Frank Capra

Engineer and Classic Film Director

Frank Capra

Engineer and Classic Film Director


During the dark decade of the 1930s, Frank Capra became America's preeminent filmmaker, leavening Depression-era despair with the laughter of his irrepressible optimism. Packaging hope for the hopeless, his "fantasies of goodwill" were as important to national morale as FDR's "fireside chats" and well-deserving of the three Best Director Oscars they brought him. Twenty years later when the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critics launched an auteurist reassessment of American films, his reputation suffered, despite the unarguable fact that his "name above the title" signified his absolute artistic control of the project, a rarity in the studio-dominated Hollywood culture of his heyday. Subsequent voices followed suit, taking great delight in decrying his work as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism and its celebration of all-American values, but the content of his films should not be judged too harshly out of the context of their time, the pulse of which Capra accurately measured. Fortunately, most contemporary critics look past the ideology to his undeniable strengths as a filmmaker.
Capra celebrated his sixth birthday alongside fellow immigrants in steerage of a ship bound for the United States. The classic rags-to-riches story, which saw this son of a fruit picker become one of his adopted country's most celebrated directors, was pure Horatio Alger, complete with his putting himself through the future CalTech by running the student laundry and waiting on tables, among other money-making endeavors. After service in the army, the unemployed engineer (and only college graduate among seven siblings) knocked about the West, hustling a living as a poker player and selling wildcat oil stocks before achieving a measure of respectability peddling Elbert Hubbard's "Little Journeys" in a 14-volume deluxe edition.

Seeing an ad for a new movie studio in San Francisco, he managed to talk his way into helming his first short, "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" (1922), a one-reeler based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling. In order to learn more about his new chosen profession, Capra apprenticed in a film lab, eventually working as a prop man, film editor and gag writer for director Bob Eddy, then joined first Hal Roach and later Mack Sennett, climbing the ladder of film comedy.

Though remembered primarily today for his social comedies of the 30s and 40s, Capra developed his craft at the helm of a diverse body of work, his first 21 features (made between 1926 and 1932) bearing almost none of the trademarks of his signature films. When Harry Harry Langdon left Sennett for First National, Capra tagged along, successfully directing three vehicles for the popular silent comic, whose decline seemingly coincided with his decision to direct himself. Capra's big break came in 1928 when Harry Cohn at struggling Columbia Pictures made him a company director, giving him carte blanche on the strength of his Langdon pictures. Over the next ten years he would direct 25 films (nine features in his first 12 months alone), raising that studio almost single-handedly from Poverty Row to the ranks of MGM, Paramount, RKO and United Artists.

At Columbia, Capra became known as a reliable craftsman of efficient and profitable productions, regardless of genre, his early work including military/action dramas ("Submarine" 1928, "Flight" 1929, "Dirigible" 1931); newspaper stories ("The Power of the Press" 1928); Barbara Stanwyck melodramas ("Ladies of Leisure" 1930, "The Miracle Woman" 1931, "Forbidden" 1932); and tearjerkers ("The Younger Generation" 1929). "Platinum Blonde" (1931) heralded the beginning of Capra's long-standing collaboration with screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom his social conscience 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 and averts a bank run by rallying faithful depositors as he battles the impersonal and corrupt machinery of big business. 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 30s formula, he abandoned it (and Riskin) for "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933), his most elaborately designed film recalling the style of Josef von Sternberg in its chiaroscuro lighting and its exoticism. Considered by some his masterpiece, it failed to generate enthusiasm, and Capra returned to Depression-era sentimentality with Riskin on "Lady for a Day" (also 1933), earning his first Oscar nomination as Best Director.

Though some critics blame Riskin for all that is saccharine and simplistic in the "Capriskin" oeuvre, he did write the pioneering "screwball comedy", "It Happened One Night" (1934), which swept the five major Academy Awards and established Capra as a major director. Following this unprecedented success, Capra began to produce as well as direct all of his projects, creating the string of celebrated films championing the common man most closely associated with his name.

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 punk case against Deeds, but the movie's message that goodness can ultimately triumph over evil was a perfect tonic for the times. Oscar smiled again on the director.

