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:
Fultah Fisher's Boarding House
The Strong Man (+ co-sc)
Long Pants; For the Love of Mike
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)
The Younger Generation; The Donovan Affair; Flight (+ dialogue)
Ladies of Leisure; Rain or Shine
Dirigible; The Miracle Woman; Platinum Blonde
Forbidden (+ sc); American Madness
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (+ pr); Lady for a Day
It Happened One Night ; Broadway Bill
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (+ pr)
Lost Horizon (+ pr)
You Can't Take It with You (+ pr)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (+ pr)
Meet John Doe (+ pr)
Why We Fight (Part 1): Prelude to War (+ pr)
Why We Fight (Part 2): The Nazis Strike (co-d, pr); Why We Fight (Part 3): Divide and Conquer (co-d, pr)
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)
Know Your Enemy: Japan (co-d, pr); Two Down, One to Go (+ pr)
It's a Wonderful Life (+ pr, co-sc)
State of the Union (+ pr)
Riding High (+ pr)
Here Comes the Groom (+ pr)
Our Mr. Sun (+ pr, sc) (Bell System Science Series Numbers 1 to 4)
Hemo the Magnificent (+ pr, sc); The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (+ pr, co-sc)
The Unchained Goddess (+ pr, co-sc)
A Hole in the Head (+ pr)
Pocketful of Miracles (+ pr)
(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
(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
(as co-sc with Arthur Ripley on films featuring Harry Langdon): Fiddlesticks; The Soldier Man; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp
Why We Fight (Part 4): The Battle of Britain (pr)
The Negro Soldier (pr); Why We Fight (Part 5): The Battle of Russia (pr); Know Your Ally: Britain (pr)
Why We Fight (Part 7): War Comes to America (pr); Know Your Enemy: Germany (pr)
Westward the Women (story)
Frank Capra (Schickel) (as himself)
Hollywood (Brownlow, Gill—doc) (as himself)
The 10th American Film Institute Life Achievement Award: A Salute to Frank Capra
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (as himself)
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.
Born May 18, 1897
Died September 3, 1991
La Quinta, California
American film director
At the peak of his career as a Hollywood film director, Frank Capra was beloved by the moviegoing public and acclaimed by critics for his films portraying honest, hardworking "little guys" who triumph over seemingly unbeatable obstacles and more powerful and deceitful opponents. Capra's background as a film director made him an ideal choice to produce a series of inspirational documentary films that aimed to help American troops understand why the United States had entered the war.
A strong desire to succeed
Born in Bisaquino, Sicily (an island off the coast of Italy), Capra moved to the United States with his family when he was six years old. They settled in East Los Angeles, California, and his father worked picking oranges. One of seven children, Capra took a variety of jobs to help support his family (and eventually to pay for college), including selling newspapers and playing the banjo in local bars. He later wrote in his autobiography, "My goal was to leap across the tracks—to rise above the muck and meanness of peasant poverty. I wanted freedom from established caste systems, and … freedom could only be won by success."
Capra graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in engineering—but the year was 1918 and the United States had entered World War I (1914-18). He immediately enlisted in the army. When the war was over, Capra couldn't find any work as an engineer, so he began to drift around the West, earning money by playing poker and selling books.
Capra was living in San Francisco in 1922. Down on his luck, he met some filmmakers who had formed a small film production company. Even though he didn't know anything about making movies, Capra convinced them to let him direct a film. Capra received $75 for his work on the film, which was an adaptation of a poem by English poet Rudyard Kipling, called Fultah Fisher's Boarding House.
A film industry apprentice
Enjoying his experience as a director, Capra became interested in the film industry. He was hired as an apprentice at a film laboratory, where he worked in exchange for food and lodging. Next he got a job with a Hollywood director, Bob Eddy, as a propman and editor. Then he was hired to write jokes for a studio run by Hal Roach, but his new employers didn't find him very funny and he was fired after six months. Nevertheless, Capra got another job writing jokes, this time for director Mack Sennett. He was assigned to work with Harry Langdon, a comic actor who was popular in silent movies. When Langdon moved over to the First National studio in 1926, he took Capra with him as his director. It was at First National that Capra co-wrote and co-directed Langdon's hit movie Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) and directed two subsequent hits, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927).
