Frank Capra, the director whose movies are a central component of Americana, as much a part of the culture as a Norman Rockwell painting, was born on May 18, 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily. On May 10, 1903, his family left for America aboard the ship Germania, disembarking in New York on May 23rd. After setting foot in The Promised Land, the Capra family boarded a train for the trip to California -- El Dorado, The Land of Milk & Honey -- where Frank's older brother Benjamin was living. On their journey, which lasted the better part of a fortnight, they subsisted on bread and bananas, finally arriving on June 3rd in Los Angeles, a small city of approximately 102,000 people. The family stayed with Ben Capra, and later that Fall, the six-year-old Frank began his formal education.
As a young teen, Capra made money selling newspapers in downtown L.A. after school and on Saturdays, sometimes working with his brother Tony. He also worked as a janitor at the high school he attended in the early mornings. It was while attending L.A.'s Manual Arts High School that Capra became interested in the theater, typically doing back-stage work such as lighting.
Capra's family pressured him to drop out of school and go to work, but he refused as he wanted to partake fully of the American Dream, and for that, he needed an education. He graduated from high school on January 27, 1915, and in September, he entered the Throop College of Technology (later the California Institute of Technology) to study chemical engineering. The school's annual tuition was $250, and Capra received occasional financial support his family. Throop had a fine arts department, and Capra discovered poetry and the essays of Montaigne, which he fell in love with, while matriculating at the technical school. He then decided to write.
"It was a great discovery for me. I discovered language. I discovered poetry. I discovered poetry at Caltech, can you imagine that? That was a big turning point in my life. I didn't know anything could be so beautiful."
Capra was singled out for a cash award of $250 for having the highest grades in the school. Part of his prize was a six-week trip across the U.S. and Canada. When Capra's father, Turiddu, died in 1915, Capra started working at the campus laundry to make money.
After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Capra enlisted in the Army, and while he not yet a citizen, he was allowed to join the military as part of the Coastal Artillery. (Italy was an ally of America during World War I.) Capra became a supply officer for the student soldiers at Throop, who have been enrolled in a Reserve Officers Training Corps program. (He became a naturalized citizen in 1920.)
After graduating from Throop with his bachelor's degree in September 1918, Capra was inducted into the U.S. Army in October and stationed at the Presidio at San Francisco, a month before the signing of the Armistice that ended the War. While at the Presidio, Capra became ill with the Spanish influenza that claimed 20 million lives worldwide. He was discharged from the Army in December and moved to his brother Ben's home in L.A.
While recuperating from the flu, Capra answered a cattle call for extras for John Ford's film The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919). Capra introduced himself to the film's star, Harry Carey. (Two decades later, Capra would cast Carey in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for which the former silent film superstar would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.) To support himself, Capra took on a wide variety of manual laboring jobs while continuing to get work in the movies as an extra and as a prop . Most of the time, he was unemployed, and he took advantage of the time to write short stories, though he was unable to get them published.
Frank Capra eventually hooked up with Tri-State Motion Picture Co. in Nevada, but the three films the company produced in 1920 failed, so Capra returned to Los Angeles. In March 1920, he got a job with CBC Film Sales Co., the precursor of Columbia Films, where he worked as an editor and director on a series called Screen Snapshots. He quit CBC in August and moved to San Francisco, but the only jobs he could find were that of bookseller and door-to-door salesman. This was the most difficult time of his life, as he turned to gambling and became a hobo, riding the rails. In 1921, the San Francisco producer Walter Montague hired Capra for $75 per week to help direct the short movie Fulta Fisher's Boarding House, which was based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Capra helped Montague produce the one-reeler, which was budgeted at $1,700 and subsequently sold to the Pathe Exchange for $3,500.
Unable to find another professional film-making job, Capra hired himself out as a maker of shorts for the public-at-large while working as an assistant at Walter Ball's film lab. Finally, in October 1921, the Paul Gerson Picture Corp. hired him to help make its two-reel comedies, around the time that he began dating the actress Helen Edith Howe, who would become his first wife. Capra continued to work for both Ball and Gerson, primarily as a cutter. On November 25, 1923, Capra married Helen Howell, and the couple soon moved to Hollywood.
