Frank Capra

Frank Capra

Born Francesco Rosario Capra in Bisaquino, Sicily, Italy, Capra was raised in a large family by his father, Salvatore, a fruit picker and grower, and his mother, Rosaria, who married Capra's father after his first wife died six months into their marriage. Capra celebrated his sixth birthday alongside fellow immigrants in steerage aboard the Germania, which was bound from Italy to the United States. After settling in Southern California, the classic rags-to-riches story was pure Horatio Alger, which saw the young man hock newspapers, sell fruit and play banjo in Los Angeles honky-tonks to make money. Having graduated from Manual Arts High School before his 16th birthday, Capra discovered that he was too young to attend college, which led to a year of working odd jobs to save up for his schooling. When he was old enough, Capra attended Throop Polytechnic Institute - later the California Institute of Technology - where he worked as a waiter, ran the student laundry, and worked at a power plant while studying chemical engineering. Adding to his already hectic schedule, Capra began editing his school newspaper, and in his senior year, served as a captain in the CalTech's ROTC unit.After receiving a scholarship that allowed him to travel abroad, Capra earned a commendation from the National Research Council for his chemical research on an incendiary bomb. He graduated Throop with his bachelor's of science in 1918, though he still had a reserve commission with the Army. Despite wanting to go overseas during World War I, Capra was instead assigned to artillery school at Ft. Scott in San Francisco, where he taught ballistics and mathematics to artillerymen for the remainder of the war. But he soon caught a dose of the Spanish flu during the famed epidemic that killed an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide, leading to his medical discharge with the rank of second lieutenant. Following his army service, the unemployed engineer - who also happened to be the only college graduate among seven siblings - spent the next two years knocking about California, hustling a living as a poker player and selling wildcat oil stocks before achieving a measure of respectability peddling Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys door to door. Seeing an ad for a new movie studio run by Shakespearean actor Walter Montague, Capra managed to talk his way into helming his first short film, "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" (1922), a one-reeler based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling. In order to learn more about his new profession, he apprenticed in a film lab, eventually working as a prop man, film editor and gag writer for director Bob Eddy, before joining Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett, and climbing the ladder of film comedy.Though remembered primarily today for his social comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, Capra developed his craft at the helm of a diverse body of work, with his first 21 features bearing almost none of the trademarks of his signature films. When vaudeville star Harry Langdon left Sennett for First National, Capra tagged along, successfully directing three vehicles for the popular silent comic, "The Strong Man" (1926), "Tramp, Tramp" (1926) and "Long Pants" (1927). But Landgon fired Capra and began taking control of his own career, which led to his precipitous decline. Meanwhile, Capra's big break came in 1928 when the president of struggling Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, made him a company director, giving him carte blanche on the strength of his Langdon pictures. Over the next decade, Capra directed 25 films - nine features in his first 12 months alone - raising that studio almost single-handedly from Poverty Row to the ranks of major studio alongside MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros. and RKO. At Columbia, Capra became known as a reliable craftsman of efficient and profitable productions, regardless of genre. His early work included military-action dramas like the silent "Submarine" (1928), and talkies "Flight" (1929), and "Dirigible" (1931), all of which starred leading man Jack Holt. He also helmed newspaper stories like "The Power of the Press" (1928), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as well as the Barbara Stanwyck melodramas "Ladies of Leisure" (1930), "The Miracle Woman" (1931) and "Forbidden" (1932). It was the Jean Harlow vehicle "Platinum Blonde" (1931) that heralded the beginning of Capra's long-standing collaboration with screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom his social consciousness suddenly emerged on "American Madness" (1932), the prototype for much of their work to come. Their first idealistic hero (Walter Huston) is a dedicated community banker who, much like James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," (1946), lends money to people whose only collateral is honesty. Capra demonstrated his mastery of the medium, using overlapping speeches that emphasized the naturalistic quality of the dialogue as increased crosscutting and jump cuts registered the panic and hysteria of the mob. However, having discovered a winning 1930s formula, Capra quickly abandoned it and Riskin for "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933), his most elaborately designed film that recalled the style of Josef von Sternberg in its chiaroscuro lighting and exoticism. A tragic tale of a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) who develops an unrequited love with an American emissary (Barbara Stanwyck) during China's Civil War, "Bitter Tea" was considered by some to be the director's masterpiece, even though it failed to generate much enthusiasm during its release.Capra returned to Depression-era sentimentality with Riskin on "Lady for a Day" (1933), a comedy-drama about a Broadway street merchant (May Robson) whose rouse to keep her daughter (Jean Parker) living in luxury becomes threatened after learning she's about to marry a Spanish nobleman (Barry Norton). Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director, Capra suffered infamous public embarrassment when presenter Will Rogers opened the envelope and said, "Come up and get it, Frank," leading the director to run up on stage to accept his Oscar before realizing Rogers meant fellow nominee Frank Lloyd, who was nominated for "Cavalcade" (1933). But Capra soon made up for his faux pas with his next picture, the pioneering screwball comedy "It Happened One Night" (1934), which became the first film ever to sweep the five major Academy Awards. The film starred Claudette Colbert as a spoiled high-society girl who wants to marry a gallivanting playboy (Jameson Thomas) over the objection of her father (Walter Connolly). To keep her from marrying, her father isolates her on his yacht, which leads to her escape and encounter with an out-of-work newspaper man (Clark Gable). The bickering pair embarks on a madcap hitchhiking adventure that eventually leads to the mismatched pair falling in love. With snappy dialogue and the infamous scene where Colbert hails a car by exposing her leg, "It Happened One Night" became a huge hit and established Capra as a major director, following Academy Award wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Writing (Adaptation). Following his unprecedented success with "It Happened One Night," Capra began to produce as well as direct all of his projects, creating a string of celebrated films championing the common man. First came "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), whose innocent and truly virtuous bumpkin, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), confronts a corrupt and crazy world which does not cotton to his decision to give away his inherited millions. A key player in the film's success was the character played by Jean Arthur, a cynical reporter who anticipates audience skepticism and leads Deeds down a primrose path to his potential undoing, while managing to fall in love along the way. Of course, the eventual resolution at the sanity hearing is as unbelievable as the prosecution's case against Deeds, but the movie's message that goodness can ultimately triumph over evil was perfect tonic for the times. Once again, Oscar's fortunes smiled on Capra, who won his second consecutive Academy Award for Best Director. He went on to direct the adaptation of James Hilton's novel, "Lost Horizon" (1937), a philosophical drama starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt that centered on the enchanted paradise of Shangri-La. A vastly expensive undertaking - it cost more than $1.6 million, a huge sum at the time - "Lost Horizon" was plagued by cost-overruns, an extra 34 days of shooting, and a disastrous preview screening that forced Capra to sizably cut down the film. But when all was said and done, the film became a critical hit that was considered one of the best of the year, while earning several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.Continuing his string of iconic films, Capra went on to adapt the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), which helped to perpetuate the director's utopian vision of the world and reportedly became the director's most profitable film. "You Can't Take It With You" was a whimsical screwball comedy about an eccentric family headed by a former businessman-turned-artist (Lionel Barrymore), who is happy spending all day painting despite his obvious lack of talent. But when one of the daughters (Jean Arthur) falls in love with her boss' son, the family tries and horribly fails to act normal in an effort to impress the in-laws. Once again, Capra found himself in contention for Best Director at the Academy Awards. His next film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), which was also his last film for Columbia, truly encapsulated the idea of idealism triumphing over evil. Capra discovered his best representative of this ideal in the form of actor James Stewart, who played a newly elected senator sent to do battle against crooked politicians in the name of "truth, justice and the American way." Though such easy cures for the political and press corruption so visibly illustrated were not readily available, the film exhibited the master director at work, using all the techniques at his disposal to pack an emotional wallop in every scene, particularly Stewart's famed emotionally draining filibuster. Long shots, quick cuts in close-up, and montages that conveyed an accelerated storyline without disrupting it complemented a stellar cast that helped deliver another Oscar-nominated masterpiece for Capra.Capra moved on to direct the last of his so-called social films, "Meet John Doe" (1941), which happened to be the first of his independent ventures. The story focused on a female reporter, disgruntled from being fired, who causes a public sensation after writing a fake suicide note from a John Doe claiming to kill himself by jumping off of city hall. But when the public wants to meet said John Doe, a fascistic tycoon (Edward Arnold) with presidential ambitions hires a former ballplayer-turned-homeless man (Gary Cooper) to play Doe, using him as a springboard to launch his political aspirations. Though the film turned a profit, Capra and producing partner Riskin were forced to dissolve their production company due to excessive