A successful career is launched
After being fired by Harry Langdon over a dispute about who deserved the most credit for the partners' success, Capra worked for Mack Sennett again. The turning point in Capra's career came in 1928, when he was hired as a director for Columbia Pictures. The executives at Columbia gave Capra complete freedom to make the kind of films he liked, and it also paired him with a talented screenwriter, Robert Riskin, who had formerly worked as a journalist and playwright. With Riskin's help, Capra put out a long series of highly successful films during the 1930s and early 1940s.
The typical Capra film is a comedic fable (a story intended to teach a lesson) featuring an idealistic central character. This unlikely hero overcomes tremendous odds and triumphs over the forces of cynicism and materialism. The film may touch on darker themes but invariably ends in a mood of rosy optimism. Praised for his skill in handling actors, staging complex scenes, and recreating authentically American dialogue onscreen, Capra received best director Oscars (the awards given each year by the Academy of Motion Pictures) for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). Another acclaimed film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), starred James Stewart as an idealistic freshman senator who finds himself immersed in political corruption.
Capra's outlook was essentially optimistic, and the world he created in his films was one in which the good and pure of heart won out over evil and corruption. Presented with a mixture of sentiment and screwball comedy (later known as "Capracorn"), these themes played very well with audiences beaten down by the Great Depression (a period of economic decline and hardship that lasted from 1929 to 1939), who flocked to Capra's films in great numbers.
The U.S. Army recruits Capra
One of Capra's highest-ranking fans was General George Marshall (1880-1959; see entry), the army's chief of staff (top officer). Soon after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, General Marshall decided it would be a good idea to make some films for the troops to educate them about why the United States was fighting. These films would be a form a propaganda, which is material put out by a government or other group that is intended to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint; propaganda may be based on either facts or opinion.
Marshall felt it was important that the producer be someone who knew how to make entertaining films, and that the best person for the job was Frank Capra. For his part, Capra was eager to contribute to his country's war effort, and he especially wanted to counter the mood of pessimism and despair he felt had overtaken many people. Capra was made a major in the Signal Corps, the branch of the military that handled training films. He arrived in Washington on February 15, 1942, and immediately faced a power struggle with other officers in the Signal Corps who felt Capra was ill equipped to educate soldiers.
This conflict was resolved by June through the creation of a special unit, the 834th Signal Services Photographic Detachment, which included eight officers and thirty-five enlisted men under Capra's command (by 1943 the staff had grown to 150). Because he did not have a very big budget to work with (the total cost of Capra's films came to only $400,000, which was less than 1 percent of the $50 million the War Department spent on films during the war), Capra realized he was going to have to rely on "found footage." This term referred to film that already had been shot and could be reused, whether it came from newsreels, Allied or enemy propaganda, combat films, or even entertainment films.
Thus Capra was not really the director of these films, because very little new footage was shot. It is more accurate to call him the "executive producer" (the title he used to describe his role), and to give him credit for shaping the films through his expert editing and his choice of content—which was based on guidance from the army and subject to approval by Marshall, the secretary of war, and other high-level officials.
Getting started on Why We Fight
Homesick for his family—wife Lucille, two sons, and a daughter—Capra moved them to the Washington, D.C., area, and he recruited a group of skilled screenwriters from Hollywood to work as "expert consultants" in putting together an effective script (which would be narrated by actor Walter Huston, who had appeared in one of Capra's hit movies). Some of these writers were later dismissed due to fears that they might slip a pro-Communist message into the films. During the Depression, some Americans had turned toward communism as an answer to the nation's problems, but now the tide was turning amid fears that communism threatened the American political system and way of life.