Hal Roach Studios hired Capra as a gag-writer for the Our Gang series in January 1924. After writing the gags for five Our Gang comedies in seven weeks, he asked Roach to make him a director. When Roach refused, Capra quit. Mack Sennett subsequently hired him as a writer, one of a six-man team that wrote for silent movie comedian Harry Langdon, the fourth major silent comedian after Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Capra began working with the Langdon production unit as a gag writer, first credited on the short Plain Clothes (March 1925).
Langdon became more popular, he became determined to follow the example of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and make the transition to feature films. After making his first feature-length comedy, His First Flame for Sennett, Langdon signed a three-year contract with First National Pictures to annually produce two feature-length comedies at a fixed fee per film.
Harry Langdon left Sennett, taking many of his key production personnel with him. Sennett promoted Capra to director, but fired him after three days in his new position. After being sacked by Sennett, Capra was hired as a gag-writer by Langdon, working on Langdon's first First National feature-length film, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). The movie was directed by Harry Edwards, who had directed all of Langdon's films at Sennett.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp did well at the box office, but it had ran over budget, which came out of Langdon's end. Harry Edwards was sacked, and for his next picture, The Strong Man (1926), Langdon promoted Capra to director, boosting his salary to $750 per week. The movie was a hit, but trouble was brewing among members of the Langdon company.
His marriage with Helen began to unravel when it is discovered that she had a life threatening-ectopic pregnancy that had to be terminated. In order to cope with the tragedy, Capra became a workaholic while Helen turned to drink. The deterioration of his marriage was mirrored by the disintegration of his professional relationship with Langdon during the making of the new feature, Long Pants. During the production of the movie, Capra had a falling out with Langdon. Screenwriter Arthur Ripley's dark sensibility did not mesh well with that of the more optimistic Capra, and Langdon usually sided with Ripley. The picture fell behind schedule and went over budget, and since Langdon was paid a fixed fee for each film, this represented a financial loss to his own Harry Langdon Corp. Stung by the financial set-back, and desiring to further emulate the great Chaplin, Langdon made a fateful decision: He fired Capra and decided to direct himself. Langdon's next three movies for First National were failures, as they were black comedies out of step with the optimism of the Jazz Age. In 1928, First National did not pick up his contract and the Harry Langdon Corp. soon went bankrupt, ending the career of the "fourth major silent comedian."
In April of 1927, Frank Capra and his wife Helen split up, and Capra went off to New York to direct For the Love of Mike for First National, which was his first picture with Claudette Colbert, who would turn in an Oscar-winning performance under his direction seven years later. In 1927, however, the director and his star did not get along, and the film went over budget. Subsequently, First National refused to pay Capra, and he had to hitchhike back to Hollywood. The film proved to be Capra's only genuine flop.
By September 1927, he was back working as a writer or Mack Sennett, but in October, he was hired as a director by Columbia Pictures Production Chief Harry Cohn. The event was momentous for both of them, as at Columbia, Capra would become the #1 director in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the success of Capra's films would propel the Poverty Row studio into the major leagues. But at first, Cohn was displeased with him. When viewing the first three days of rushes of his first Columbia film, That Certain Thing, Cohn wanted to fire him as everything on the first day had been shot in long shot, on the second day in medium shot, and on the third day in close-ups. Capra had done it that way to save time, as it minimized set-ups. Cohn decided to stick with Capra, and in 1928, Cohn raised his salary to $3,000 per picture after he made several success pictures, including Submarine (1928). The Younger Generation" (1929), the first of a series of films with higher budgets to be directed by Capra, would prove to be his first sound film, when scenes were reshot for dialog.
A Star Director is Born
In the summer of 1929, he was introduced to a young widow, Lucille Warner Reyburn. He also met a transplanted stage actress, Barbara Stanwyck, who had been recruited for the talkies but had been in three successive unsuccessful films and wanted to return to the New York stage.
Harry Cohn wanted Stanwyck to appear in Capra's planned film, Ladies of Leisure, but the interview with Capra did not go well, and Capra refused to use her. Her husband, Frank Fay, called Capra up and arranged a viewing of her screen-test at Warner Bros., after which Capra became enthusiastic and urged Cohn to sign her. Ladies of Leisure (193) and other movies the two made together in the early '30s established them both on their separate journeys towards becoming movieland legends. Though Capra would admit to falling in love with his leading lady, it was Lucille Warner Reyburn who became the second Mrs. Frank Capra.
