Frank Capra (1897-1991)

Frank Capra
Frank Capra

Frank Capra was a Sicilian-born American film director, and one of the great creative geniuses of Hollywood's Golden Age. He was responsible for several immensely popular and successful movies during the 1930's and 1940's with a unique and memorable combination of social commentary and farce.

At the same time populist and humanist, uplifting, fast, and extremely funny, Capra's creations such as 'It Happened One Night' in 1934, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, and 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 1946 are among Hollywood's most bewitching movies and are nostalgically treasured and ritually reviewed as true cult classics. In addition to his talented filmmaking, Capra was a powerful force in the Director's Guild, the Motion Picture Academy, and the Producer's Guild.

Capra won three Academy Awards for Directing, for 'It Happened One Night', 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town' and 'You Can't Take It With You'. In addition, he received directing nominations for three other films ('Lady for a Day', 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington', and 'It's a Wonderful Life').

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Frank Capra was born in Bisacquino, Sicily on May 18, 1897, with the birth name Frank Rosario Capra. He was one of seven children, and he and his family emigrated to the United States in 1903 when Frank was six. They made their way to Los Angeles to stay with Frank's older brother Benedetto (anglicised to Benjamin) and Frank began attending the Castelar Elementary school followed in 1909 by the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

In order to fund his schooling he worked as a newspaper seller, and also played the banjo in various clubs in LA's red light district. His first exposure to filmmaking came here when he worked as editor on 'Our Wonderful Schools', a documentary on the Los Angeles Unified School District, produced by one of his teachers. The film won a medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition fair in San Francisco.

The family was poor and Frank who was determined to get an education, had to resist pressure from his parents to quit school. In 1915 after graduating from High School he entered the Throop College of Technology (later Caltech) and left three years later with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering. Despite his qualification he found work hard to come by and in 1918 he enlisted in the US army. It was only then that he discovered that he was not yet a US citizen. (He became naturalized in 1920.)

US Army 1918

For a few months in 1918 Frank taught ballistics and mathematics at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio of San Francisco but caught Spanish flu and was medically discharged with the rank of second lieutenant at the end of the year. He moved back to his brother's flat in LA to recuperate and whilst there answered a newspaper advertisement for extras for John Ford's film 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat'.

He continued to get occasional work as an extra but spent long periods unemployed or doing menial jobs to earn a living. He also worked as a prop man in several silent films and well and truly caught the movie bug. He tried his hand unsuccessfully at writing short stories and then in March 1920 was employed by CBC Film Sales Co., which was to evolve into Columbia Films, as an editor and director on a series called 'Screen Snapshots'. This was an unsettled time for the young Capra and he spent further months without work, even trying professional gambling as a source of income.

Movie Writer 1921

His fortunes began to change in 1921 when he was hired to help direct the short movie melodrama 'Fultah Fisher's Boarding House', which was based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. For a while, Capra worked as a writer for the biggest producers in Hollywood, firstly for Hal Roach and then for his arch rival, Mack Sennett, writing gags for silent film comedies starring Harry Langdon, then a major silent star and for the 'Our Gang' kids. In 1926 Capra directed his first feature length movie 'The Strong Man'. 'Long Pants' and 'For the Love of Mike' in 1927 soon followed and he finally landed a contract back with Columbia Pictures.

Columbia Pictures 1928

He made a series of action movies and romantic comedies such as 'The Matinee Idol' in 1928, all of which did well at the box-office. He made a flawless transition to talkies with 'The Younger Generation' in 1929, 'Ladies of Leisure' in 1930 and 'The Miracle Woman' in 1931 and Columbia gradually gave him more freedom, which Capra used to experiment with quickening the pace of his movies by cutting the entrances and exits of actors, and letting actions jump from scene to scene without dissolves - all signs of a maturing, experienced director. Another radical innovation which he introduced around this time was the deliberate overlapping of dialogue, instead of the much slower paced theatrical convention of performers waiting for their cues from the previous speaker.

First Oscar Success

In 1932 'American Madness', starring Walter Huston, introduced Capra's favorite theme, the struggle of the ordinary man against a rigid, faceless bureaucracy. The next decade saw Capra bring this theme to perfection in a string of movie classics. The fast pace of 'It Happened One Night' in 1934 initiated the screwball-comedy genre but also highlighted problems of the Depression. This screen combination of crazy comedy and concern for social problems was Capra's first Oscar success, with wins for Best Picture and Best Director. In 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town' in 1936, Capra used a 'what if?' plot device to explore similar themes, and his belief in the goodness of the common man, contrasted with the greed and corruption of businessmen and politicians, came even more to the fore and he won his second Oscar for Best Director. His approach prompted critics to call him 'the gee whiz' director, known for unbridled optimism in overcoming opposition.