Looking for ideas to inspire him, Capra visited New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), along with Russianborn director Anatole Litvak who had directed films in Germany from 1927 to 1933 and who would work closely with Capra on his war films. They watched all of the Nazi propaganda films in MOMA's collection (the Nazis were Germany's ruling National Socialist Party, headed by Adolf Hitler). The most impressive of these propaganda films was director Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). This film of the Nazis' 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress presented the event as a grandiose spectacle with music that powerfully underscored all the marching soldiers, speeches, and waving flags.
As quoted in Joseph McBride's biography of the director, Capra emerged with a feeling of dread: "It scared the hell out of me. My first reaction was that we were dead, we couldn't win the war… I sat there and I was a very unhappy man. How can I possibly top this? "
Capra's response was to use these Nazi films to beat them at their own game. In preparing the first film of the Why We Fight series, which would be titled Prelude to War, Capra explained the events leading up to the war in Europe by using parts of Triumph of the Will itself. He also included footage from several other German propaganda films and newsreels. The narration was simply but strongly worded, describing the war as "a common man's life-and-death struggle against those who would put him back into slavery. We lose it—and we lose everything. Our homes, the jobs we go back to, the books we read, the very food we eat, the hopes we have for our kids, the kids themselves—they won't be ours anymore. That's what's at stake. It's us or them. The chips are down."
Prelude to War is a success
Realizing that about 37 percent of the U.S. troops had less than a high school education, Capra felt that he needed to make complex issues simple.Thus the Why We Fight series does not provide much historical analysis of the causes of the war. It also features some stereotypical and insulting references and portrayals (such as saying that Germans were born with a love for harsh discipline and that the Japanese were "blood-crazed") that troubled some critics.
Asked about this issue while speaking to an Ohio film association in 1979, Capra is quoted in McBride's biography as saying that these were not meant to be "hate films," but that some hatred did creep into the dialogue. "At the time there was a need for these films," he said. "I'm glad and I'm proud that I was able to satisfy that need, but now I don't like to see these films because of the memories they bring back."
In July 1942 Capra moved his unit to Hollywood, both to be close to movie industry resources and to avoid the political scene in Washington. In August, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Prelude to War was shown to the troops in October. General Marshall and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) wanted the public to see the film, so it was shown in commercial theaters. In March 1943, Prelude to War received an Oscar for best documentary (along with three other war films). The award was given to the army and accepted by Capra.
Despite the acclaim the Why We Fight films received when they were released, there is some question as to whether they really accomplished what they set out to do. A postwar study conducted by the military, based on surveys of soldiers taken during the war, showed that the films did increase the knowledge of events leading up to the war. But they seemed to have little or no effect on the troops' motivation to fight; in some cases they may have even hurt motivation by making the enemy look stronger than previously suspected.
Other war films made by the 834th
In addition to the Why We Fight series, the 834th made ten other propaganda films (including such titles as The Negro Soldier, Your Job In Germany, and Know Your Enemy—Japan). They also produced fifty issues of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine and forty-six installments of the weekly Staff Film Report, which collected classified battle film and other footage to be shown to the president, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other high-level commanders. In August 1943 Capra turned over the command of the 834th to Litvak and became commanding officer of the Signal Corps' Special Coverage Section. His duties included supervising combat photography. Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal on June 14, 1945.
A creative slowdown after the war
After the war, Capra joined with fellow directors George Stevens and William Wyler to form a new production company, Liberty Films. The company produced only one film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), starring James Stewart as 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. Although Capra felt that this was his best film yet—and it is probably the Capra film best known to contemporary audiences, due to its widespread Christmas-season appearances on television—it was not popular with the audiences of the period.
By 1950 Capra's most creative years were behind him. His last film was Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a remake of his 1931 film, Lady for a Day. Capra died in 1991, and was succeeded in the film industry by his son, Frank Capra Jr., a film producer, and grandson, Frank Capra III, a director.