Adaptations of "Lost Horizon" (1937, from the James Hilton novel) and "You Can't Take It With You" (1938, from the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play) perpetuated the director's utopian vision of the world. The former added "Shangri-La", a strange Tibetan land where health, peace and longevity reign, to the lexicon and the latter (according to some reports Capra's most profitable film) celebrated individualism as embodied by the eccentric Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and clan. (It also earned Capra his third Best Director Academy Award.) "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), his last film for Columbia, then introduced James Stewart as his representative of small-town idealism, with Jean Arthur reprising her hard-boiled dame routine. When crooked politicians send head "boy scout" Stewart to the Senate, he turns the tables on them, making the world safe again for "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 at work, using all the techniques at his disposal to pack an emotional wallop in every scene. Long shots, quick cuts in close-up and montages that conveyed an accelerated storyline without disrupting it complemented a stellar cast delivering yet another Capra masterpiece.

Gary Cooper was back as the "barefoot fascist" of "Meet John Doe" (1941), the director's first independent film, which warned of influential native elements like the pro-Nazi German-American Bund operating in pre-World War II America. His only commercial film to appear during the war was "Arsenic and Old Lace" (filmed in 1941 but released in 1944), adapted from the Joseph Kesselring play, as he reentered the service and devoted his filmmaking talent to the American propaganda effort, directing the Oscar-winning "Prelude to War" (1942). It and its six sister "Why We Fight" information films shown to every G.I. helped remove any doubts in servicemen's minds that they were fighting for America against inhuman foes devoid not only of morality, but of common decency. Called the most powerful "statement of our cause" by Winston Churchill, these textbooks
of found-footage montage and other documentaries earned Colonel Capra the Distinguished Service Medal (the highest American military decoration for noncombat service). The French (or anybody else for that matter) can say what they want about being simplistic or overly patriotic. Capra was the right man at a black-and-white time, pitting his goodness against unspeakable evil.

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. Capra considered it his greatest achievement, and time has borne him out as the sentimental tale continues to improve with age. For his examination of the human heart, he tapped Stewart (who also ranked it his favorite film) for small-town Everyman George Bailey, Barrymore for Bailey's evil nemesis Potter and Donna Reed as the loyal trusting wife who knew since childhood she would be Mrs. George Bailey, surrounding his principals with stalwart supporting players like Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi and Ward Bond. Is it too uncritical to call this the perfect movie? Certainly it ranks among the greatest pictures ever made. In someone else's hands, a story of a man stopped from committing suicide by his guardian angel would have been trite, but Capra's contagious optimism and faith in the basic goodness of people turned it into an emotionally and spiritually uplifting experience. Simple? Not at all. Only a maste filmmaker like Capra could pull it off so well. The box-office failure of "It's a Wonderful Life" presaged the fate of his subsequent five features, none of which found much success.

The best of these were probably the first (1948's "State of the Union", based on the Broadway hit) and last (1961's "A Pocketful of Miracles", a remake of "Lady for a Day"), though the in-betweeners starring Bing Crosby (twice) and Frank Sinatra yielded two Oscar-winning songs, "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (Bing in "Here Comes the Groom" 1951) and "High Hopes" (Frank in "A Hole in the Head" 1959). Originally slated as the second project of his Liberty Films, "State of the Union" starred Spencer Tracy as a wealthy politician who sickens of the corruption around him and pulls out of the race for president, but for Capra, his selling-out of Liberty (to Paramount) represented a different kind of turning-point. "I fell never to rise to be the same man again either as a person or a talent . . . I lost my nerve . . . for fear of losing a few bucks." "Pocketful of Miracles" proved to be just a little too dated, though it boasted arguably the greatest array of character actors assembled since the 30s and a bravura performance by Bette Davis as Apple Annie.

Capra would try one more time to mount a feature film, but studio interference caused him to pull out of "Marooned", eventually released in 1969 with John Sturges at the helm. His last picture, "Rendezvous in Space" (1964), written, produced and directed for the Martin-Marietta Corporation (builders of the Titan rocket boosters), was in the tradition of his great war-time documentaries and the lesser-known series of educational science documentaries he wrote, produced and directed for the Bell System between 1952 and 1957, exhibiting his remarkable skill for manipulating mundane images into inspirationally charged, optimistic visions of human life. Capra made movies with a message, a simple message 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 then pulling mercilessly at the heart-strings. Francois Truffaut 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."

---Written by Greg Senf

 

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