taxes. Meanwhile, Capra joined the rest of Hollywood in waving the flag during World War II, reentering the service to devote his filmmaking talents to the American propaganda effort. With his new commission as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Capra directed a series of what he called his most important films for the U.S. War Department, including the "Why We Fight" series, which consisted of seven films like "The Nazis Strike" (1942) and the Oscar-winning "Prelude to War" (1942). After his service was completed, Capra left with the rank of colonel and received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945. Capra's only commercial film to appear during the war was "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), a farcical comedy about a pair of spinster sisters (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) who poison lonely bachelors to put them out of their lovelorn misery. Meanwhile, their newly married nephew (Cary Grant) goes to great pains keeping his family's secrets away from his blushing new bride (Priscilla Lane). Adapted from the Joseph Kesselring play in 1941, the film remained on the shelf for three years before being released to near-universal praise. Once back in civilian clothes, the director went to work on the perennial Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a picture that lost money at the box office during its initial release, but later became a yearly must-see yuletide movie. Capra considered it his greatest achievement, with time having borne him out as the sentimental tale continued to improve with age. For his examination of the human heart, he cast James Stewart as small-town Everyman George Bailey, whose ambitions to leave Bedford Falls and see the world have been thwarted by circumstances and his own giving heart. Having sacrificed his own education so his brother could have one, while protecting the town from his greedy banker boss, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George thinks his life is a failure, leading him to contemplate suicide by jumping off a bridge. But a bumbling angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) intercedes, showing him how much Bedford Falls and his family truly needs him. Shot under the auspices of his newly-formed Liberty Films, "It's a Wonderful Life" was full of Capra's contagious optimism and faith in the basic goodness of people, perfectly captured with Stewart's iconic return to his town after thinking himself dead, wishing everyone and everything a "Merry Christmas."The box office failure of "It's a Wonderful Life" presaged the fate of his subsequent five features, none of which found much success. One of the best of these was his next picture - and the last made for Liberty Films - "State of the Union" (1948), a lighthearted comedy based on the hit Broadway play about an idealist industrialist (Spencer Tracy) sickened by political corruption who decides to run for president. After selling Liberty to Paramount, Capra entered the waning years of his career, directing the musical comedy "Riding High" (1950), starring Bing Crosby and Coleen Gray, and another musical romantic comedy "Here Comes the Groom" (1951), also starring Crosby and Jane Wyman, before stepping away from Hollywood in 1952. He spent the next seven years working with CalTech for the Defense Department on a project studying psychological warfare, after which he went to India for a film festival as a U.S. emissary, only to have his credentials delayed for content in "State of the Union." During this time, he also wrote and produced four science-based educational documentaries for Bell Telephone: "Our Mr. Sun," "Hemo the Magnificent," "Strange Case of Cosmic Rays" and "Unchained Goodness." Capra returned to Hollywood filmmaking with "A Hole in the Head" (1959), which starred Frank Sinatra as a widower who stops at nothing to fulfill his dream of building a huge amusement park. Capra next directed what turned out to be his last Hollywood film, "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), a remake of his own "Lady for a Day," starring Bette Davis as Apple Annie.Capra tried one last time to mount a feature film when he went into pre-production on "Marooned" for Columbia in 1964. Frustrated with then-studio head Mike Frankovich for what he deemed unreasonable script approvals and budgets, Capra left the project and officially retired. Later in the decade, John Sturges took the reigns of "Marooned," which was eventually released in 1969. Meanwhile, Capra directed his last film, "Rendezvous in Space" (1964), which was made for the Martin-Marietta Corporation, builders of the Titan rocket boosters, and fell in line with the tradition of his great war-time documentaries. In 1967, Capra and his wife, Lucille, left Hollywood and relocated to La Quinta, CA, where the director spent the rest of his days publishing his memoirs, The Name Above the Title (1971), and giving lectures as a popular speaker on college campuses. After suffering a series of strokes in the 1980s that put him under 24-hour nursing care, Capra died in his sleep from a heart attack on Sept. 3, 1991 in his La Quinta home. He was 94. Capra left behind a legacy as a director who made movies with simple messages, which often required a suspension of disbelief in order to respond to them. His genius as a moviemaker was getting the audience past that hurdle and pulling mercilessly at the heart-strings. Francois Truffaut once said of him: "In recognizing the facts of human suffering, uncertainty, anxiety, the everyday struggles of life, Capra, with his unquenchable optimism, was a healing force. This good doctor, who was also a great director, became a restorer of men's spirits."