," in Journal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), vol.6, no.2, 1977.

Quart, Leonard, "Frank Capra and the Popular Front," in Cineaste (New York), Summer 1977.

Gehring, Wes, "McCarey vs. Capra: A Guide to American Film Comedy of the '30s," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Bowling Green, Ohio), vol.7, no.1, 1978.

Dickstein, M., "It's a Wonderful Life, But. . . ," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1980.

Jameson, R.T., "Stanwyck and Capra," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1981.

"Capra Issue" of Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Winter 1981.

Basinger, Jeanine, "America's Love Affair with Frank Capra," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1982.

Edgerton, G., "Capra and Altman: Mythmaker and Mythologist," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1983.

Dossier on Capra, in Positif (Paris), July-August 1987.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1987.

Gottlieb, Sidney, "From Heroine to Brat: Frank Capra's Adaptation of "Night Bus" (It Happened One Night)," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 16, no. 2, 1988.

Baker, R., "Capra Beats the Game," in New York Times, 10 September 1991.

Obituary, in Newsweek, 16 September 1991.

Obituary, in Time, 16 September 1991.

Obituary, in Film Monthly (Berkhamstead), November 1991.

Everschor, Franz, "Mr. Perot geht nicht nach Washington," in Film-dienst (Cologne), 4 August 1992.

Smoodin, Eric, "'Compulsory' Viewing for Every Citizen: Mr. Smith and the Rhetoric of Reception," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Winter 1996.

Fallows, Randall, "George Bailey in the Vital Center: Postwar Liberal Politics and It's a Wonderful Life," in Joural of PopularFilm & Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1997.

Santaolalla, Isabel C., "East Is East and West Is West? Otherness in Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury), January 1998.


* * *

The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor. Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film, It's a Wonderful Life, was not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties. Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible "Capracorn" and have even less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its celebration of all-American values.

Indeed, many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success—his skill as a director of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town writes verse for greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.

Capra's career began in the pre-talkie era, when he directed silent comic Harry Langdon in two successful films. His action films of the early thirties are not characteristic of his later work, yet already, in the films he made with Barbara Stanwyck, his individual gift can be discerned. The narrative pretext of The Miracle Woman is the urgency of Stanwyck's voice, its ability to move an audience, to persuade listeners of its sincerity. Capra exploited the raw energy of Stanwyck in this and other roles, where her qualities of fervor and near-hysterical conviction are just as essential to her persona as her hard-as-nails implacability would be in the forties. Stanwyck's voice is theatricalized, spatialized in her revivalist circus-tent in The Miracle Woman and on the hero's suicide tower in Meet John Doe, where her feverish pleadings are the only possible tenor for the film's unresolved ambiguities about society and the individual.

John Doe is portrayed by Gary Cooper, another American voice with particular resonance in the films of Capra. A star who seems to have invented the "strong, silent" type, Cooper first plays Mr. Deeds, whose platitudinous doggerel comes from a simple, do-gooder heart, but who enacts a crisis of communication in his long silence at the film's climax, a sanity hearing. When Mr. Deeds finally speaks it is a sign that the community (if not sanity) is restored—the usual resolution of a Capra film. As John Doe, Cooper is given words to voice by reporter Stanwyck, and he delivers them with such conviction that the whole nation listens. The vocal/dramatic center of the film is located in a rain-drenched ball park filled with John Doe's "people." The hero's effort to speak the truth, to reveal his own imposture and expose the fascistic intentions of his sponsor, is stymied when the lines of communication are literally cut between microphone and loudspeaker. The Capra narrative so often hinges on the protagonist's ability to speak and be heard, on the drama of sound and audition.

The bank run in American Madness is initiated by a montage of telephone voices and images, of mouths spreading a rumor. The panic is quelled by the speech of the bank president (Walter Huston), a situation repeated in more modest physical surroundings in It's a Wonderful Life. The most extended speech in the films of Capra occurs in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The whole film is a test of the hero's voice, and it culminates in a filibuster, a speech that, by definition, cannot be interrupted. The climax of State of the Union involves a different kind of audience and audition. There, the hero confesses his political dishonesty and his love for his wife on television.

