Frank Capra

18 May

Bio: Frank Russel Capra born May 18, 1897 in Sicily immigrated to America at six years old.  Capra was considered by his peers as the American Dream personified as he had worked his way through college and ultimately became the creative heart and soul of major award winning films during the 1930’s and 40’s. During his peak years critics called his films “Capra-Corn” for their upbeat sentiments about human nature, the average man’s triumph over corrupt powerful leaders, and peoples innate kindness to others. During these years audiences flocked to his films and Capra’s name above the film title on the marquee guaranteed success.

Commentary: The other day I was watching Pocket Full of Miracles (1961) Capra’s last film, critics were lukewarm and audiences pretty much stayed away. Pocket Full of Miracles is a remake of his earlier film Lady for a Day, both films tell the tale of Damon Runyon’s  Apple Annie and the human kindness that helped the beggar woman become gold in her daughter’s eyes.   After the films lackluster release, at 64 years old, Capra decided he had enough of the film business, ” I’ve done it all and said what I had to say, I’ll leave the business to the younger directors” .  This prompted me to take a look at the sum total of the whole and remind you of why his films still resonate today.

In 1934 Capra directed It happened One Night, this romantic comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable had elements of a screwball comedy but was also the first film to win all five major Academy Awards, Best Picture, Director, Actor Actress and Screenplay. Colbert didn’t hide her disdain for the role saying the part was unladylike and she didn’t want to show her leg in the famous hitch-hiking sequence. Capra claimed, Colbert “had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me,” however “she was wonderful in the part.”After her acceptance speech at the Oscars ceremony, she went back on stage and thanked Capra for making the film. Another foot note Chuck Jones (Famous Bugs Bunny Director/Animator) claimed he based Bugs Bunny’s character on Clark Gable eating carrots from the hitch-hiking scene in this film, ears and all.

The same year he directed Broadway Bill a screwball comedy about horse racing but it was after this he began thinking about adding new dimensions to his films concluding that he needed to convey messages and new thoughts on the human condition to the public. Capra explained his thinking after he had an encounter with a Christian Scientist who inspired him to add dimension to his films. “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other”.  His fantasies of goodwill” won him two more  Best Director Oscars for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It With You.

In 1939 Capra directed Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” , it is considered to be the one film that truly personified the Capra myth and message. This is a story of a man elected to office and by sticking to his ideals uses democracy to overcome political corruption in congress. It became a source of controversy when war was looming overseas and the powers that be at the time didn’t want the film released in Europe in case America entered the war. When the filming was completed, the studio sent preview copies to Washington. Joe Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the UK, wrote to Columbia head Harry Cohn, “Please do not play this picture in Europe.”  Kennedy wrote to president Roosevelt that “in foreign countries this film must inevitably strengthen the mistaken impression that the United States is full of graft, corruption and lawlessness.” At the pleading of Capra, Cohn released the film anyway and it became the symbol of democratic patriotism both here and abroad. The significance of the film’s message was established further in France, shortly after World War II began. When the French public were asked to select which film they wanted to see most, having been told by the Vichy government that soon no more American films would be allowed in France, the overwhelming majority chose it over all others. To France, soon to be invaded and occupied by Nazi forces, the film most expressed the “perseverance of democracy and the American way.”

In 1941 America was about to step into WWII and America’s future was unsure and people were afraid of what was yet to come. Capra stuck to his ideology although also unsure of what was next for American Democracy and directed what some consider his most controversial film of the day Meet John Doe. Starring Gary Cooper  as a washed up ball player who has lost focus and direction in his life. Cooper is chosen by a news reporter to become the symbol of  “the common man” and is used to capture the imagination of average Americans. The film has been considered ” deliberately made to reaffirm American values”

The perennial It’s A Wonderful Life released after the war in 1946 was the first film he directed under the Liberty Films banner founded by Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Although the film was nominated for five Oscars it proved to be a box-office disappointment. It wasn’t until it became public domain and aired on Television that it became a Christmas Classic. Loaded with “Capra-Corn” little guy beats power mad banker, finds love, is helped by a guardian angel, reevaluates his life and overcomes diversity. The American Film Institute claims this as one of its  all time 100 top films. What’s not to like, this is perhaps his best known work.

Capra lived until he was 94 and died in 1991 after living a long and wonderful life. His films are available at, Netflix, and there is also a wealth of books written about this master story teller. If you have Turner Classic Movies (TCM) that is great source for Capra films.

2 Responses to “Frank Capra”

  1. W. Squier May 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I’m reading Frank Langella’s book and he mentions It Happened One Night as one of his favorite film comedies. It still holds up!

    • cinemareviewsandcommentary May 18, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

      It Happens One Night is one of my favorites. The Colbert/Gable combo is electric and funny. See it if you can. As far as Capra is concerned “He is not Italian he’s Sicilian!”

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