Frank Capra

Eumenis Megalopoulos | May 24, 2024

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Frank Russell Capra, born Francesco Rosario Capra (Bisacquino, May 18, 1897 - La Quinta, September 3, 1991), was an Italian film director, screenwriter and producer naturalized from the United States.

He was one of the most important directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, between the 1930s and the 1940s, the author of some memorable films, comedies and moral apologies, characterized by much optimism, capable of entertaining and at the same time moving audiences.

A perfect example of the self-made man, humble emigrant turned international celebrity, "an inspiration to those who believe in the American dream" (John Ford), he was the ultimate storyteller of the American way of life, but also a mythmaker, because with his cinema he not only interpreted and represented the spirit of the times, but also contributed decisively to producing and shaping a social mythology, a popular collective imagination: in this sense, the twentieth-century artist closest to him is Walt Disney.

His inimitable comedies include the "on the road" It Happened One Night (1934), the "social trilogy" Happiness Has Arrived (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), John Doe Arrives (1941), as well as The Eternal Illusion (1938) and Life is Wonderful (1946), the "quintessential Christmas tale."

The beginnings

Capra was born in Bisacquino, in the province of Palermo, on May 18, 1897, the last of seven children of Salvatore Capra, a fruit seller, and Rosaria "Serah" Nicolosi. At the age of five he emigrated with his family to the United States, settling in the West Side of the city of Los Angeles (in California), then a kind of Italian ghetto according to Capra himself, and now part of the local Chinatown.

Due to the family's precarious economic conditions, the future filmmaker was forced to work as a "strillone" (a young boy who, lurking on street corners, sold newspapers to passersby) on the streets of his neighborhood from the age of ten; once he graduated from high school, however, instead of going to work as his parents would have wished, he chose to continue his studies, managing to enter the chemical engineering faculty at the Throop Institute (the future California Institute of Technology), supporting himself in the meantime with numerous odd jobs at the same institute (such as performing campus laundry service, serving at cafeteria tables, and cleaning scientific equipment), finally earning his degree in the spring of 1918. .

Almost immediately thereafter, he was conscripted into the ranks of the U.S. Army, in which he held the rank of second lieutenant after passing Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) training, but was later discharged from it for health reasons. (Later that year, however, he was able to obtain U.S. citizenship, consequently assuming the new legal name of "Frank Russell Capra." Upon his return home, although he had a higher education degree, he was the only one in his family who was unable to find stable employment; his father had died in a work-related accident only the year prior to his own discharge and, having later been diagnosed with appendicitis, he also found himself, to his utter frustration, bedridden both from the illness (which was prevalent in several countries of the world at the time) and from the mandatory period of hospitalization due to the operation.

Having then fully recovered, he decided to move to San Francisco in search of better job offers, but he managed to get only precarious and poorly paid jobs (such as piecework laborer, extra, itinerant poker player, door-to-door book salesman, etc.), finding himself forced on top of that to sleep at a variety of the city's lowest-grade boarding houses and small hotels, unable to afford housing of his own.

His encounter with film was somewhat fortuitous all things considered. In 1922, after limited uncredited assistant-directing experience at several small local productions, he offered himself as a director to Walter Montague, producer of Fireside Studios, directing the short film Fultah Fisher's Boarding House.

In the years that followed, Capra filled the role of set handyman (jack-of-all-trades), performing a wide variety of tasks (clerk in a developing and printing lab, editor, troubleshooter, etc.), until he became a jokester, and screenwriter later, for the comedy series Simpatiche canaglie (Our Gangs), produced by Hal Roach.

He began his training as a director under Mack Sennett, at Keystone, then worked at First National with comedian Harry Langdon, for whom he directed The Big Shoot (1926), his first feature film direction, and His Last Panties (1927). It was a fruitful but short-lived professional partnership due to artistic differences and personal ambitions: Capra wanted the character played by Langdon to remain, as in these early films, an eternal boy (prototypical of what would later be the recurring "mask" of the director's major films, the Mr. Deeds or Smith on duty); Langdon aimed instead to evolve toward an anarchic comedy along the lines of W.C. Fields and, convinced that he could compete on the same level as the already established Chaplin and Keaton, thought he could do without Capra and direct himself. In reality, for him the pinnacle of his career had already been reached and only failure and decline awaited him.

