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Frank Capra

May 18, 1897, marks the birthday of a man destined for filmmaking stardom.  Born in Bisaquono, Sicily, Frank Capra went on to direct some of the most popular films of the 1930s and '40s, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and the perennial favorite, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). 

Most of Capra's movies unfold around a naive and idealistic man from small town America who finds himself pitted against more powerful and greedy politicians, lawyers, bankers, and journalists.  Capra once described the motivation behind his films this way: "A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment."

Capra's movies were so distinctive and so influential that a word describing them--"Capraesque"--is included in the 2000 American Heritage Dictionary, which defines the term as "Of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage."

Capra lived in Sicily for the first six years of his life.  When his family left Italy to come to America, he said he spent his sixth birthday "in a howling Atlantic storm, in the Germania's black steerage hold, crammed with retching, praying, terrorized immigrants."

To make money in the New World, Capra sold newspapers in the Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles and later played the banjo at nightclubs so he could afford to attend college.  He studied chemical engineering at Cal Tech, paying his way by running the student laundry, waiting tables, and wiping engines at a power plant.

In 1922, Capra found himself poor and unemployed and living in San Francisco when he read in the newspaper that a man named Walter Montague was launching a new movie studio in an abandoned gymnasium.  Capra telephoned him and talked his way into getting a job directing his first movie, a one-reel film based on a Rudyard Kipling poem.

For the next six years, he worked at every job, from prop man to comedy writer.  Like other prominent directors of the day, Capra began his career in silent films by directing and writing silent film comedies starring Harry Langdon and the Our Gang kids.  In 1930 he went to work for Mack Sennett before moving to Columbia, where he signed a contract in 1928 for 25,000 dollars a year.  It was an extraordinary amount of money for the time.  Five years later, he made his first big hit, the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1933), for which he won the first of three Academy Awards for Best Director. 

During the following fifteen years, Capra produced a string of successful movies, and he became one of the most famous directors in the world.  He once said that he was the first director to have his name come before the title of the movie in the opening credits.

Capra spent World War II making propaganda films for the United States government, one of many Hollywood producers to do so.  He took time off to film one commercial venture that went on to become a screwball comedy masterpiece.  Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre, was adapted from the stage, where it had enjoyed a long and productive run. 

The first movie he made following the war was It's a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart.  It was the usual Capra fare about a small town hero who battles corruption, although it was darker and more cynical than any of his earlier movies.  For that reason, it failed to perform well at the box office.  Capra neglected to renew the movie's copyright in 1974, and the film fell into public domain.  PBS was the first station to play it every year around Christmas.  They didn't expect it to do very well, but after a few years, it had grown in popularity to mythic proportions.  Other stations began picking it up and airing it, and today watching It's a Wonderful Life on television is a holiday tradition for families across the country.

Capra once said, "The strength of America is in the kind of people who can plant a seed, sow the grass.  I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire."

Frank Capra, who once said, "I made mistakes in drama.  I thought drama was when actors cried.  But drama is when the audience cries," died in his sleep of a heart attack on September 3, 1991.  He was 94 years old.  His producer son, Frank Capra Jr., is president of Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC.

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