Capra, who favored extensive rehearsals before shooting a scene, developed his mature directorial style while collaborating with Stanwyck, a trained stage actress whose performance steadily deteriorated after rehearsals or retakes. Stanwyck's first take in a scene usually was her best. Capra started blocking out scenes in advance, and carefully preparing his other actors so that they could react to Stanwyck in the first shot, whose acting often was unpredictable, so they wouldn't foul up the continuity. In response to this semi-improvisatory style, Capra's crew had to boost its level of craftsmanship to beyond normal Hollywood standards, which were forged in more static and prosaic work conditions. Thus, the professionalism of Capra's crews became better than those of other directors. Capra's philosophy for his crew was, "You guys are working for the actors, they're not working for you."
After Ladies of Leisure, Capra was assigned to direct Platinum Blonde, starring Jean Harlow. The script had been the product of a series of writers, including Jo Swerling (who was given credit for adaptation), but was polished by Capra and Robert Riskin (who was given screen credit for the dialog). Along with Jo Swerling, Riskin would rank as one of Capra's most important collaborators, ultimately having a hand in 13 movies. (Riskin wrote nine screenplays for Capra, and Capra based four other films on Riskin's work.)
Riskin created a hard-boiled newspaperman, Stew Smith for the film, a character his widow, the actress Fay Wray, said came closest to Riskin of any character he wrote. A comic character, the wise-cracking reporter who wants to lampoon high society but finds himself hostage to the pretensions of the rich he had previously mocked is the debut of the prototypical "Capra" hero. The dilemma faced by Stew, akin to the immigrant's desire to assimilate but being rejected by established society, was repeated in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and in Meet John Doe.
After directing Miracle Woman, a story about a shady evangelist played by Barbara Stanwyck, Capra decided to make a motion picture that reflected the social conditions of the day. He and Riskin wrote the screenplay for American Madness, a melodrama that is an important precursor to later Capra films, not only with "It's a Wonderful Life," which shares the plot device of a bank run, but also in the depiction of the irrationality of a crowd mentality and the ability of the individual to make a difference. In the movie, an idealistic banker is excoriated by his conservative board of directors for making loans to small businesses on the basis of character rather than on sounder financial criteria.
When there is a run on the bank due to a scandal, it appears that the board of directors are right as the bank depositors make a run on the bank to take out their money before the bank fails. The fear of a bank failure ensures that the failure will become a reality as a crowd mentality takes over among the clientele. The board of directors refuse to pledge their capital to stave off the collapse of the bank, but the banker makes a plea to the crowd, and just like George Bailey's depositors in It's a Wonderful Life, the bank is saved as the fears of the crowd are ameliorated. The board of directors, impressed by the banker's character and his belief in the character of his individual clients (as opposed to the irrationality of the crowd), pledge their capital and the bank run is staved off and the bank is saved.
In his biography, The Name Above the Picture, Capra wrote that before American Madness, he had only made "escapist" pictures with no basis in reality. He recounts how Poverty Row studios, lacking stars and production values, had to resort to "gimmick" movies to pull the crowds in, making films on au courant controversial subjects that were equivalent to "yellow journalism."
What was more important than the subject and its handling was the maturation of Frank Capra's directorial style with the film. Capra had become convinced that the mass-experience of watching a motion picture with an audience had the psychological effect in individual audience members of slowing down the pace of a film. A film that during shooting and then when viewed on a movieola editing device and on a small screen in a screening room among a few professionals that had seemed normally paced became sluggish when projected on the big screen. While this could have been the result of the projection process blowing up the actors to such large proportions, Capra ultimately believed it was the effect of mass psychology affecting crowds since he also noticed this "slowing down" phenomenon at ball games and at political conventions. Since American Madness dealt with crowds, he feared that the effect would be magnified.
