Filmmaker Frank Capra (1897-1991) was 1930s Hollywood's top director, creating several immensely popular movies that captured the mood of the Depression-era United States and earning more Academy Award nominations than any of his contemporaries.

"Capracorn" is the term some use to describe Frank Capra's style of movie-making, but even if his films feel too sentimental to many critics and moviegoers, there is no denying the mastery he had of the film medium or that he developed a style uniquely his own. In the 1930s, he was the top director in Hollywood, turning out a series of films that touched the hopes and fears of the nation as it struggled through the Great Depression and, in the process, Capra garnered more Oscar nominations for himself and his pictures than any other filmmaker of the decade.

Stumbled Into Film Career

The youngest child in a large Sicilian family, Frank was six years old when his family joined the stream of European immigrants coming to the United States. Ending up in Los Angeles, he fought to go to college against his parents wishes; and he always looked back on his decision to attend the California Institute of Technology as one of the most important of his life. After serving stateside in the army, he had trouble finding well paying work, despite the being the only college-educated kid in a family that was otherwise fully employed. He was bumming around San Francisco when he answered an advertisement placed in the paper by an old Shakespearean actor looking for a director to shoot him in screen versions of his favorite poetry.

Capra turned out films based on poems such as Rudyard Kipling's "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House" and then sold them to the regular studios for a profit. After a series of these, Capra went to work for Harry Cohn who ran a small company called CBC that would grow into Columbia Pictures. For a while, Capra also worked in comedy, most notably with Harry Langdon, a silent clown usually placed fourth in the pantheon of great silent comedians after Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. It was with Langdon that Capra made his first feature films, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants. All were successful, but Langdon wanted to direct his own movies, and he fired Capra. Langdon's career went into decline, and Capra went back to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia.

He turned out a series of action movies that did not really yet bear the Capra personal touches, but the films were well made and tended to do very well at the box office. It was in this period that Capra made his first "talkie," The Younger Generation. In 1930, Capra began working with a writer named Jo Swerling after Swerling attacked one of his scripts in front of Harry Cohn. Impressed with Swerling's criticisms, Capra asked Cohn to hire the New York writer. Swerling was an important influence on Capra, and their first film together, Ladies of Leisure, starred Barbara Stanwyck and showed Capra finding his distinctive voice.

Won Oscars

Although both Swerling and Stanwyck became regulars in the Capra stable, Capra's breakthrough project was written with another writer, Robert Riskin. It Happened One Night won the Best Picture Oscar and Oscars for Capra as director—one of three he would win, all in that decade— and for both of its leads, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. One of the most famous scenes takes place on a broken down bus in which the riders, to entertain themselves, begin singing together the old song, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." It is vintage Frank Capra material, offering a vision of a world in which social distinctions are broken down and a democratic camaraderie holds sway across class lines.

His next big film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which won Capra another Oscar for Best Director, was also written by Robert Riskin. In it, Capra's belief in the goodness of the common man—as opposed to the greed of businessmen and the corruption of politicians—came even more to the fore. When Mr. Deeds becomes wealthy through an inheritance, he decides to give a significant part of his fortune to the poor. This leads his family to try to have him declared insane. At his trial, Mr. Deeds, played by Gary Cooper, refuses to speak in his own defense until his own faith in the goodness of humanity is restored. Of course as his faith is restored, so is the audience's; the film ends happily.

The next year he made Lost Horizon, a film that some critics say reveals some fascistic tendencies under his populism. In 1938, he turned a popular Kaufmann-Hart play, You Can't Take It With You, into a film very personal to himself. Picking up his third Oscar for Direction, he told the story of the love of a common, if eccentric, woman (Jean Arthur) saving the soul of a millionaire's son (Jimmy Stewart). It was Capra's first film with Stewart.

The next year they would make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is the perfect expression of Capra's political belief that the innocent idealism of one man can beat the entrenched moneyed interests of cynical politicians and industrialists, even when the have a corrupt media on their side. The film culminates in the hero's 23-hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate where he refuses to be licked. The fact that no real political progress has been made by the film's happy conclusion seems to have occurred to Capra too. At one point, Mr. Smith admits that "the only causes worth fighting for are lost causes." Stewart was perfect in the title role.

World War II Intervened

With Jimmy Stewart, even more than with Gary Cooper, Capra found the actor capable of bearing the burden of Capra's exalted vision of the common man as hero in a bad situation. As Charles Affron has written in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, "In James Stewart, Capra finds his most disquieting voice, ranging in Mr. Smith from ingenuousness to hysterical desperation, and in It's a Wonderful Life, to an even higher pitch of hysteria when the hero loses his identity." A good case can be made that the change in America's self-image caused by the Second World War can be seen in the change in Jimmy Stewart's self-image in these two films. Mr. Smith in the end manages to maintain his idealism, but George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life, goes through a much darker metamorphosis with a tacked-on happy ending. Capra's last film before the United States entered the war was Meet John Doe, starring Gary Cooper. As the editors of World Film Directors have written, "Meet John Doe, made at the end of the isolationist period when war with the axis seemed imminent, has been taken as a deliberate reaffirmation of American values, but one that reveals a surprising uncertainty about their survival and perhaps even about their nature."

During the Second World War, Capra entered the armed services and made propaganda films for the Allies. Winston Churchill was a particular fan of Capra's propaganda films, considering them the finest made on the Allied side. After the War, Capra started his own film company, Liberty Films Inc., and made It's a Wonderful Life, the story of an extraordinary but profoundly discouraged man who around Christmas is allowed to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born. A sort of modern day Christmas Carol, the film would become one of the classics of the American screen; but on its release, it was not a success. His next film, the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn vehicle, State of the Union was a mean-spirited and confused political picture that did nothing to bolster Capra's sagging reputation.

He made only five more films, and none could be called an artistic success of the quality of his depression era films or of It's a Wonderful Life. He made his last film, Pocketful of Miracles, featuring a fine Bette Davis performance in 1961. It was another box office disappointment, and he would live another 30 years without going behind the camera again. In 1971, he published his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, which has remained one of the better selling movie industry reminiscences.

Although he does not have a critical reputation approaching John Ford's, Howard Hawk's or Orson Welles's, Frank Capra's best films are still popular with audiences; and if his vision of America is much simpler than John Ford's, perhaps just for that reason, it has remained especially popular with the young people who gravitate toward Capra's idealistic, non-materialistic heroes. In the end, it was probably the simplicity of his vision—wedded to a complex mastery of the film form itself—which has made him so enduringly popular. If the Second World War marked the point when his filmmaking went into decline— It's a Wonderful Life, not withstanding—it was probably because the naïveté of his world view could not live on long in the complex political realities of the Cold War.

Further Reading on Frank Capra

Thomas, Nicholas, and Charles Affron, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2, No. 2, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 113-116.