The visual contexts, both simple and complex, never detract from the sound of Capra's films. They enhance it. The director's most elaborately designed film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (recalling the style of Josef von Sternberg in its chiaroscuro lighting and its exoticism) expresses the opposition of cultural values in its visual elements, to be sure, but also in the voices of Stanwyck and Nils Asther, a Swedish actor who impersonates a Chinese war lord. Less unusual but not less significant harmonies are sounded in It Happened One Night, where a society girl (Claudette Colbert) learns "real" American speech from a fast-talking reporter (Clark Gable). The love scenes in Mr. Deeds are for Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, another quintessential Capra heroine, whose vocal personality is at least as memorable as her physical one. In James Stewart Capra finds his most disquieting voice, ranging in Mr. Smith from ingenuousness to hysterical desperation and in It's a Wonderful Life to an even higher pitch of hysteria when the hero loses his identity.

The sounds and sights of Capra's films bear the authority of a director whose autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects back on the director's own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.

—Charles Affron

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Capra, Frank

Frank Capra

Born May 18, 1897

Bisacquino, Sicily

Died September 3, 1991

La Quinta, California

Film director

Frank Capra was one of the most famous American film directors in the twentieth century. Three times he earned Academy Awards for best director for the movies It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). During World War II (193945), Capra produced the film series Why We Fight for the U.S. War Department. His military service earned him the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest American military decoration for non-combat service.

As a film director, Capra was a poet of the personal and the moral rather than the social and the political. He focused on the way individuals react to situations and each other rather than on the situation itself. People responded to his films because they were idealistic, patriotic, and full of optimism. The 1930s had been a dark decade due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression (192941), and people were looking to escape the despair surrounding them. Capra's war films celebrated common people and their all-American values. His films were simplistic and suited the spirit of the times.

Coming to America

Francesco Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily, at the family home facing the church of his patron saint, San Francesco di Paola. His father, Salvatore Capra, was called Turiddu, the Italian equivalent of Sammy. His mother, Rosaria Nicolosi, was called Sara or Saridda Capra. When Frank was six years old, his peasant parents took him and his three siblings to America on a French steerage ship called the SS Germania. In thirteen days the family landed at Ellis Island in New York before making the cross-country trip that reunited them with Frank's older brother in Los Angeles, California. In 1903 the city was a vast stretch of fruit orchards and vegetable fields populated by less than two hundred thousand people. The neighborhoods where the Capras settled comprised a mix of ethnic groups, including Russian Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Germans, Irish, Orientals, Mexicans, Italians, and black Americans.

Frank worked his way through grammar school and high school and then the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in June 1918. The world was at war when he graduated from college and Frank enlisted at the U.S. Army recruiting station with the hopes of serving abroad. However, he was assigned to teach ballistic mathematics to artillery officers at Fort Mason in San Francisco. When World War I (191418) ended, jobs were scarce and Frank could not find an engineering job. He worked around the West Coast selling books, tutoring students, and doing odd jobs for a living. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1920 and registered his legal name as Frank Russell Capra.

Hollywood

In 1922 Frank Capra talked his way into directing a one-reel, short film titled Fultah Fisher's Boarding House. This was the beginning of his rise through the ranks in Hollywood. In 1927 he went to work as a company director for Columbia Pictures, located off Sunset Boulevard on Poverty Row, where funding was severely limited. Silent films were disappearing in favor of "talkies" (movies with sound) and Capra was to make Columbia's first sound picture in 1928. He became known as a reliable craftsman of efficient and profitable productions. His comedies always contained aspects of the improbable, the fantastic, and the unexpected. Part of Capra's mastery of the film medium was his success in allowing the viewer to experience what the actors were experiencing. It left the audience with the feeling that life was both miraculous and wonderful. His genre (type of film) of choice was comedy because he always wanted happy endings.

