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A tribute to Frank Capra

Thu 26th Aug 2021

Frank Capra was the creative force behind many award-winning films throughout the 30s and 40s and is regarded as one of America's most influential Directors. He wrote films for the working class and the down and outs, and inspiring actors found their voices working alongside him.

Bravely avoiding trends and instead creating his own, Capra encouraged others to do the same.

"Believe in yourself, because only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours, and in the dark."

Let us now look back and celebrate the life and career of legendary, three-time Oscar winner Frank Capra.

Early Years

Frank Capra was born poor in a village near Palermos, Sicily on May 18, 1897. The youngest of seven children, his family wanting a better life travelled to America in the steerage compartment aboard the ship Germania. The treacherous journey to New York took thirteen days; in what five year old Capra described as, the worst experience of his life. "There's no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. It's the most degrading place you could ever be."  

When the ship finally arrived, Capra recalled his Dad dragging him up steep iron stairs to the deck where he shouted:

"Ciccio, look! Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem!"

Capra recalls seeing the statue of a lady holding a lamp over the land they were about to live on, and his Father saying, "That's the light of freedom! Remember that…freedom." Words which motivated Capra to achieve the all American Dream.

The family settled in LA's East Side where Capra began his education in 1903 at Castelar Elementary School, then LA's Manual Arts High school in 1909, where his interest in theatre and back-stage lighting began to grow. Capra enjoyed school and knew if he wanted to get anywhere in America, he needed an education.

To earn money, Capra sold newspapers after school, sometimes with the help of his brother; who he admits he would pick fights with to draw a crowd when sales were low.

After graduating high school in 1915, Capra enrolled in the Throop College of Technology to study Chemical Engineering, graduating with great honors in 1918. While at the school his interest in the fine arts department grew further and quickly fell in love with writing.

Capra was commissioned in the U.S. Army the same year he graduated, but after getting the Spanish Flu was discharged and had to return to live with his family in LA to recuperate. The only family member with a college degree, Capra spent a lot of time unemployed which depressed him because his siblings all had steady jobs. At 25, he finally scored a job selling books by American philosopher, Elbert Hubbard and became a live-in tutor for a rich gambler.

Early Career

Nearly broke with his book sales effort, Capra responded to a newspaper article about a studio opening in San Francisco. Having bluffed to studio founder Walter Montague that he had film industry experience, Capra was offered $75 to direct a one-reel silent film. This led the way to Capra finding similar roles within the industry, working in Harry Cohn's studio as a property man, gag writer, film cutter, scripts writer and assistant director. He moved around a lot until he directed his first picture for First National - For the Love of Mike (1927).

Capra returned to Cohn's studio; now called Columbia Pictures, where he directed nine films in his first year - all successful ones too. Capra became Cohn's most trusted Director and soon Capra's films were well known throughout the industry. Capra directed all of his classics while at Columbia - 20 films in total.

Capra's engineering education saw him adapt quickly to the new sound technology, and welcomed it when others assumed it was a passing fad. The majority of Hollywood's directors were nervous that sound would threaten the industry - Capra was not one of them.

Few were aware of Capra's engineering background until he directed The Younger Generation (1929). The chief cinematographer who worked with Capra was likewise unaware, describing this early period in sound for film:

"... nobody knew much about it. We were all walking around in the dark. Even the sound man didn't know much about it. Frank lived through it... He was one of the few directors who knew what the hell they were doing."

Capra's films soon established him as a "bankable" director and it wasn't long before his name was well known throughout the industry.

It Happened One Night (1934 film), Columbia Pictures. Director Frank Capra, Actors Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable.
It Happened One Night (1934 film), Columbia Pictures. Director Frank Capra, Actors Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable.

Film Career

During the 1930s, Capra's films brought him great success and his name was heard often at the Academy Awards. His work on It Happened One Night (1934) became the first film to win all five Oscars:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. His next film Broadway Bill (1934), he began looking at his movies in a new light, using them as a platform to convey messages to the public.

"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."

Capra's personality on set was gentle and considerate and because his films carried messages of goodwill, human nature and displayed wholesome values of hard work and unselfishness, it led cynics to term his style "Capra-corn". However, those who held him in higher regard used the term "Capraesque".

James Gleason, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and Frank Capra playing chess, 1940
James Gleason, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and Frank Capra playing chess, 1940

Capra, who ventured to America as an immigrant and enriched a new art form, has an accomplished list of Academy Awards, Nominations and Honors that reads long, these are just a few: Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Each of these films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture - but it was It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It with You that brought home the wins.

Watching 85 year old, Frank Capra accept the 10th AFI Life Achievement Award in 1982 was compared to watching a Frank Capra film itself. The humble way he delivered his speech, the gratitude towards his family and the homage to his adopted country merely personified the cinematic master's benevolent nature. Also sharing the secret behind his films, he said:

"The art of Frank Capra is very, very simple: It's the love of people. Add two simple ideals to this love of people: the freedom of each individual, and the equal importance of each individual…"

Legacy

Frank Capra who believed compassion was a two way street, passed away on 3rd September, 1991, aged 94.

During Hollywood's Golden Age of cinema, Capra created entertainment that made people feel good. Film historian Ian Freer said he:

"... created feelgood entertainments before the phrase was invented, and his influence on culture - from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch, and from television soap operas to greeting-card sentiments - is simply too huge to calculate."

 

James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Frank Capra on set Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Frank Capra on set Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Counted among the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema, Frank Capra directed 6 films that have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant: The Strong Man (1926), The Power of the Press (1928), It Happened One Night (1934), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Frank Capra's genuine love for his craft radiated through his ideas and ideals and his contribution to the legacy of cinema will be forever remembered.

Frank Capra, may your creative spirit rest in peace.

"I always felt the world cannot fall apart as long as free men see the rainbow, feel the rain and hear the laugh of a child."  Frank Capra  

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001008/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Capra