He decided to boost the pace of the film, during the shooting. He did away with characters' entrances and exits that were a common part of cinematic "grammar" in the early 1930s, a survival of the "photoplays" days. Instead, he "jumped" characters in and out of scenes, and jettisoned the dissolves that were also part of cinematic grammar that typically ended scenes and indicated changes in time or locale so as not to make cutting between scenes seem choppy to the audience. Dialog was deliberately overlapped, a radical innovation in the early talkies, when actors were instructed to let the other actor finish his or her lines completely before taking up their cue and beginning their own lines, in order to facilitate the editing of the sound-track. What he felt was his greatest innovation was to boost the pacing of the acting in the film by a third by making a scene that would normally play in one minute take only 40 seconds.
When all these innovations were combined in his final cut, it made the movie seemed normally paced on the big screen, though while shooting individual scenes, the pacing had seemed exaggerated. It also gave the film a sense of urgency that befitted the subject of a financial panic and a run on a bank. More importantly, it "kept audience attention riveted to the screen," as he said in his autobiography. Except for "mood pieces," Capra subsequently used these techniques in all his films, and he was amused by critics who commented on the "naturalness" of his direction.
Capra was close to completely establishing his themes and style. Justly accused of indulging in sentiment which some critics labeled "Capra-corn," Capra's next film, Lady for a Day (1933) was an adaptation of Damon Runyon's 1929 short story "Madame La Gimp." Robert Riskin wrote the first four drafts of Lady for a Day, and of all the scripts he worked on for Capra, the film deviates less from the script than any other. After seeing the movie, Runyon sent a telegraph to Riskin praising him for his success at elaborating on the story and fleshing out the characters while maintain his basic story.
Lady for A Day was the favorite Capra film of John Ford, the great filmmaker who once directed the unknown extra. The movie cost $300,000 and was the first of Capra's oeuvre to attract the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, getting a Best Director nomination for Capra, plus nods for Riskin and Best Actress. The movie received Columbia's first Best Picture nomination, the studio never having attracted any attention from the Academy before Lady for a Day. Capra's last film was the 1961 remake of Lady for a Day with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford, A Pocketful of Miracles. It was a failure.)
Capra reunited with Stanwyck and produced his first universally acknowledged classic, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a film that now seems to belong more to the oeuvre of Josef von Sternberg than it does to Frank Capra. With General Yen, Capra had consciously set out to make a movie that would win Academy Awards. Frustrated that the innovative, timely, and critically well-received American Madness had not received any recognition at the Oscars (particularly in the director's category in recognition of his innovations in pacing), he vented his displeasure to Columbia boss Cohn.
"Forget it," Cohn told Capra, as recounted in his autobiography. "You ain't got a Chinaman's chance. They only vote for that arty junk."
Frank Capra set out to boost his chances by making an arty film featuring a "Chinaman" that confronted that major taboo of American cinema of the first half of the century, miscegenation. The film also dealt with suicide, a theme that would reappear in It's a Wonderful Life.
Despair often shows itself in Capra films, and although in his post-General Yen work, the final reel wraps things up in a happy way, until that final real, there is tragedy, cynicism, heartless exploitation, and other grim subject matter that Capra's audiences must have known were the truth of the world, but that were too grim to face when walking out of a movie theater. When pre-Code movies were rediscovered and showcased across the United States in the 1990s, they were often accompanied by thesis about how contemporary audiences "read" the films (and post-1934 more Puritanical works), as the movies were not so frank or racy as supposed. There was a great deal of signaling going on which the audience could read into, and the same must have been true for Capra's films, giving lie to the fact that he was a sentimentalist with a saccharine view of America. There are few films as bitter as those of Frank Capra before the final reel.
Despair was what befell Frank Capra, personally, on the night of March 16, 1934, which he attended as one of the Best Director nominees for "Lady for a Day." Well before his fellow paisan Martin Scorsese launched a decade-long bid to win the Academy Award, Capra himself had caught "Oscar fever." In his own words, "In the interim between the nominations and the final voting.... My mind was on those Oscars." When Oscar host Will Rogers opened the envelope for Best Director, he commented, "Well, well, well. What do you know. I've watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom, and I mean the bottom. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Come on up and get it, Frank!"