His sentimental approach became known as "Capracorn" and it is displayed to perfection in two films he made starring Jean Arthur (whom he called his favorite actress) and James Stewart: the cute and heartfelt 'You Can't Take It With You' in 1938, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and his third for Best Director; and 'Mr.Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939.

'Meet John Doe' in 1941 is perhaps Capra's most direct political comment, exposing the fabrications and cynicism of the corporate press before joint community action exposes its evil. During World War II, he was commissioned as a major in the United States Army Signal Corps and headed a propaganda unit which directed the seven part 'Why We Fight' series, each part an invaluable historical document. He also produced 'The Negro Soldier' in 1944, targeted at African-American soldiers and an important milestone in race relations in the USA. For his work during the war Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.

His next film, 'Arsenic and Old Lace' in 1944, was, uncharacteristically, a zany, macabre, and satirical screwball comedy. It was nevertheless a big success. Capra left Columbia in 1945 and started his own film company, Liberty Films Inc. with John Ford.

'It's A Wonderful Life' 1946

As if to atone for the vitriol of 'Arsenic and Old Lace', and in a softening of his trademark idealism, 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 1946, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, was a heartwarming parable of community commitment and social recognition, dedicated to the true cornerstones of the American dream: family, friendship, and caring. Surprisingly, it was not a commercial success on first release, although it was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Editing, but it soon became - and remains to this day - an annual classic, the United States's favorite Christmas movie. It is ranked by the American film Institute at number 11 in its list of 100 Best Movies. For Capra, it was also his last major success and the movie marked the end of his period of great creativity.

The romantic comedy 'State of the Union' in 1948 is a nice reprise from the themes of innocence and politics, and his two Bing Crosby films, 'Riding High' in 1950 and 'Here Comes the Groom' in 1951 are fun, but lack the sting and relevance of his earlier works.

Between 1952 and 1956, Capra produced four semi-comic science-related television documentaries for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company which became extremely popular educational viewing for schools.

After 'A Hole in the Head' in 1959 and 'Pocketful of Miracles' in 1961, Capra retired, and apart from 'Rendezvous in Space' in 1964, made for the Martin Marietta Company and shown at the 1964 New York World's Fair, he never made another film. In 1971, he published his autobiography, "The Name Above the Title", which sold well and after which he became a regular guest speaker on the campuses of America.


Capra married twice, firstly to Helen Howell in November, 1923, but, in 1927, when she had an ectopic pregnancy terminated on medical advice, the marriage began to deteriorate. Capra immersed himself in his work and his wife began to drink heavily. The couple divorced a year later.

His second marriage, in 1932, was to Lucille Reyburn, whom he met on a blind date. She was a strong woman with whom he had a close, loving relationship until her death in 1984. They had four children, one of whom, Frank Capra, Jr., became a prominent film producer.

In 1982 Capra received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. e suffered a stroke in 1985 and withdrew into private life.

Frank Capra died on September 3, 1991 at his home in La Quinta, California, of a heart attack at the age of 94. He was interred in the Coachella Valley Cemetery in Coachella, California.


It is easy to say that Capra's optimism was naive and his characters gullible, but at a time when the Great Depression and the World War II made reality grim enough, his films provided belief and relief.

His vision of America is essentially a simplistic one which is still extremely appealing to the basic emotions of the audience and Capra's films have remained popular, particularly with the young people who gravitate toward Capra's idealistic, non-materialistic heroes. It is this simplicity, combined with an intimate knowledge and mastery of the film making process which has contributed to his enduring popularity. He is undoubtedly one of the greats.

Frank Capra Filmography as Director

Our Wonderful Schools (as editor)
Fultah Fisher's Boarding House
The Strong Man
Long Pants
For the Love of Mike
That Certain Thing
So This is Love?
The Matinee Idol
The Way of the Strong
Say It with Sables
The Power of the Press
The Burglar
The Younger Generation
The Donovan Affair
Ladies of Leisure
Rain or Shine
The Miracle Woman
Platinum Blonde
American Madness
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Lady for a Day
It Happened One Night
Broadway Bill