Capra married Lucille Warner Reyburn in 1932 and the two began a family. In 1930 Capra left Columbia Pictures and formed his own production company with Robert Riskin, the principal writer with whom Capra would produce most of his major films. They called their company Frank Capra Productions. Their first film, Meet John Doe (1941), was a relative box office disappointment. The filming of the company's last film Arsenic And Old Lace, began in 1941 but, due to the outbreak of war, would not be released until 1944.

Why We Fight

On December 12, 1941, five days after the devastating Japanese surprise attack on U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Frank Capra was back in the army. He joined the Signal Corps with a major's commission. As a leading motion picture director of the time, he was called on to devote his filmmaking talent to the American effort, aimed at improving army morale. His unit of Special Services was only one of many government film units in existence at the time. His project, the Why We Fight films, would ultimately cost about four hundred thousand dollars, or less than 1 percent of the fifty million dollars the War Department spent on films during the war. Most of the army's filmmaking budget was being spent on combat photography and training films.

The Army Orientation Course was organized in 1940 in order to give the typical American GI an overview of the war. Presented in a series of pamphlets and fifteen lectures, it was a factual but rather dull approach to education that left most recruits uninspired. General George C. Marshall (18801959) realized that film was the best medium for providing information and affecting people. In 1942 he called on Capra, a great storyteller, to show the new draftees what they were fighting for. Capra went to the New York Museum of Modern Art and watched all of the German Nazi propaganda (information designed to shape public opinions, usually by a government) films in their collection. The most important film he viewed was Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). The film showed the Nazi's 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress with mythic imagery. Capra considered it the greatest propaganda film anyone had ever made. Riefenstahl used staged events along with music and her editing skills to create a powerful film that was such a psychological weapon it would motivate a nation and terrify an enemy. Capra decided to copy her style.

America Speaks Films

In addition to informational movies produced by the military for wartime needs during World War II (193945), such as the Why We Fight series by Frank Capra, the Office of War Information (OWI), under the guidance of playwright Sam Spewack (18991971) also made government informational films. The OWI films played up U.S. successes on the home front, such as the miracles of industrial production. Many of these movies proved very popular with the public. Included were fifty-two informational short films called the America Speaks series. These OWI films were also known as Victory Films. Half of the series was written by the OWI staff; Hollywood studios wrote the other half.

The America Speaks films were to be shown at movie theaters along with the regular movie features. The OWI, through its Bureau of Motion Pictures, also made 16-mm films for showing at community centers such as schools and churches. These films proved very popular and reached a large audience. By the beginning of 1943, almost five million people had seen OWI film productions at more than thirty-one thousand showings.

His experience from the early days working for Columbia Pictures on Poverty Row would come in handy during Capra's wartime service. Due to budget constraints most of Capra's films were made out of existing footage. Some came from newsreels and other propaganda and combat films, and some came from Hollywood entertainment films. There were also re-creations of newspaper headlines and animated

war maps. Capra was responsible for producing a series of motion pictures that explained the war to the common soldier while motivating each one to fight. He showed them what the enemy was capable of as well as what they stood to lose personally and as a nation, should the battle be lost. Capra used his expert editing skills in the films he was creating to simultaneously show differences between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The films provided a means of highlighting the moral battle Americans faced. Along the way, Capra received several promotions for his efforts.

Capra's Why We Fight series for the War Department began with the Oscar-winning film Prelude to War. The series originally was not intended for screening to the general public, but after General Marshall saw the rough-cut of Prelude to War in August 1942, he told Capra the film should be shown to the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) agreed. Even British prime minister Winston Churchill (18741965) ordered that all of the films be shown in British theaters and recorded a foreword for British audiences under Capra's direction.

The films The Nazis Strike, Divide and Conquer, and The Battle of Britain were produced in 1943. The Battle of Russia and The Battle of China followed in 1944. The series was completed when War Comes to America came out in 1945. After screening his films at the Pentagon, Capra would take them to the White House in the evening to view them with the president and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (18671950; see entry).