After making one last film for First National, For the Love of Mike (1927), Capra landed at Columbia and it was a perfect match, destined to leave its mark on film history. Both sides derived the greatest satisfaction from it: Columbia, seeking affirmation in a market dominated by the "Big Five" (MGM, Warner Bros, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO), granted Capra, in search of professional legitimacy, an autonomy impossible to obtain in one of the majors, and got from it a series of films that cost little, with the sole exception of the exotic Lost Horizon (1937), with a budget of more than $2 million, which yielded a lot and were among the greatest cinematic successes of the 1930s; Capra was able to reach full directorial maturity and then achieve ultimate fame and consecration, represented by three Academy Awards for Best Director within five years (1935, 1937, 1939).

Before reaching that point, however, Capra traveled his Hollywood cursus honorum, one stage at a time. After the serial comedies, it was the turn of the b-movies (in the production sense, not the quality sense). Between 1927 and 1928 he shot as many as seven films (from That Certain Thing to The Power of the Press), at a breakneck pace (six weeks for each film: two to write it, two to shoot it, and two to edit it), thus acquiring the habit of absolute respect for the time and budget available: "Working with little, and the relationship with people, made me grow up. If you have everything, it's easy. But if you have little, it's a life lesson. None of my films went over budget. Because I was used to little."

He filmed a trilogy of adventures centered on technological progress, Females of the Sea (1928), Flying Devils (1929) and Dirigible (1931), three variations on the same theme (a male friendship challenged by the female element, a catastrophic event linked from time to time to a means of modernity), with the same pair of characters and performers (the young Ralph Graves and the mature Jack Holt).

The first experiment with sound was the hybrid The New Generation (1929), a family saga set on New York's Lower East Side, with some parts silent, others with live or post-sound, while the first full-fledged sound film was the modest detective story The Donovan Affair (1929).


The transitional phase towards maturity is represented by the films starring Barbara Stanwyck, Capra's first real film star: Femmine di lusso (1930), La donna del miracolo (1931), Proibito (1932), successfully presented at the first Venice Film Festival, as well as the exotic L'amaro tè del generale Yen (1933), a commercial failure but also one of the director's most heartfelt titles. The latter two are stylistically quite different from the later and better-known Capra, as they suffer from Stanwyck's competition with Marlene Dietrich and imitation of Josef von Sternberg's style (particularly Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express). Also belonging to this period is The Platinum Woman (1931), a comedy that established sexpot Jean Harlow as a brilliant actress.

After making the highly acclaimed The Madness of the Metropolis (1932) and Lady for a Day (1933), the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination for best director, 1934 marked the decisive turning point in his career: It Happened One Night, one of the prototypes of the screwball comedy, proved to be an extraordinary, unexpected success, was the first film to win the five major Oscars (best picture, best director, best screenplay, best leading actor and best leading actress) and turned him into one of Hollywood's most important directors.

It was the beginning of a golden period for Capra, who managed in his films to portray like no other that complicated decade characterized by the Great Crisis, but also by the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, experienced by people with despair but also hope, amid conflict and solidarity, and managed to reach the hearts of audiences. The five films made between 1936 and 1941, from Happiness Has Arrived to John Doe Arrives, garnered a total of thirty-one nominations and six Academy Awards and were regular commercial successes: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), for example, was the second highest-grossing film of the year in the United States.

The prominent position he achieved in the American film milieu is also evidenced by the recognition he gained within professional associations: he served as president of the Motion Picture Academy from 1935 to 1939, and as president of the Screen Directors Guild from 1939 to 1941. In the latter capacity he led the demands of directors for recognition of their central role in the production process. In an open letter to the New York Times, he wrote that "90 percent have no say in either subject or editing" and that only half a dozen have any real autonomy. The threat of strike action by the directors achieved only to informally enshrine the existence of a group of "privileged" director-producers limited to about 30 illustrious names (DeMille, Lubitsch, Vidor, Ford, Hawks, Cukor, etc.).

