Capra, Frank (1897-1991)

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Capra, Frank (1897-1991)

Although he is one of the most successful and popular directors of all time, Frank Capra is seldom mentioned as one of Hollywood's great film auteurs. During his peak, as well as in the years that followed, critics referred to his work as simplistic or overly idealistic, and labeled his unique handling of complex social issues as "Capri-corn." The public on the other hand loved his films and came back again and again to witness a triumph of the individual (predicated on the inherent qualities of kindness and caring for others) over corrupt leaders who were dominating an ambivalent society.

The Italian-born Capra moved to the United States at age six, where he lived the "American Dream" he would later romanticize in his films. Living in Los Angeles and working to support himself through school, he sold newspapers, and worked as a janitor before graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering from Caltech (then called Throop Polytechnic Institute) in 1918. After serving in the military Capra stumbled onto an opportunity in San Francisco when he talked his way into directing the one-reel drama Ballad of Fultah Fisher's Boarding House in 1922. The experience was significant in that it convinced the young engineer to move back to Los Angeles and pursue a film, rather than an engineering, career. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Capra began the process of learning the film business from the ground up. Starting as a propman and later becoming a "gag writer," Capra worked with directors Hal Roach and Mack Sennett before hooking up as a director with silent comedian Harry Langdon.

Capra directed parts of three films produced during the peak of Langdon's career, including The Strong Man (1926), before the two went their separate ways. Langdon is rumored to have tarnished the young Capra's name, which, despite his success, made it impossible for him to find work in Hollywood. Unwilling to give up, Capra went to New York for an opportunity to make a film with a new actress, Claudette Colbert, titled For The Love of Mike (1927). Although the film was Capra's first flop, he signed a contract with studio head Harry Cohn and began his relationship with Columbia Pictures. Capra remained at Columbia for 11 years, and during this time he made at least 25 films. All but two of them made money for the studio and Capra is credited by many as being the key to Columbia's rise to the status of "major" Hollywood studio.

During his early years with Columbia some of Capra's most memorable works were the "service films" including: Submarine (1928), Flight (1929), and Dirigible (1931). While producing profitable films at a fast pace for the studio, Capra decided in 1931 that he wanted to tackle tougher social issues. While the country was in the throes of the Depression, Capra hooked up with writer/collaborator Robert Riskin, with whom he worked off and on for almost 20 years. Together, Capra and Riskin produced a string of five Oscar-nominated films between 1933 and 1938. Included in this group were: Lady for a Day (1933, nominated for Best Picture and Best Director); It Happened One Night (1934, winner Best Director); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, nominated Best Picture, winner Best Director); Lost Horizon (1937, nominated Best Picture); and You Can't Take it With You (1938, winner Best Picture and Best Director). Although Capra continued to collaborate with Riskin on two of his most memorable works, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) were penned in collaboration with others. It is, of course, impossible to gauge how much credit Riskin deserves for Capra's meteoric rise in Hollywood. Some observers have suggested that even though Riskin wasn't involved in films like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the form and structure clearly follow the pattern the two successfully developed during their years of collaboration. Others, like Capra himself, would point to the successful films without Riskin as proof that the common denominator was the individual who insisted his name come before the title of the film. Capra even called his autobiography The Name Above the Title, and claims that he was the first to be granted this status. Whether or not Capra's claim has validity, there is no doubt that people all over the country flocked to the theaters during the 1930s and 1940s to see films directed by Frank Capra.

Capra's films regularly engaged political and social issues, and in his professional life he was equally active. Capra served as the President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences during a crucial period of its development. During his tenure Capra oversaw a strengthening of the Academy and their annual Oscar banquet. In 1936 he worked with the Screenwriters Guild to avoid a boycott of the awards banquet, and in 1939 while serving as head of the Directors Guild, Capra resigned his post with the Academy to lead a director's boycott of the Oscars which was instrumental in gaining key concessions from the Academy. Never afraid to tackle tough political issues in his films, Capra was no stranger to controversy or difficult decisions in his professional career either.