Capra's film unit completed a wide variety of projects before his discharge in June 1945. However, the Why We Fight series revolutionized documentary filmmaking and military training methods. On the day before he left Washington, Marshall summoned Capra into his office and pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on him. The citation stated, "The films produced by Colonel Capra under the direction of the Chief of Staff had an important influence on the morale of the Army. Colonel Capra also rendered an important service as Chief of the Army Motion Picture Unit and as Assistant Chief of the Army Pictorial Service."

Going home

After four years in the military, Frank Capra returned to Hollywood and an uncertain future. He and a group of other prominent directors cofounded the independent production company Liberty Pictures. For its first film the company reunited director Capra with actor Jimmy Stewart (19081997), who was also returning to Hollywood from service as a decorated pilot in the Air Corps. Liberty Pictures produced the film It's A Wonderful Life, which continued to be shown each Christmas in the United States into the twenty-first century. It was Capra's favorite film, but it was not a commercial success when released in 1946. In 1948 Liberty Pictures was sold to Paramount.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Capra found theaters no longer full and his optimistic spirit no longer in tune with the spirit of the times. Capra had a record of deeply felt patriotism toward his adopted country. To his personal dismay, he was investigated as a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was called to testify against others in the movie industry. The government feared that Communism had infiltrated America during the war and was especially concerned about Hollywood because of its influence on the nation. The elements of social criticism in Capra's films, along with his personal and professional associations in the business, cast suspicion on him during this postwar period.

Capra retired to La Quinta, California, where he wrote his autobiography and toured colleges lecturing on films. In 1982 he was awarded the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. His beloved wife, Lucille, died in 1984. Capra suffered a stroke in 1985 and remained in poor health until his death in La Quinta on September 3, 1991.

For More Information

Books

Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Maland, Charles J. Frank Capra. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Poague, Leland A. The Cinema of Frank Capra. Cranbury, NJ: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1975.

Schickel, Richard. The Men Who Made the Movies. New York: Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 1975.

Web sites

"Frank Capra." University of San Diego, History Department. http://history.acusd.edu/gen/filmnotes/capra.html (accessed on July 21, 2004).

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Frank Capra

Frank Capra

Filmmaker Frank Capra (1897-1991) was 1930s Hollywood's top director, creating several immensely popular movies that captured the mood of the Depression-era United States and earning more Academy Award nominations than any of his contemporaries.

"Capracorn" is the term some use to describe Frank Capra's style of movie-making, but even if his films feel too sentimental to many critics and moviegoers, there is no denying the mastery he had of the film medium or that he developed a style uniquely his own. In the 1930s, he was the top director in Hollywood, turning out a series of films that touched the hopes and fears of the nation as it struggled through the Great Depression and, in the process, Capra garnered more Oscar nominations for himself and his pictures than any other filmmaker of the decade.

Stumbled Into Film Career

The youngest child in a large Sicilian family, Frank was six years old when his family joined the stream of European immigrants coming to the United States. Ending up in Los Angeles, he fought to go to college against his parents wishes; and he always looked back on his decision to attend the California Institute of Technology as one of the most important of his life. After serving stateside in the army, he had trouble finding well paying work, despite the being the only college-educated kid in a family that was otherwise fully employed. He was bumming around San Francisco when he answered an advertisement placed in the paper by an old Shakespearean actor looking for a director to shoot him in screen versions of his favorite poetry.

Capra turned out films based on poems such as Rudyard Kipling's "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" and then sold them to the regular studios for a profit. After a series of these, Capra went to work for Harry Cohn who ran a small company called CBC that would grow into Columbia Pictures. For a while, Capra also worked in comedy, most notably with Harry Langdon, a silent clown usually placed fourth in the pantheon of great silent comedians after Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. It was with Langdon that Capra made his first feature films, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants. All were successful, but Langdon wanted to direct his own movies, and he fired Capra. Langdon's career went into decline, and Capra went back to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia.