Capra got up to go get it, squeezing past tables and making his way to the open dance floor to accept his Oscar. "The spotlight searched around trying to find me. 'Over here!' I waved. Then it suddenly swept away from me - and picked up a flustered man standing on the other side of the dance floor - Frank Lloyd!"
Frank Lloyd went up to the dais to accept HIS Oscar while a voice in back of Capra yelled "Down in front!"
Capra's walk back to his table amidst shouts of "Sit down!" turned into the "Longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All of my friends at the table were crying."
That night, after Frank Lloyd's Cavalcade -- probably the worst film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar -- beat Lady for a Day, Frank Capra got drunk at his house and passed out. "Big 'stupido,'" Capra thought to himself, "running up to get an Oscar dying with excitement, only to crawl back dying with shame. Those crummy Academy voters; to hell with their lousy awards. If ever they did vote me one, I would never, never, NEVER show up to accept it."
Frank Capra would win his first of three Best Director Oscars the next year, and would show up to accept it. More importantly, he would become the president of the Academy in 1935 and take it out of the labor relations field a time when labor strife and the formation of the talent guilds threatened to destroy it.
Capra and the Academy
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was created by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production chief Louis B. Mayer to forestall unionization by the creative talent (directors, actors and screenwriters) by forming a "company union," which is how the Academy came into being. The Academy brokered studio-mandated pay-cuts of 10% in 1927 and 1931, and implemented massive layoffs in 1930 and 1931. On March 5, 1933, the day after Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as President, F.D.R. declared a National Bank Holiday, which hurt the movie industry as it was heavily dependent on bank loans. Representing the movie producers, Louis B. Mayer -- a friend and supporter of Herbert Hoover, who had lost to F.D.R. in a landslide -- huddled with a group from the Academy and announced a 50% across-the-board pay-cut. In response, stagehands called a strike, which shut down every studio in Hollywood.
After another caucus between Mayer and the Academy committee, a proposal for a pay-cut on a sliding-scale up to 50% for everyone making over $50 a week; which would only last for eight weeks, was implemented. Screen writers resigned en masse from the Academy and joined the Screen Writers Guild, but most employees had little choice and went along with it. All the studios but Warner Bros. and Sam Goldwyn honored the pledge to restore full salaries after the eight weeks. A time of bad feelings persisted, and much anger was directed towards the Academy in its role as company union.
The Academy, trying to position itself as an independent arbiter, hired the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse for the first time to inspect the books of the studios. The audit revealed that all the studios were solvent, but Harry Warner refused to budge and Academy President Conrad Nagel resigned. The Academy announced that the studio bosses would never again try to impose a horizontal salary cut, but the usefulness of the Academy as a company union was over.
Under Roosevelt's New Deal, the self-regulation imposed by the National Industrial Relations Act to bring business sectors back to economic health was predicated upon cartelization, in which the industry itself wrote its own regulatory code. With Hollywood, it meant the re-imposition of paternalistic labor relations that the Academy had been created to wallpaper over. The last nail in the company union's coffin was when it became public knowledge that the Academy appointed a committee to investigate the continued feasibility of the industry practice of giving actors and writers long-term contracts.
Up to 20%-25% of net earnings of the movie industry were absorbed by bonuses paid to studio owners, production chiefs, and senior executives at the end of each year, and this created a good deal of resentment. The skimming off of the profits by senior management fueled the militancy of the SWG and led to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in July 1933 when the actors, too, came to the conclusion that the Academy had sold them out.
The industry code instituted a cap on the salaries of actors, directors, and writers, but not of movie executives; mandated the licensing of agents by producers; and created a reserve clause similar to baseball where studios had renewal options with talent with expired contracts, who could only move to a new studio if the studio they had last been signed to did not pick up their option.
There was a mass resignation of actors from the Academy in October 1933, with the actors switching their allegiance to SAG. SAG joined with the SWG to publish "The Screen Guilds Magazine," a periodical whose editorial content attacked the Academy as a company union in the producers' pocket. SAG President Eddie Cantor, a friend of Roosevelt who had been invited to spend the Thanksgiving Day holiday with the president, informed him of the guild's grievances over the NIRA code. Roosevelt struck down many of the movie industry code's anti-labor provisions by executive order.