By the beginning of the new decade, "little" Columbia no longer appeared to be up to Capra's ambitions, and starting with Arriva John Doe, he experimented with independent production: together with Robert Riskin, his trusted screenwriter, he founded Frank Capra Productions and struck a film distribution deal with Warner Bros.

World War II and the Why We Fight series.

The World War II years mark a sharp caesura in Capra's career, with the sole interlude of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), based on a play by Joseph Kesselring, a work of craft, hardly "Capra-like."

Between 1942 and 1945 he joined the U.S. Army at the invitation of the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to coordinate wartime propaganda through film. On behalf of the Department of Defense he supervised the production of the popular documentary series Why We Fight, aimed primarily at informing young recruits about the causes of the war in which they were called to participate:

Although primarily a montage work of stock footage, the first episode in the series, Prelude to War, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1943, tied with three other similar works, including John Ford's The Battle of Midway.

The postwar period, television and the decline

In the changing postwar world, Capra seemed too attached to an outdated style. Contributing to his professional decline were a waning creative vein and the difficulties of productive independence in a system hostile to such experiences. Liberty Films, founded in 1945 together with former Columbia chief producer Samuel J. Briskin and fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens, was very short-lived; as early as 1947 it was sold to Paramount Pictures because of the failure of the film Life is Wonderful (1946), which, together with the subsequent The State of the Union (1948), represents a kind of spiritual testament for Capra.

Later, while at the movies he merely reenacted himself wearily (he is one of those more unique than rare cases of a director making some remakes of his own films himself, such as 1950's The Joy of Life from 1934's Strictly Confidential, and 1961's Angels with a Gun from 1933's Lady for a Day), he was one of the first Hollywood greats to experiment with television. Between 1956 and 1958 he made a series of science-based educational documentaries for the Bell System (Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, The Unchained Goddess).

It was precisely the new medium that "killed" Capra's cinema, absorbing its themes and narrative codes, replacing and surpassing it as the new main producer of a collective imagination. The director then decided to take his leave and prematurely end his film career in his early sixties, still at the peak of his vitality. He spent the rest of his life in the California buen retiro of La Quinta, limiting himself to lecturing at schools and at film festivals.

Unfinished projects

In 1934 Capra was supposed to direct for MGM Soviet, starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, the story of an American engineer called to Russia to build a dam who falls in love with a highly ideologized woman. If this film remained unrealized, in other cases different directors simply took over: William Wyler directed Roman Holiday (1953) and The Law of the Lord (1957), Franklin J. Schaffner The Bitter Taste of Power (1964), Henry Hathaway The Circus and Its Great Adventure (1964), John Sturges Abandoned in Space (1969). In the early 1950s he declared himself willing to direct Don Camillo then directed instead by Julien Duvivier.

In Capra's relationship with cinema, his technical rather than intellectual background is decisive. He is fully aware that films are the result of collective work, in which the contribution of all collaborators is decisive, and he does not aim to be an artist, but to make products of good craftsmanship, well made, but still "commodities" (of the emerging industry of the century, that of the image).

The name above the title

At the height of his success in the mid-1930s, Frank Capra was the first director who could boast "name above title" (a privilege previously granted only to two "founding fathers" of the art of film, D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and in an entirely episodic manner) and whose fame could guarantee commercial success as much as a star (Columbia, lacking A-list actors, was well disposed to make its top director the first star behind the camera). This was not an assertion of "authorship" so much as a claim to management autonomy, complete control of the production process (from subject to editing), and the role of ultimate, if not sole, manager of the film. It was a particularly heartfelt achievement; it is no coincidence that in 1971 he would use this very expression as the title for his own autobiography.