He turned out a series of action movies that did not really yet bear the Capra personal touches, but the films were well made and tended to do very well at the box office. It was in this period that Capra made his first "talkie," The Younger Generation. In 1930, Capra began working with a writer named Jo Swerling after Swerling attacked one of his scripts in front of Harry Cohn. Impressed with Swerling's criticisms, Capra asked Cohn to hire the New York writer. Swerling was an important influence on Capra, and their first film together, Ladies of Leisure, starred Barbara Stanwyck and showed Capra finding his distinctive voice.

Won Oscars

Although both Swerling and Stanwyck became regulars in the Capra stable, Capra's breakthrough project was written with another writer, Robert Riskin. It Happened One Night won the Best Picture Oscar and Oscars for Capra as director—one of three he would win, all in that decade— and for both of its leads, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. One of the most famous scenes takes place on a broken down bus in which the riders, to entertain themselves, begin singing together the old song, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." It is vintage Frank Capra material, offering a vision of a world in which social distinctions are broken down and a democratic camaraderie holds sway across class lines.

His next big film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which won Capra another Oscar for Best Director, was also written by Robert Riskin. In it, Capra's belief in the goodness of the common man—as opposed to the greed of businessmen and the corruption of politicians—came even more to the fore. When Mr. Deeds becomes wealthy through an inheritance, he decides to give a significant part of his fortune to the poor. This leads his family to try to have him declared insane. At his trial, Mr. Deeds, played by Gary Cooper, refuses to speak in his own defense until his own faith in the goodness of humanity is restored. Of course as his faith is restored, so is the audience's; the film ends happily.

The next year he made Lost Horizon, a film that some critics say reveals some fascistic tendencies under his populism. In 1938, he turned a popular Kaufmann-Hart play, You Can't Take It With You, into a film very personal to himself. Picking up his third Oscar for Direction, he told the story of the love of a common, if eccentric, woman (Jean Arthur) saving the soul of a millionaire's son (Jimmy Stewart). It was Capra's first film with Stewart.

The next year they would make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is the perfect expression of Capra's political belief that the innocent idealism of one man can beat the entrenched moneyed interests of cynical politicians and industrialists, even when the have a corrupt media on their side. The film culminates in the hero's 23-hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate where he refuses to be licked. The fact that no real political progress has been made by the film's happy conclusion seems to have occurred to Capra too. At one point, Mr. Smith admits that "the only causes worth fighting for are lost causes." Stewart was perfect in the title role.

World War II Intervened

With Jimmy Stewart, even more than with Gary Cooper, Capra found the actor capable of bearing the burden of Capra's exalted vision of the common man as hero in a bad situation. As Charles Affron has written in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, "In James Stewart, Capra finds his most disquieting voice, ranging in Mr. Smith from ingenuousness to hysterical desperation, and in It's a Wonderful Life, to an even higher pitch of hysteria when the hero loses his identity." A good case can be made that the change in America's self-image caused by the Second World War can be seen in the change in Jimmy Stewart's self-image in these two films. Mr. Smith in the end manages to maintain his idealism, but George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life, goes through a much darker metamorphosis with a tacked-on happy ending. Capra's last film before the United States entered the war was Meet John Doe, starring Gary Cooper. As the editors of World Film Directors have written, "Meet John Doe, made at the end of the isolationist period when war with the axis seemed imminent, has been taken as a deliberate reaffirmation of American values, but one that reveals a surprising uncertainty about their survival and perhaps even about their nature."

During the Second World War, Capra entered the armed services and made propaganda films for the Allies. Winston Churchill was a particular fan of Capra's propaganda films, considering them the finest made on the Allied side. After the War, Capra started his own film company, Liberty Films Inc., and made It's a Wonderful Life, the story of an extraordinary but profoundly discouraged man who around Christmas is allowed to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born. A sort of modern day Christmas Carol, the film would become one of the classics of the American screen; but on its release, it was not a success. His next film, the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn vehicle, State of the Union was a mean-spirited and confused political picture that did nothing to bolster Capra's sagging reputation.