The labor battles between the guilds and the studios would continue until the late '30s, and by the time Frank Capra was elected president of the Academy in 1935, the post was an unenviable one. The Screen Directors Guild was formed at King Vidor's house on January 15, 1936, and one of its first acts was to send a letter to its members urging them to boycott the Academy Awards ceremony, which was three days away. None of the guilds had been recognized as bargaining agents by the studios, and it was argued to grace the Academy Awards would give the Academy, a company union, recognition. Academy membership had declined to 40 from a high of 600, and Capra believed that the guilds wanted to punish the studios financially by depriving them of the good publicity the Oscars generated. However, the studios couldn't care less. Seeing that the Academy was worthless to help them in its attempts to enforce wage cuts, it too abandoned the Academy, which it had financed.
The Guilds believed the boycott had worked as only 20 SAG members and 13 SWG members had showed up at the Oscars, but Capra remembered the night as a victory as all the winners had shown up. To save the Academy and the Oscars, Capra convinced the board to get it out of the labor relations field. He also democratized the nomination process to eliminate studio politics, and created two new acting awards for supporting performances to win over SAG.
By the 1937 awards ceremony, SAG signaled its pleasure that the Academy had mostly stayed out of labor relations by announcing it had no objection to its members attending the awards ceremony. Frank Capra had saved the Academy, and he even won his second Oscar that night, for directing Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But the labor struggles weren't over. In 1939, Capra had been voted president of the SDG and began negotiating for the recognition of the SDG as the sole collective bargaining agent for directors. When the industry refused, Capra mobilized the directors and threatened a strike. He also threatened to resign from the Academy and mount a boycott of the awards ceremony, which was to be held a week later.
The producers caved in, and Capra won another victory when he was named Best Director for a third time at the Academy Awards, and his movie, You Can't Take it With You, was voted Best Picture of 1938. That night, Frank Capra -- who had become the third director to win two Best Director Oscars (after Lewis Milestone and Frank Lloyd, who had bested him that awful night in 1934 for Cavalcade) -- became the first to win three directing Oscars, a record that John Ford equaled in 1942 and surpassed in 1953, when he won his fourth Academy Award as Best Director. William Wyler is the only other man to win three directing Oscars.
The 1940 awards ceremony was the last that Capra presided over, and he directed a documentary about them, which was sold to Warner Bros for $30,000, the monies going to the Academy. He was nominated himself for Best Director and Best Picture for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but lost to Victor Fleming and the Gone With the Wind juggernaut. Under Capra's guidance, the Academy had left the labor relations field behind in order to concentrate on the Oscars (publicity for the industry), research and education.
"I believe the guilds should more or less conduct the operations and functions of this institution," he said in his farewell speech. He would be nominated for Best Director and Best Picture once more with It's a Wonderful Life in 1947, but the Academy would never again honor him, not even with an honorary award, after all his service to the organization, which might not have survived without him. (Bob Hope, by contrast, received four honorary awards, including a lifetime membership in 1945, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award in 1960.) The SDG (subsequently renamed the Directors Guild of America after its 1960 merger with the Radio & Television Directors Guild and which Capra served as its first president from 1960-61), the union he had struggled with in the mid-1930s but which he had first served as president from 1939 to 1941, winning it recognition as the directors' collective bargaining agent, voted him a lifetime membership in 1941 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1959.
The Name Above the Title
Frank Capra graced the cover of the August 8, 1938 edition of TIME Magazine, as he was preparing You Can't Take It With You for release. It was an unprecedented honor. The cover story,. "Columbia's Gem," bestowed the title "#1 Hollywood director" on Capra, whose name on a movie marquee could guarantee box office success. Arguably, the only comparable directors in American cinema history were Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, whose names could sell as picture as much as any movie star. Frank Capra was a star, a the height of his artistic and critical success.
However, just like a movie star, not all of Frank Capra's pictures were successes. Whenever Capra convinced studio boss Harry Cohn to let him make movies with more controversial or ambitious themes, the movies typically lost money after under-performing at the box office. The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Lost Horizon (1937) were both expensive, philosophically minded pictures that sought to reposition Capra and Columbia into the prestige end of the movie market. After their relative failures at the box office and with critics, Capra turned to making a screwball comedy, a genre he excelled at, with It Happened One Night (1934) and You Can't Take it With You (1938), two huge hits that won Columbia Best Picture Oscars and Capra Oscars as Best Director.