Where to Learn More
Bohn, Thomas. An Historical and Descriptive Analysis of the "Why We Fight" Series. New York: Ayer, 1977.
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.
McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Poague, Leland. The Cinema of Frank Capra: An Approach to Film Comedy.Cranbury, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1974.
Scherle, Victor and William Levy. The Films of Frank Capra. Secaucus, NJ:Carol Publishing Group, 1977.
Arnold, Gary. "Though More than 60 Years Old, Films of Frank Capra Stay Fresh." Insight on the News (February 9, 1998): 38.
Hollywood Goes to War
Director Frank Capra was not the only member of Hollywood's entertainment community who contributed to the war effort. Most of them stayed at home, using their status as celebrities to help sell war bonds (a way to raise money needed for weapons and other war expenses) and appearing at fund-raising events. Some stars went overseas to entertain the troops, or served in the Hollywood Canteen, one of the entertainment clubs set up for soldiers on leave. Photographs—called "pin-ups"— of female actresses and singers like Betty Grable, Jane Russell, and Marlene Dietrich decorated the bunks of countless soldiers, reminding them of the world they'd left behind.
A few celebrities were among those who actually served in the military and saw action. Others created a soldierly, macho image on the screen but never actually fought (such as John Wayne, who appeared in many war movies but was exempted from military service because he was too old, married, and a father), while a few stayed out of the fighting altogether as conscientious objectors (those who object to war for moral or religious reasons).
Some Who Fought
James Stewart was a popular young actor who had appeared to critical acclaim in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, among other films, when the war started. He enlisted in the Air Corps and became a pilot. First assigned to do a radio show to amuse the forces, Stewart begged to be allowed to go into combat, and finally his wish was granted. Promoted to the rank of captain in July 1943, Stewart went to England to join the 445th Bombing Group, which was flying bombing raids all over Europe. He flew twenty missions and won a number of medals, including a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Movie idol Clark Gable had recently lost his beloved wife Carole Lombard in a plane crash when he joined the army, making some of his admirers wonder if he was so griefstricken that he hoped he'd be killed in the war. After attending officers' training school in Miami Beach, Florida, Gable was recruited by General Hap Arnold to make a film about aerial gunners. He joined the 351st Heavy Bombardment Group, planning to make a movie showing the unit's day-to-day operations. In April 1943, the group was assigned to an air base in England, and Gable began flying on combat missions, earning the respect of the men who flew with him. Gable returned to the United States in December, only to learn that the gunner film had been cancelled.
Audie Murphy's path to wartime fame was the reverse of Stewart's and Gable's. He was a Texas farm boy who enlisted in the army in 1942, when he was eighteen and went on to become the most decorated American soldier of the war. Among Murphy's thirty-seven medals and other decorations was the Medal of Honor, which he earned for fighting off a German infantry company by himself in January 1945. He was said to have killed 241 Germans. After the war, the good-looking Murphy was recruited to become an actor. He appeared in forty-five films, including The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and To Hell and Back (1955), which was based on his own life story. He died in a plane crash in 1971.
Films in Capra's Why We Fight series:
- Prelude to War (1942)
- The Nazis Strike (1943)
- Divide and Conquer (1943)
- The Battle of Britain (1943)
- The Battle of Russia (1944)
- The Battle of China (1944)
- War Comes to America (1945)
(b. 18 May 1896 in Bisacquino, Sicily; d. 3 September 1991 in La Quinta, California), film director most identified with populist New Deal-theme films of the 1930s and the “Why We Fight” armed forces documentaries of the 1940s.