He made only five more films, and none could be called an artistic success of the quality of his depression era films or of It's a Wonderful Life. He made his last film, Pocketful of Miracles, featuring a fine Bette Davis performance in 1961. It was another box office disappointment, and he would live another 30 years without going behind the camera again. In 1971, he published his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, which has remained one of the better selling movie industry reminiscences.

Although he does not have a critical reputation approaching John Ford's, Howard Hawk's or Orson Welles's, Frank Capra's best films are still popular with audiences; and if his vision of America is much simpler than John Ford's, perhaps just for that reason, it has remained especially popular with the young people who gravitate toward Capra's idealistic, non-materialistic heroes. In the end, it was probably the simplicity of his vision—wedded to a complex mastery of the film form itself—which has made him so enduringly popular. If the Second World War marked the point when his filmmaking went into decline— It's a Wonderful Life, not withstanding—it was probably because the naïveté of his world view could not live on long in the complex political realities of the Cold War.

Further Reading

Thomas, Nicholas, and Charles Affron, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, No. 2, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 113-116. □

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Capra, Frank

Frank Capra

Born: May 18, 1897
Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Died: September 3, 1991
Los Angeles, California

Italian-born American filmmaker

Filmmaker Frank Capra was Hollywood's top director in the 1930s. He created several immensely popular movies that captured the mood of the Depression-era United States, and he earned more Academy Award nominations than any of his contemporaries.

Early years and education

Frank Capra was born in Palermo, Sicily, Italy, on May 18, 1897, the youngest of Salvatore and Sarah Nicolas Capra's seven children. His father was a fruitgrower. When Frank was six years old his family left Sicily for the United States, ending up in Los Angeles, California. Capra fought to go to college against his parents' wishes, working several jobs to pay his way through the California Institute of Technology. After graduating and serving in the army, he had trouble finding a decent job. His relatives on the other hand, none of whom had college degrees, were all employed. While in San Francisco, California, Capra, with twelve cents to his name, answered a newspaper advertisement placed by an actor who was looking for a director to help him create film versions of his favorite poetry.

Begins film career

Capra turned out films based on poems such as Rudyard Kipling's (18651936) "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House." He then sold them to the regular movie studios for a profit. After a series of these, Capra went to work for Harry Cohn, who ran a small company called CBC, which would grow into Columbia Pictures. For a while Capra also worked with Harry Langdon (18841944), a famous comedian of the silent movie era. It was with Langdon that Capra made his first feature films, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants. All were successful, but Langdon wanted to direct his own movies, so he fired Capra. Capra went back to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia.

Capra turned out a series of action movies that were well made and did very well at the box office. It was in this period that Capra made his first film with sound, The Younger Generation. In 1930 Capra began working with a writer named Jo Swerling after Swerling attacked one of his scripts in front of Harry Cohn. Impressed with Swerling's criticisms, Capra asked Cohn to hire the New York writer. Swerling was an important influence on Capra. Their first film together, Ladies of Leisure, starred Barbara Stanwyck (19071990) and showed Capra developing his personal style.

Won Oscars

Although Capra worked regularly with both Swerling and Stanwyck, his breakthrough project came from another writer, Robert Riskin (18971955). It Happened One Night won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), and Best Actor and Actress (Clark Gable [19011960] and Claudette Colbert [19031996], respectively). One of the most famous scenes takes place on a broken down bus in which the riders, to entertain themselves, sing "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." It is vintage Frank Capra material, offering a vision of a world in which social differences are broken down and a democratic feeling of togetherness is achieved.

Capra's next big film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, also written by Riskin, won Capra another Oscar for Best Director. In it Capra's belief in the goodness of the common man shows through more clearly. When Mr. Deeds becomes wealthy through an inheritance, he decides to give a significant part of his fortune to the poor. This leads his family to try to have him declared insane. At his trial, Mr. Deeds, played by Gary Cooper (19011961), refuses to speak in his own defense until his own faith in the goodness of humanity is restored. As his faith is restored, so is the audience's, and the film ends happily. In 1938 Capra won his third Best Director Oscar for You Can't Take It With You, an adaptation of a popular play. It is the story of a common woman, played by Jean Arthur, whose love saves the soul of a millionaire's son, played by Jimmy Stewart (19081997). It was Capra's first film with Stewart.