These films, along with Mister Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mister Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) are the heart of Capra's cinematic canon. They are all classics and products of superb craftsmanship, but they gave rise to the critical dig "Capra-corn." One cannot consider Capra without taking into account The Bitter Tea of General Yen, American Madness, and Meet John Doe (1941), three dark films tackling major issues, imperialism, the American plutocracy, and domestic fascism. Capra was no Pollyanna, and the man who was called a "dago" by Mack Sennett and who went on to become one of the most unique, highly honored and successful directors, whose depictions of America are considered Americana themselves, did not live his cinematic life looking through a rose-colored range-finder
In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra says that at the time of American Madness, critics began commenting on his "gee-whiz" style of film-making. The critics attacked "gee whiz" cultural artifacts as their fabricators "wander about wide-eyed and breathless, seeing everything as larger than life." Capra's response was "Gee whiz!"
Defining Hollywood as split between two camps, "Mr. Up-beat" and "Mr. Down-beat," Capra defended the up-beat, gee whiz camp on the grounds that, "To some of us, all that meets the eye IS larger than life, including life itself. Who can match the wonder of it?"
Frank Capra pointed to Moses and the apostles as examples of men who were larger than life. Capra was proud to be "Mr. Up-beat" rather than belong to "the 'ashcan' school" whose "films depict life as an alley of cats clawing lids off garbage cans, and man as less noble than a hyena. The 'ash-canners,' in turn, call us Pollyannas, mawkish sentimentalists, and corny happy-enders."
What really moves Capra is that in America, there was room for both schools, that there was no government interference that kept him from making a film like American Madness. (Interestingly, Ambassador to the United Kingdom Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of future President John F. Kennedy, had asked Harry Cohn to stop exporting Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Europe as it portrayed American democracy so negatively.) About Mr. Up-beat and Mr.Down-beat and "Mr. In-between," Capra says, "[W]e all respect and admire each other because the great majority freely express their own individual artistry unfettered by subsidies or strictures from government, pressure groups, or ideologists."
In the period 1934 to 1941, Capra the created the core of his canon with the classics It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe, wining three Best Director Oscars in the process. Some cine-historians call Capra the great American propagandist, he was so effective in creating an indelible impression of America in the 1930s. "Maybe there never was an America in the thirties," John Cassavetes was quoted as saying. "Maybe it was all Frank Capra."
After the United States went to war in December 1941, Frank Capra rejoined the Army and became an actual propagandist. His Why We Fight
series of propaganda films were highly lauded for their remarkable craftsmanship and were the best of the U.S. propaganda output during the war. Capra's philosophy, which has been variously described as a kind of Christian socialism (his films frequently feature a male protagonist who can be seen a Christ figure in a story about redemption emphasizing New Testament values) that is best understood as an expression of humanism, made him an ideal propagandist. He loved his adopted country with the fervor of the immigrant who had realized the American dream. One of his propaganda films, The Negro Soldier
(1944), is a milestone in race relations.
Frank Capra, a genius in the manipulation of the first form of "mass media," was opposed to "massism." The crowd in a Capra film is invariably wrong, and he comes down on the side of the individual, who can make a difference in a society of free individuals. In an interview, Capra said he was against "mass entertainment, mass production, mass education, mass everything. Especially mass man. I was fighting for, in a sense, the preservation of the liberty of the individual person against the mass."
Frank Capra had left Columbia after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and formed his own production company. From 1944-46, when he toiled for the Army Signal Corps, he made only one feature film, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). His Prelude to War won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1942. After the war, he founded Liberty Films with John Ford and made his last masterpiece, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Though Capra received his sixth Oscar nomination as best director, the movie flopped at the box office, which is hard to believe now that the film is considered must-see viewing each Christmas. Capra's period of greatness was over, and after making three under-whelming films from 1948-51 (including a remake of his earlier Broadway Bill), Capra didn't direct another picture for eight years, instead making a series of semi-comic science documentaries for television. His last two movies, Hole in the Head (1959) and A Pocketful of Miracles, his remake of Lady for a Day, did little to enhance his reputation.