Francesco Capra was the son of Salvatore Capra, a peasant farmer, and Rosaria Nicolosi, a craftsman’s daughter. The family immigrated to the United States in 1903. The family settled in Los Angeles, where both parents toiled at menial jobs. Frank attended public schools while working as a newsboy. Industrious and determined, he overcame his mother’s opposition to his further education. But the only book he owned for years was The Three Musketeers, which he read from age twelve onward, according to his own account, about “two thousand times.” Capra performed in school plays while attending Manual Arts High School in modern-day Hollywood. He also heard socialist ideas from teachers and grew fascinated with movies. Some of his classmates were already film extras, but his first job in entertainment was playing guitar in brothels in downtown Los Angeles.
He attended Throop College of Technology (later the California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena and majored in chemical engineering as a reliable means of upward mobility. He also wrote short stories and won a fellowship for a six-week travel expedition around the United States, during which he took numerous photographs for a school presentation. He entered the army in 1917 and became an engineering instructor. He was discharged in December 1918 after contracting influenza. Capra returned to school but lost interest in science before graduation and, seeing his grades drop sharply, turned to the burgeoning movie industry.
Capra took work picking hops in the Sacramento Valley, where he heard about a call for extras on a western being shot nearby by the director John Ford. He signed on and soon obtained fulltime work as a jack-of-all-trades at the Christie Film Company, which made slapstick comedies on Sunset Boulevard. Released after two months, he sought repeatedly to make a living in movies as a writer, scripting several early unsuccessful silent films.
His first venture at directing was Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House (1921), shot for $1,700 in a small studio across from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Based in part on a Rudyard Kipling poem set in a Calcutta grog shop with assorted rough characters, it featured a Mary Magdalene-style heroine redeemed at the end. Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House received a few glowing notices and earned a profit, but plans to make a series of films from famous poems quickly fell apart. Capra also directed a short documentary (title unknown) in 1921 celebrating the two-week visit of an Italian naval cruiser to San Francisco, a prototype for Capra’s later wartime documentaries; it starred Dorothy Revier, who soon became famous as the model for Columbia Pictures’s trademark “torch lady.” Capra’s first important break came thanks to his romance in the early 1920s with the actress Helen Howell, whose connections helped him rise to near-director status. She reputedly sought him out after viewing Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House and he began working for a small company whose financial backer was Helen’s father. Cheaply produced comedies, sometimes starring Revier or Howell, at first found Capra working as a prop man, then gag writer, and finally assistant director. In 1923 Capra and Howell married; the next year they left San Francisco for Hollywood.
Capra later observed that writing gags had been the “shortcut” to screen success because a skilled comedy writer could advance quickly if studios noticed his talent. By 1924 he was working with the Hal Roach Studios, writing gags for the Our Gang comedies and some twenty-five Mack Sennett films, including several starring comic Harry Langdon. Like many other “caption” writers or “titlists” of the silents, his work grew more sophisticated, approaching themes and treatments later used in his major films. Sennett gave Capra his first chance to direct for a major studio in 1925 with Soldier Boy, but fired him as an incompetent after the third day of shooting.
Luckily for Capra, Langdon broke with Sennett and moved over to First National Pictures, taking Capra with him as gag writer. Langdon soon sponsored him as a director, first of several scenes in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), a Langdon box-office hit. Capra’s direction of the comedian in The Strong Man (1926) established his own style—hailed at the time and ranked by subsequent critics as one of the foremost of the silent comedy standards— mixing satire and sentimentalism in social themes, in this case a naïf (played by Langdon) who manages somehow to clean up a corrupt town.
Beginning with That Certain Thing (1927), Capra struck up a useful relationship with producer Harry Cohn and cameraman Joe Walker at Columbia Pictures that would last through the best of Capra’s career. Known for his exacting approach, he soon turned out feature after feature for the studio, first gaining the credit “A Frank Capra Production” with Say It with Sables (1928)—the year he divorced Helen Howell. Paid handsomely and owning Columbia stock, he rapidly became wealthy as the studio prospered. Capra bought a small house in what would become the exclusive Malibu Colony, where (along with the Roosevelt Hotel and the Hollywood Athletic Club) he would frequently spend his time between pictures. He had arrived, but not entirely.