While most of us today know Capra best from the perennial holiday favorite It's A Wonderful Life, the Capra myth is most solidly grounded in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. After the film was previewed in Washington, D.C., it is rumored that Columbia was offered $2 million (twice the cost of the film) not to release the film. The alleged leader of this movement to shelve the film was Joseph P. Kennedy, who was then Ambassador to Great Britain. Kennedy was not alone in his concern over the film's impact. In response to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Pat Harrison, the respected publisher of the Harrison Reports, asked exhibitors to appeal to Congress for the right to refuse films that were "not in the interests of our country." Ironically, this film was perhaps Capra's most patriotic moment—presenting the individual working within the democratic system to overcome rampant political corruption. Needless to say, Capra and Columbia refused to have the film shelved. The status of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was further established several years later when the French were asked what films they wanted to see prior to the occupation, and the overwhelming choice was none other than Capra's testimony for the perseverance of democracy and the American way, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Following Mr. Smith, Capra demonstrated his patriotic duty by enlisting in the United States Signal Corps during World War II. Although he had served in the military before, and was old enough to sit this one out, Capra had an intense desire to prove his patriotism to his adopted land. While a member of the Armed Forces, Capra oversaw the production of 11 documentaries under the series title Why We Fight. The series was originally intended to indoctrinate American troops and explain why it was necessary for them to fight the Second World War. When the first documentaries were completed Army and government officials found them so powerful that they felt the films should also be released to theaters so that everyone in America could see them. Considered by many to be some of the best propaganda films ever made, the Why We Fight series is still broadcast and used as a teaching tool today.

Following the war, Capra found success with It's A Wonderful Life and State of the Union, but he increasingly came to feel out of step with a changing film industry. While his themes had struck a chord with the Depression era society, his films seemed saccharin and out of touch in prospering post-war America. Moving to Paramount in 1950, Capra claimed that he became so disillusioned with the studio that he quit making films by 1952. In his autobiography he blames his retirement on the rising power of film stars (compromising the ability to realize his artistic vision), and the increasing budgetary and scheduling demands that studios placed upon him. Joseph McBride, in The Catastrophe of Success, however, points out that Capra's disillusionment coincided with the questions and difficulties surrounding the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) communist witch-hunt, which ended many Hollywood careers.

During a regrettable period of postwar hysteria Capra, despite his military service and decorations, was a prime-target for Senator Joseph McCarthy's Red-baiting committee. Although Capra was never called to testify, his past associations with blacklisted screenwriters such as Sydney Buchman, Albert Hackett, Ian McLelan Hunter, Calrton Moss, and Dalton Trumbo (to name a few) led to his being "greylisted" (but employable). Determined to demonstrate his loyalty he attempted to rejoin the military for the Korean War, but was refused. When invited as a civilian to participate in the Defense Department's Think Tank project, VISTA, he jumped at the opportunity, but was later denied necessary clearance. These two rejections were devastating to the man who had made a career of demonstrating American ideals in film. Capra later learned that his application to the VISTA was denied because he was part of a picket-line in the 1930s, sponsored Russian War Relief, was active in the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties (which defended communists), contributed to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee in the 1940s, and had a number of associates who were linked to the Communist Party.

Significantly, Capra made few films once the blacklisting began, and none of them approached his previous critical and box office success. By 1952, at the age of 55, Capra effectively retired from feature filmmaking to work with Caltech and produce educational programs on science. Once one of the most popular and powerful storytellers in the world, Capra's disenchantment with the business and political climate of filmmaking left him disconnected from a culture that was rapidly changing. Although he did make two more major motion pictures A Hole in the Head (1959) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Capra would never again return to the perch he occupied so long atop the filmmaking world. In 1971 he penned his autobiography The Name Above the Title, which served to revive interest in his work and cement his idea of "one man, one film." And since his death in 1991, Frank Capra has been honored as one of the seminal figures in the American century of the cinema.

—James Friedman

Further Reading:

American Film Institute. Frank Capra: Study Guide. Washington D.C., The Institute, 1979.

Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York, Macmillan 1971.

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

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Maland, Charles J. Frank Capra. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

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

Sklar, Robert and Vito Zagarrio, editors. Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998.