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
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."
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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