He accepted the rules of the studio system, but rejected the majors, because only "little" Columbia allowed him to satisfy his needs, and when even there it was no longer possible to express his ambitions to the fullest, because they were contrary to the rules of the industry, he experimented, though within the market, with different modes of production: John Doe's Coming was produced independently and then distributed by Warner; after World War II he founded Liberty Films, with which he produced his last great film, Life is Wonderful, but it was an unfortunate and short-lived experience. Although intolerant of the system, he was never transgressive, rather once he got to the top of the profession he tried to change it, from within.

Style and technique

If the name above the title gives it unprecedented recognition, the same cannot be said of the style, which lacks identifying elements: Capra focuses everything on action, has no auteur touches, no "Lubitsch touch." But this is not necessarily a defect; on the contrary, it is a deliberate choice to make himself invisible, to adopt the utmost restraint in the use of filmic technique, to adhere to the narrative and expressive codes of the genres he gradually tackles, making the search for reality prevail over that of beauty. The editing is invisible, based only on motion and dialogue connections, the jokes tight, the shots all show something without digression, the flow of action and dialogue is enthralling and limpid. Various are the symbolic gimmicks of ingenuity, such as the blanket spread between the protagonists the first night they have to sleep together in It Happened One Night: from reassuring separation to a means of involuntary communication when Claudette Colbert hangs her own clothes on it.

Capra's directorial personality is thus expressed not in his visual style, but in the themes he deals with and the characters he describes.

Themes and characters

Capra's major films offer similar stories and characters in a kind of unified, though not continuous, project, from Happiness Has Arrived to The State of the Union. The protagonist is a "little man," an ordinary man, a hero by accident, often characterized by a certain awkwardness and shyness and a few harmless eccentricities (beginning with the "piker" Longfellow Deeds), who finds himself having to fight alone for the good of the entire community, animated by naive common sense, against the preponderant forces of a system of power (political and financial) founded on the disvalues of opportunism, corruption, and immorality, and who manages to prevail by relying on his own will and the affections aroused in others (the community, but also a very specific woman) by his own example.

A constant presence is that of journalists and the newsroom environment. For Capra, journalism is a form of knowledge, the journalist is a kind of detective of society; newspapers mediate reality and are reality themselves, but their defamatory power is by no means ignored; on the contrary, Capra's heroes regularly clash with newspapers that distort their image (this is the case with both the "new rich" Mr. Deeds and the new senator Mr. Smith who, upon arrival in the big city, New York or Washington, pay dearly for their naiveté). Newspapers are not only a strong thematic element, but also a recurring formal one: in his editing work, Capra exploits headlines and full-screen headlines as an effective means of summarizing information and having moments of interruption and transition from one sequence to another.

While the mass media and the world of finance are in the foreground, the world of cinema is completely absent; Hollywood and its varied inhabitants are a great repressed. Instead, it will be Preston Sturges, with The Forgotten (1942), who will reflect on the significance of the cinema of those years, including Capra's.


On a first reading, Capra's films are optimistic apologists, finding their greatest expression in Life is Wonderful, but one cannot reduce their meaning to the "populist" rhetoric of the strictly happy ending comedy. If one goes beyond an obvious, superficial view, a more conflicted, less reassuring world transpires. Individual, family and social dramas are staged, which cannot be erased by the final smile or tear.

The typical narrative pattern of these films involves an upward progression, then at about three-quarters of the way through a negative dramatic peak, necessary in order finally to have the reversal leading to a positive conclusion. The drama is completely functional to the final resolution, but it is still not erased from it: despite the happy endings, required more by the aforementioned narrative conventions than by the censorious Hays code, an underlying pessimism thus often shines through.

While making modern fairy tales, even with fantastical elements, Capra is consistently moved by the intent to reproduce contemporary reality, not to create a fantastical one, so that the audience can identify with the characters and stories.

It is a spontaneous, non-intellectual realism, making social criticism, but in a completely generic and superficial way, denouncing corruption and wickedness of individuals, but without really delving into its causes.

