Oscar Directors: Capra, Frank–Filmmaker of the American Dream

Born in 1897, in Palermo, Sicily, Frank Capra was six when his family moved to California, where his father made a meager living as an orange picker.

One of seven children, Capra sold newspapers and played a banjo in Los Angeles honky‑tonks, among other jobs, to help the family meet ends and pay for his own education.

Upon graduating as a chemical engineer from the California Institute of Technology in 1918, he enlisted in the Army as a private. After release, with the rank of second lieutenant, he could find no work in his profession.  He thus began drifting about the West, selling books and mining stocks door‑to‑door, and playing poker for a living.

In 1922, really poor, he doubled‑talked his way into directing a one‑reel film adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling ballad, “Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House,” for a small San Francisco‑based company. He earned $75 for this first directing job.

Not knowing anything about the film medium, he took a job as an apprentice at a small film lab in return for food and lodging. For a year he printed, dried, and spliced amateur films, then began processing the daily rushes of the Hollywood comedy director, Bob Eddy.  He next began to work for Eddy as a prop man and film editor, then moved on to the Hal Roach studios as gagman for the Our Gang comedies.

He was fired after six months, but Will Rogers recommended for a job as gag writer for comedian Harry Langdon.

When Langdon moved to First National, in 1926, he took Capra along as a director. Capra co‑authored and co‑directed with Harry Langdon a classic comedy, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, for which he received screen credit as co‑writer only.

He then directed two other superior Langdon films, The Strong Man and Long Pants.  However, the successful Langdon fired Capra and spread the rumor that he, not Capra, was responsible for the creative aspects of these films.

Unable to find employment in Hollywood, Capra went to New York in 1927, and got a job directing For the “Love of Mike,” a film featuring Claudette Colbert, a stage actress making her screen debut. It was a flop and Colbert went back to the stage, leaving Capra a unemployed.

Seven years later, the Capra‑Colbert collaboration in the screwball comedy co-starring Clark Gable, It Happened One Night, won the Oscars for both.

A dejected Capra next returned to Hollywood and accepted a $75‑a-week salary (down from $600) for grinding out two‑reel comedies for Max Sennett.

The turning point of his career was a contract to direct for Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures.  The ensuing decade‑long association propelled Columbia into the status of a major studio and Capra into the position Hollywood’s most successful leading filmmaker.

Enjoying total creative freedom and absolute autonomy on the set, Capra made a succession of highly successful films from the mid‑30s to the mid‑40s. In these fable‑like comedies, the recurrent theme was that of an idealistic individual, an improbable hero bucking all odds and thwarting the antisocial schemes of materialistic cynics. The cycle included It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, all of which shared a basic faith in the American Dream and the essential goodness of common men and the inevitable triumph of honesty and justice over bureaucracy‑driven) selfishness and deceit.

Even the atypical Lost Horizon can be seen as a variation on the same theme. During this down‑and‑out Depression period, the formula succeeded with both the critics and the lay public.

Capra won three Best Director Oscars within five years for It Happened One Night  (1934),  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It With You(1938). However, Capra’s darker view of the common man in Meet John Doe (1941), a long troubled production, shots with several different ends, failed to generate wide critical or commercial appeal.

Even so, one main reason he was able to present such a unified view was his repertory of actors and crew. Leads like James Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck projected the blend of earnest commonness and individuality that fueled his films; supporting cast members like Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell provided the corruption or skepticism needed to generate the drama.

Also crucial to Capra’s creativity was his screenwriter Robert Riskin, who, beginning with American Madness (1932), and continuing through some of Capra’s greatest successes, It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, helped to define the Capra film and the screwball comedy form.

During WW II, Capra, back in the service, directed a much‑herald Army documentary series, Why We Fight. The first of the series, “Prelude to War,” won the best documentary Oscar in 1942.

Capra’s postwar activity slackened considerably after his discharge from WWII with the rank of colonel. After the war, he formed his own production company Liberty Films, and hoped for a future as an independent. He felt his first Liberty film, the serio-comedy It’s a Wonderful Life, was his best film to date and would successfully reintroduce him to the postwar public. But the format that suited a Depression audience looking for optimistic answers proved too simplistic for postwar audiences awakened to ambiguity.

Unfortunately, Capra was slow to adjust to the changing times, within and without the film industry. His total output after the mid‑40s was limited to seven films.

He also directed four hour‑long television science programs for the Bell system: Our Mr. Sun (1956); Hemo the Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (1957); and The Unchained Goddess (1958).

In 1971, he published an autobiography, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title, a reminder that Capra was the first of Hollywood’s directors, excluding directors who financed their own films, whose name preceded the film title in the credits.

In the 1970s, when the copyright on It’s A Wonderful Life elapsed and was not renewed, the movie became a Christmas‑time staple on TV.  As such, it still introduces new generations of viewers to the man who captured the archetypal conflict between the common man and larger socio-economic-political forces.

Capra died in 1991.