Frank Capra's Legacy
Frank Capra's "Capra-corn" was out of sync with the times after World War II, when the "Ash-can" school of film-making started its ascendancy. The increasingly freedom brought by the collapse of the studio system allowed directors to tackle more personal subjects. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had established himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter before the war, won dual Oscars for screenplay and director two years in a row (1950 & '51) for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), the seventh and tenth films he had ever directed. The films had a sexual frankness that was missing from a Capra film. Elia Kazan, also a double-Oscar winner, moved American film towards a more European sensibility in the Fifties. Amongst Capra contemporaries, George Stevens -- who started in silent films -- won two Oscars for his Fifties oeuvre, which started with A Place in the Sun (1951), one of the classics of American cinema, and ended with The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), with the classics Shane (1953) and Giant (1955) in between. William Wyler, another contemporary who started in silents, had a productive decade, capping it off with his third Best Director Academy Award for Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Oscars and was one of the biggest box office hits of all time.
Frank Capra was "gone," but not forgotten. He was as part of Americana as Norman Rockwell or the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway & John Steinbeck. He might be unfashionable, but his reputation remained great.
Frank Capra's films withstood the test of time and continue to be as beloved as when they were embraced by the movie-going "mass" in the 1930s. It was the craftsmanship: Capra was undeniably a master of his medium. The great English novelist Graham Greene, who supported himself as a film critic in the 1930s, loved Capra's films due to their sense of responsibility and of common life, and due to his connection with his audience. (Capra, according to the 1938 TIME Magazine cover story, believed that what he liked would be liked by moviegoers.) In his review of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Green elucidated the central theme of Capra's movies: "[G]oodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world."
But it was Capra's great mastery over film that was the key to his success. Comparing Capra to Dickens in a not wholly flattering review of You Can't Take it With You, Green found Capra "'a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels - vaguely - that something is wrong with the social system." Commenting on the improbable scene in which Grandpa Vanderhof persuades the munitions magnate Anthony P. Kirby to give everything up and play the harmonica, Greene stated:
"It sounds awful, but it isn't as awful as all that, for Capra has a touch of genius with a camera: his screen always seems twice as big as other people's, and he cuts as brilliantly as Eisenstein (the climax when the big bad magnate takes up his harmonica is so exhilarating in its movement that you forget its absurdity). Humour and not wit is his line, a humour that shades off into whimsicality, and a kind of popular poetry which is apt to turn wistful. We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal - to that great soft organ with its unreliable goodness and easy melancholy and baseless optimism. The cinema, a popular craft, can hardly be expected to do more."
Capra was a populist, and the simplicity of his narrative structures, in which the great social problems facing America were boiled down to scenarios in which metaphorical boy scouts took on corrupt political bosses and evil-minded industrialists, created mythical America of simple archetypes that with its humor, created powerful films that appealed to the elemental emotions of the audience. The immigrant who had struggled and been humiliated but persevere due to his inner resolution harnessed the mytho-poetic power of the movie to create proletarian passion plays that appealed to the psyche of the New Deal movie-goer.
The country during the Depression was down but not out, and the ultimate success of the individual in the Capra films was a bracing tonic for the movie audience of the 1930s. His own personal history, transformed on the screen, became their myths that got them through the Depression, and when that and the war was over, the great filmmaker found himself out of time.
Like Charles Dickens, Frank Capra moralized political and economic issues. Both were primarily masters of personal and moral expression, and not of the social and political. It was the emotional realism, not the social realism, of such films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington which he was concerned with, and by focusing on the emotional and moral issues his protagonists faced, typically dramatized as a conflict between cynicism and the protagonist's faith and idealism, that made the movies so powerful, and made them register so powerfully with an audience. series of propaganda films were highly lauded for their remarkable craftsmanship and were the best of the U.S. propaganda output during the war.
Frank Capra's philosophy, which has been variously described as a kind of Christian socialism (his films frequently feature a male protagonist who can be seen a Christ figure in a story about redemption emphasizing New Testament values) that is best understood as an expression of humanism, made him an ideal propagandist. He loved his adopted country with the fervor of the immigrant who had realized the American dream.