To reach the audience, the best way is through comedy, because "When people are amused, they are more willing, they believe in you. You can't laugh with someone you don't like. And when they laugh, they drop their defenses, and then they start to be interested in what you have to say, in the 'message.'" Capra however eschews ideologies; his message is simple, essential:

"Lo stile di vita americano"

It is difficult to say whether the popular collective imagination or Capra's "populist" films are born first: does the director merely reproduce and show on the big screen the images and myths of everyday petty-bourgeois American life, or does he give substance to the desires and aspirations of the common man, record and represent or anticipate and produce reality?

Exemplary in this regard is the urban legend regarding the collapse in sales of men's underwear following the scene in It Happened One Night where Clark Gable undresses revealing that he is not wearing an undershirt (probably representing a factual reality, not causing it).

In any case, what is certain is that Capra's cinema belongs to the shared heritage of American and Western culture. In his Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. From Lubitsch to Sturges, James Harvey writes that Capra, "in many profound ways, is in everyone's past."

The best achievements of Capra's career are the result of the coordinated work of a well-rounded group of professionals at the top of their respective fields of expertise: screenwriter Robert Riskin, cinematographer Joseph Walker, actors Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Jean Arthur.


If Jo Swerling is Capra's trusted screenwriter in his early years at Columbia, from Luxury Females to Forbidden, signing Capra's best and most celebrated films, those of the "golden age" of the 1930s, is Robert Riskin. It was a most fortunate professional partnership, beginning with The Miracle Woman, an adaptation of a Riskin play, and continuing for the rest of their career, until the screenwriter's death in 1955. It is a collaboration of such absolute intellectual harmony that it is impossible to tell to what extent one influenced the other and vice versa. Capra's detractors have been keen to emphasize Riskin's importance, in particular critic Joseph McBride, in a merciless biography published only after the director's death, argued that the screenwriter should be considered the true author of Capra's cinema, who instead allegedly failed to adequately acknowledge, and indeed downplayed, its importance, in his own autobiography.

Director of photography

If Robert Riskin is Capra's "second brain," Joseph Walker is the "eye," the view of the world through the camera lens. It is a collaboration that lasts two decades and twenty films, from That Certain Thing to Life is Wonderful, with an interruption in the late 1930s caused by Capra's break with Columbia. Beginning in the 1950s, Walker would successfully devote himself to television, becoming one of the best technicians around (and inventing, among other things, the first zoom lenses).

From his faithful collaborator, with whom he is united by technical training, Capra does not ask for artistic effects and auteur touches, but for unobtrusive photography, capable of annulling itself, like the direction, in favor of the narrative: "The most beautiful photography is that which does not call attention to itself. An audience should never realize that a film was directed by a director and photographed by a cinematographer." Style must therefore sacrifice itself to the functionality of the plot.


The first star of Capra's films is Barbara Stanwyck, the New Deal woman, active, modern. She is the absolute star, thanks to strong female characters, however ambiguous, with male partners who are not up to the mark, while after the highly successful It Happened One Night, with the perfectly balanced pair Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, female characters tend to become increasingly secondary to the male lead, the "mask" and key-character of the Capra universe, to whom in the "golden period" two top stars, James Stewart (three times) and Gary Cooper (twice), give body and face. The reassuring Jean Arthur is the leading female performer on three occasions, while Stanwyck will return to star in John Doe Arrives.

Around the stars, there is a whole universe of supporting and character actors, necessary to really bring the film to life. Among the supporting actors, an important part is played by the "grand old men," good and bad (Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Walter Connolly, Harry Carey, Claude Rains). Character actors include Thomas Mitchell, Raymond Walburn, Guy Kibbee, Walter Brennan. Then there are a whole series of anonymous, recurring faces to form a single, multifaceted character, the "common people."

Frank Capra, in spite of the popular success of his films (or precisely because of it), has always had a good band of detractors, who have criticized his populism, cloying optimism, paternalistic demagoguery, superficial democraticism tending toward a reactionary attitude and coined for his cinema the term "capracorn," in a derogatory sense. He has long been snubbed by the theorists of so-called "auteur politics" and excluded from the ranks of the greats.

