Oscar Profile #528: Frank Capra Revisited

Born Francisco Rosario Capra on May 18, 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily and raised in Los Angeles from the age of six, the future President of both AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and the DGA (Directors Guild of America) would become a naturalized American citizen in 1920 at which time he legally changed his name to Frank (Russell) Capra.

Raised in poverty, Capra sold newspapers after school for ten years until he graduated from high school. Instead of working after high school, he enrolled in college against his parents’ wishes. He continued to work odd jobs while studying chemical engineering and entered the Army after graduating in 1918. His father had died in a terrible accident in 1916.

In 1920, he got a job working for a movie studio in San Francisco where he directed his first film, a 1921 documentary on the Italian navy warship Libia during its visit to San Francisco.

Moving to Hollywood, Capra directed a number of shorts before becoming successful as a director of comedian Harry Langdon’s films for First National starting in 1926. Moving to Columbia in 1930, he had an immediate success with Ladies of Leisure starring Barbara Stanwyck. He also directed Stanwyck in two of her biggest early successes in 1931’s The Miracle Woman and 1933’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Capra’s 1933 box-office smash, Lady for a Day, began his string of six films that would earn in Best Director Oscar nominations, three in five years of which would result in wins.

In addition to his wins for 1934’s It Happened One Night, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You, he was also nominated for 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. His other major successes include 1934’s Broadway Bill, 1937’s Lost Horizon, 1941’s Meet John Doe and 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace which had been filmed in 1941 but couldn’t be released until the original play ended its Broadway run.

President of AMPAS from 1935-1939 and the Screen Directors Guild from 1939-41, Capra re-joined the Army four days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Working directly under Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, he made a series of seven acclaimed documentaries under the banner or Why We Fight from 1942 through 1945.

Capra’s first film after the war, It’s a Wonderful Life, despite its five Oscar nominations, was not a major box-office success nor were 1948’s State of the Union, 1950’s Riding High and 1951’s Here Comes the Groom. His last two films, 1959’s A Hole in the Head and 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles, a remake of Lady for a Day were more successful despite lackluster critical reception.

Capra’s earlier films remained in the public conscience throughout the 1950s and 1960s and It’s a Wonderful Life achieved beloved status with its annual TV showings beginning in the 1970s. Capra himself remained personally popular throughout his life. He headed the jury at the Berlin Film Festival in 1958 and served a second stint as President of the DGA from 1960-1961.

Capra’s beloved wife Lou died in 1984. Frank Capra died on September 3, 1991 at the age of 94. He was survived by four of his children.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

It Happened One Night (1934)

Capra’s It Happened One Night was a legendary film that had trouble getting off the ground. Clark Gable balked at being loaned out by MGM to Columbia, then a minor studio. Several prominent actresses turned down the female lead before Claudette Colbert accepted when they dangled enough money in front of her to make it worth her while. The finished product became a huge hit, one of the biggest of the Depression era, and was the first film to sweep the Oscars for Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay, a record not matched until 1975.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Capra became President of AMPAS in 1935, a position he held through 1939. During his tenure he made many reforms that saved the Academy from near extinction. Chief among them was letting film extras vote, which famously resulted in former extra Walter Brennan winning three times in five years, as did Capra. His second win may have been partially in gratitude for his leadership, but the country loved the sentimental Gary Cooper-Jean Arthur comedy about a country bumpkin who outsmarts the city slickers. It set box office records wherever it played, in large venues and small.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

By 1939 Capra had won his third Oscar for You Can’t Take It with You. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his big 1939 hit, a beloved classic in later years, was quite controversial in its day. Not in dispute from the beginning, however, was James Stewart’s towering performance as the naïve appointed young Senator who takes on a corrupt Congress. The film went a number of ballots at the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, tying with Gone with the Wind until Wuthering Heights emerged the winner in a compromise to break the deadlock.

Meet John Doe (1941)

Capra’s cynical newspaper film was another controversial one with an ending that wrung a bit false, but pleased the censors and audiences, if not the critics so much. Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before it and It’s a Wonderful Life after it would reach beloved status in later years. Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck were having quite a year, he also starring in Sergeant York, she in The Lady Eve, with the two reuniting after Meet John Doe for the hilarious Ball of Fire. Cooper would, of course, win the Oscar for Sergeant York.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Capra’s first film after his war service was liked well enough to earn five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director (Capra’s sixth) and Actor (James Stewart’s third), but it was not a huge box-office success. It wasn’t until the film entered the public domain in the 1970s due to an error on Capra’s part, that it acquired its enduring reputation as TV programmers around the country scheduled it every Christmas Eve. Both Capra and Stewart proclaimed it their favorite film and the reputations of both director and star, though certainly secure without it, have been greatly enhanced by Capra’s fortuitous error.

FRANK CAPRA AND OSCAR

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