Loaned out by Cohn to Louis B. Mayer and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Capra went to work in 1928 on Brotherly Love, about a prison guard and an inmate who both fall in love with the warden’s daughter. Although offering higher production values than Columbia, MGM controlled its directors tightly. Frequently using substitute directors for retakes, the larger MGM produced more impersonal films. Perhaps because of Capra’s rejection of that method, but likely because of a series of continued smaller conflicts over creative control, Capra was fired during the last weeks of shooting. It was a blow to the rising director but also a reminder that whatever its limitations, Columbia offered him the best artistic climate for his work.
Meanwhile, Harry Cohn was gambling Columbia’s profits on a near-spectacular that cost eight times more than any of Capra’s earlier films. The sound feature Submarine (1929), made with full cooperation of the navy, fell into difficulties during production. Cohn replaced his big-name action director Irvin Willet with Capra, who reshot nearly every scene. A critical success, Submarine became the largest moneymaker in the studio’s short history, catapulting Capra into sound movies.
Capra had developed a feeling for films about the “little guy” and the Hollywood-style redemption of the downcast and even the degraded. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression also had a dramatic effect on the instinctively conservative, Republican Capra. He grasped the value of the socially conscious narrative, both for the integrity of the story and for the film’s potential box-office success. Undertaking Ladies of Leisure (1930), based upon a Broadway play about a prostitute, he wrote a draft of a script and then turned to the leftist writer Jo Swerling, initiating an era of his intimate collaboration with writers sympathetic to unionism, antifascist causes, and even to the Soviet Union. Not only did the social and economic climate of the time affect the way Capra made his films, it also impacted the audiences, who hungered to see their senses of betrayal and estrangement from the American dream reflected on the screen.
Ladies of Leisure had another important influence upon Capra. Stage actress Barbara Stanwyck had only three failed films to show for her Hollywood career thus far and had decided upon a return to Broadway when Capra asked her to test for the lead. She reluctantly agreed, and he discovered in the former chorus girl the female complexity and toughness that he had been seeking. Thanks in no small part to his filming of Stanwyck—with whom Capra subsequently had a romance of several years—Capra learned to direct in ways maximizing his actors’ capacities, female and male alike. Platinum Blonde (1931), the first of his sound films about the little guy (and written in part by Swerling), received good notices and made a healthy profit. Jean Harlow’s role as an heiress and sweetheart won her star status with the film. The comedy also prepared Capra for later films through the narrative of a male lead (played by Robert Williams) who suddenly finds himself surrounded by luxury, only gradually grasping the emptiness of his worldly success.
Capra married Lucille Warner Rayburn in 1932, when he began working with rising screenwriter Robert Riskin. He and Riskin turned out a series of hits: the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934), for which Capra received his first Best Director Academy Award; Lost Horizon (1937); and You Can’t Take It with You (1938), for which he received another Academy Award. The social shockers Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), written by Riskin about a native fascist movement and for which Capra won his third Best Director Academy Award and starring Gary Cooper, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), about corruption in Congress and written by the communist Sidney Buchman, stand among the foremost “message” films of 1930s Hollywood. Not surprisingly, contemporary reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hollywood agents and informers describe Capra’s working relationships as highly suspicious at best, potentially subversive at worst.
At the leftward apex of his trajectory, Capra urged studio negotiations with the screenwriters and actors unions, spoke at public events of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, walked a local newspaper strike picket line, and bought the rights to Clifford Odets’s radical play Golden Boy—then traded them away. Although politically mild, You Can’t Take It with You pokes fun at the fanatical anticommunist “red hunters,” who in real life set into motion the congressional investigations resulting a decade later in the Hollywood blacklist. Capra also served simultaneously as president of the Screen Directors Guild and of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1935-1941).