It did not help that Capra himself credited a conservative reading of his cinema and life, playing a deliberately naive role and legitimizing a qualunquist view of his films based on good feelings and simplicity. And it is no coincidence that Republican President Ronald Reagan quoted the speech from Happiness Has Arrived to explain his economic program to the people.

According to other critics, Capra's optimism, on a deeper reading, has instead more disengaged and bitter implications. On closer inspection, his happy-ending always has a too obvious ease, almost banal enough to seem ambiguous and posturing, as if it were an excuse to cover up a far more bitter reality. In fact, his stories are pessimistic right up to the last sequence, when suddenly and without apparent logic things turn around, in an unlikeliest and almost miraculous way. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for example, a gang of corrupt politicians, against whom the protagonist has been fighting all through the film, seems to get the better of him until at the finale the leader of the crooks decides to spontaneously confess his guilt. The viewer has a choice: to believe the ending and continue dreaming, or to rethink how things really are in reality, while hoping, however, that reality can change.

Critical consideration of Capra's work therefore changed beginning in the early 1980s, with a series of studies that recovered and reread his work and especially with the American Film Institute's special lifetime achievement award.

Capra's cinema has etched so deeply into the collective imagination, not only American, that it is in fact the shared heritage of any filmmaker. Here we limit ourselves to mentioning those films that explicitly recall its themes and forms.

The fantastic comedy of the 1980s for example shows not a few echoes of Capra's poetics, this is the case of Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984) or Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future (1985), but especially of those comedies that put the world of finance on stage, such as John Landis's An Armchair for Two (1983). Another work of those years "to which the lesson of Frank Capra is not foreign" is Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker, a man and his dream, who had offered in vain to Capra himself to serve as executive producer.

Then in the 1990s and the very early 2000s there was a curious revival of his films: Norman Jewison's The Money of Others (1991), Stephen Frears' Hero by Chance (1992), Ivan Reitman's Dave - President for a Day (1993), the Coen Brothers' Mr. Hula Hoop (1994), Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994), Andrew Bergman's It Can Happen to You (1994), Brett Ratner's The Family Man (2000) and Steven Brill's Mr. Deeds (2002), the latter of which was a rather blatant remake of one of his most famous films, Happiness Came (1919). Deeds (2002) by Steven Brill, the latter among others a rather blatant remake of one of his most famous films, Happiness Came (1936).

His films have won fourteen awards, in addition to countless nominations. Only John Ford has won more Oscars than him as a director (four), while William Wyler is the only one besides Capra to have won three.


  1. Frank Capra
  2. Frank Capra
  3. ^ Medved points out the irony in Capra's expression of disillusionment: Capra's film It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film to win all five top Oscars, and in 1991, a few months after Capra's death, The Silence of the Lambs also won all five top Oscars.[50]
  4. ^ Secondo classificato.
  5. (Memento vom 25. Dezember 2011 im Internet Archive)
  6. a b Joseph McBride: Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1992, ISBN 1-60473-839-1.
  7. a b c d e f g h i j John Wakeman: World Film Directors: Volume One 1890–1945. 1987, ISBN 0-8242-0757-2.
  8. a et b Surnom que donnait Harry Cohn à Frank Capra à ses débuts à la Columbia. (Capra 2006, p. 158)
  9. Pierre Berthomieu le décrit comme une "institution de l'âge classique hollywoodien". (Hollywood classique : le temps des géants, p. 439).
  10. Orthographié Bisaquino par Frank Capra dans son autobiographie (Capra 2006, p. 23 )
  11. À l'instar de Charlie Chaplin ou Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon voulait tout assumer dans ses films : l'écriture des gags et la mise en scène. Capra ajoute que Langdon voulait se diriger vers un style plus dramatique, que le public ne suivrait pas. (Capra 2006, p. 135 )
  12. Robert Riskin raconta à Frank Capra que Harry Cohn avait simplement choisit le premier réalisateur qui venait dans l'ordre alphabétique de sa liste. (Capra 2006, p. 152)

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