The next year Capra and Stewart would make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the perfect expression of Capra's political belief that the innocent goodness of one man can overcome the greed and cynicism (distrust) of politicians, industrialists (those who own or manage an industry), and the media. The film ends with the hero's twenty-three-hour speech on the floor of the Senate where he refuses to be defeated. At one point Mr. Smith admits that "the only causes worth fighting for are lost causes."

War intervenes

In Jimmy Stewart Capra found an actor capable of expressing the theme of a common man as hero in a bad situation. A good case can be made that the change in America's self-image caused by World War II (193945; a war fought between the AxisGermany, Italy, and Japanand the AlliesEngland, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States) can be seen in the change in Jimmy Stewart's self-image in his two most famous roles for Capra. At the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Smith manages to maintain his hopeful attitude, while George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life goes through a much darker change to find happiness. Capra's last film before the United States entered the war was Meet John Doe, starring Gary Cooper.

During World War II Capra entered the armed services and made propaganda (ideas spread to further a cause or belief) films for the Allies. They were considered the finest films made on the Allied side. After the war Capra started his own film company, Liberty Films Inc. It was then that he made It's a Wonderful Life, the story of an extraordinary but deeply discouraged man who, around Christmas, is allowed to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born. The film would become one of the classics of the American screen, but when it was released, it was not a success. His next film, State of the Union with Spencer Tracy (19001967) and Katherine Hepburn (1907), was a mean-spirited and confusing political picture that did nothing to bolster Capra's sagging reputation.

Later years

Capra made only five more films, and none was comparable to the artistic success of his earlier efforts or of It's a Wonderful Life. He made his last film, Pocketful of Miracles, in 1961. It was another box office disappointment, and from then until his death in 1991 he never got behind the camera again. In 1971, he published his autobiography, The Name Above the Title.

Although Frank Capra does not have a reputation among critics equal to those of other directors, his best films are still popular with audiences, especially with young people who identify with Capra's heroes. In the end it is probably his simple visioncombined with a mastery of the film form itselfthat has made him so enduringly popular.

For More Information

Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title; an Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1971. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.

McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

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Capra, Frank

Frank Capra (kăp´rə), 1897–1991, American film director, b. Bisaquino, Sicily. One of the preeminent Hollywood directors of the 1930s and 40s, he produced idealistic populist movies that, sometimes amusingly and sometimes sentimentally but nearly always optimistically, celebrate the virtues of the common American. His family emigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled in Los Angeles. Starting in the movies in the early 1920s, he became a feature film director with Harry Langdon comedies, achieved commercial success with Platinum Blonde (1931), and won his first Academy Award with the "screwball" romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934).

Capra's naively decent American heroes triumph over the forces of greed, cynicism, corruption, or self-doubt in such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936; Academy Award), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and the richly textured classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Among his movie-making innovations were accelerated pacing, conversational and sometimes overlapping dialogue, and previews that gauged audience reaction. Capra's many other films include Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You (1938; Academy Award), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), State of the Union (1948), A Hole in the Head (1959), and his last, Pocketful of Miracles (1961).

See his autobiography (1971); biography by J. McBride (1992, repr. 2000); C. Wolfe, Frank Capra: A Guide to References and Resources (1987).

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Capra, Frank

Capra, Frank (1897–1991) US film director, b. Sicily. During the 1930s Depression, Capra made a string of successful screwball comedies. His central theme was the unlikely triumph of idealism and the common man over materialism and bureaucracy. He won three Academy Awards for best director: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). During World War II he directed propaganda films. It's a Wonderful Life (1947), perhaps Capra's best film, was a commercial failure.

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