Capra had become an American icon by the late 1930s but also a tragic private figure. A cover story on Capra in Time magazine (8 August 1938) described him as master of the “peculiarly American, peculiarly kinetic humor” and the “top director of the industry.” As You Can’t Take It with You was being previewed grandly for the press, one of his three children died suddenly following a tonsillectomy. According to friends, the director soon after returned to the Catholic church he had abandoned and assumed a melancholy that pursued him the rest of his life.
During World War II Capra became the most important Hollywood director of propaganda-edged documentaries. The seven “Why We Fight” documentaries (including The Negro Soldier, written by the communist writer Carlton Moss without credit), won Capra a Distinguished Service Medal in 1945. As Winston Churchill wrote, “I have never seen or read any more powerful statement of our cause or of our rightful case against the Nazi tyranny [than in Capra’s war series].”
Emotionally burned out by the war effort and no longer in heavy demand by the studios, Capra formed Liberty Films, with William Wyler, George Stevens, and Sam Briskin, to make It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), scripted by Capra, Riskin, Swerling, and the communists Albert Maltz and Michael Wilson. Melancholy despite its happy ending, Wonderful Life marked a loss of optimism for Capra and also for its star, James Stewart. As Capra biographer Joseph McBride explained, Capra drew upon his own gnawing uncertainties to show his lead’s “equation of lack of money with desperation and shame,”—to say nothing of self-doubt and temptation to suicide.
In Hollywood of the blacklist era, Capra made the satirical State of the Union (1948) about American politics. Bitterly attacked for the film’s mildly critical stance, he retreated, avowing his loyalty to “Americanism” against the rival communist system. But in the new conservative climate, his best talents were wasted. Capra’s style deteriorated severely in his next several pictures, and he left Hollywood with great bitterness in 1951. Working intermittently in television and a few further undistinguished films, Capra drifted into a retirement that was marked by participation in numerous film retrospectives and college appearances, where he spoke about his work and his involvement in Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a memoir and in public statements, he insisted repeatedly that he had never truly grasped the radical New Dealism that made him both famous and beloved. Perhaps he had understood the sentiments best intuitively, or perhaps, returning to the political conservatism of his youth, he had become ashamed of the social implications of his own cinematic accomplishments. The American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1982 may have reminded Capra, as it did the wider public, that his best work, done in response to social crisis, had been remarkably radical after all.
Capra succumbed to heart failure in La Quinta and is buried in the Coachella Valley Cemetery. His legacy endures decades after his heydey ended, as evidenced by features such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), which offered the little guy hope against the powerful and corrupt, and by use of the term “Capraesque,” which denotes the kind of populist sensibility that his work embodied.
The Frank Capra Archive is at Wesleyan University, including scripts, correspondence, and other materials. His autobiography is Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title (1980), and the outstanding biography is Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992). Other critical works include Bruce Henstell, ed., Frank Capra: One Man— One Film (1971); Richard Glatzer and John Raeburn, eds., Frank Capra: The Man and His Films (1975); Victor Scherle and William Turner Levy, The Films of Frank Capra (1977); and Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (1986). Capra’s letters that are not in the Wesleyan archive are scattered in many locations, as are production documents of his films.
Born May 18, 1897
Died September 3, 1991
La Quinta, California
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 (1939–45), 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 (1929–41), 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 (1914–18) 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.
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 (1880–1959) 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 (1939–45), such as the Why We Fight series by Frank Capra, the Office of War Information (OWI), under the guidance of playwright Sam Spewack (1899–1971) 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 (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) agreed. Even British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) 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 (1867–1950; 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."
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 (1908–1997), 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
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.
"Frank Capra." University of San Diego, History Department. http://history.acusd.edu/gen/filmnotes/capra.html (accessed on July 21, 2004).
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.
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.
Thomas, Nicholas, and Charles Affron, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, No. 2, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 113-116. □
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 (1865–1936) "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 (1884–1944), 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 (1907–1990) and showed Capra developing his personal style.
Although Capra worked regularly with both Swerling and Stanwyck, his breakthrough project came from another writer, Robert Riskin (1897–1955). It Happened One Night won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), and Best Actor and Actress (Clark Gable [1901–1960] and Claudette Colbert [1903–1996], 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 (1901–1961), 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 (1908–1997). 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."
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 (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis—Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies—England, 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 (1900–1967) and Katherine Hepburn (1907–), was a mean-spirited and confusing political picture that did nothing to bolster Capra's sagging reputation.
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 vision—combined with a mastery of the film form itself—that has made him so enduringly popular.
For More Information
McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Frank Capra (May 18, 1897–September 3, 1991) was a motion picture director, producer, and writer who won three Academy Awards for best director in the 1930s. Born in Bisacquino, Sicily, Capra emigrated at the age of six with his family to Los Angeles, where he grew up. In the early 1920s, after graduating from Throop College of Technology (now Caltech), he wrote gags for movie producers Hal Roach and Matt Sennett. After writing material for screen comic Harry Langdon, Capra directed three films starring Langdon in 1926 and 1927 before the two had a falling-out.
In 1928, Capra was hired by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. Between 1928 and 1933, Capra would direct nineteen features for Columbia, including American Madness (1932), a film about the collapse of a bank, which anticipated many of the themes of Capra's later social films. In 1931, Capra began working with screenwriter Robert Riskin, who would go on to write most of Capra's major films of the 1930s.
Although Capra had begun to make a name for himself during the early 1930s, his first huge hit came with It Happened One Night (1934). The film concerns an heiress (Claudette Colbert) who is secretly traveling from Miami to New York to escape her father. She is discovered by an out-of-work newsman (Clark Gable), who senses that her tale might make a good scoop. Naturally, the two fall for each other. It Happened One Night helped to create the screwball comedy, one of Hollywood's most important subgenres during the 1930s. It also established Capra as one of Tinseltown's most popular and powerful directors. It Happened One Nightswept the Oscars, garnering the awards for best picture, director, writer, actor, and actress.
With the exception of Lost Horizon (1937), a box-office disappointment that led to a bitter rift with Cohn and tensions with Riskin, Capra's success continued unabated over the next several years. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) earned Capra his second best director Oscar. A third arrived with You Can't Take It with You (1938). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) capitalized on the success of Mr. Deeds with similar plots about a little man taking on corrupt and powerful interests. The darkly comic Arsenic and Old Lace (produced 1941–1942; released 1944) was just wrapping production when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Capra became an officer in the Army Signal Corps, where he supervised the Why We Fight series of propaganda films during World War II.
After the war, Capra directed two more significant films: It's A Wonderful Life (1946), which despite later becoming his most watched film never found an audience at the time of its release, and State of the Union (1948). Thereafter, Capra's career experienced a rapid decline.
Critics and audiences have sometimes seen Capra's 1930s films, especially the social trilogy of Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe, as cinematic embodiments of the spirit of the New Deal. On closer inspection they are less clearly liberal. Capra's own politics were far from Rooseveltian: He was a lifelong conservative Republican. While Capra's most important screenwriter, Riskin, was a New Deal liberal, another important writer on his pictures, Myles Connolly, was a reactionary antiCommunist. Out of this political stew emerged films that, perhaps unintentionally, illuminate the ambiguities of American populism during the Great Depression. Although Capra's films centered on tribunes of the little man, often their heroes' most implacable foe was the people themselves: the panicked crowd trying to withdraw their money from the bank in American Madness; the thousands of letters calling for Senator Smith's resignation in Mr. Smith; or the angry throng at the stadium in John Doe.
Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title: An Autobiography. 1971.
Carney, Raymond. American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. 1986.
Maland, Charles. Frank Capra. 1980.
McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. 1992.
Poague, Leland A. Another Frank Capra. 1994.
Sklar, Robert, and Vito Zagarrio, eds. Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System. 1998.
Wolfe, Charles. Frank Capra: A Guide to References and Resources. 1987.
Benjamin L. Alpers