Frank Capra (1897-1991)

by William M. Drew

Frank Capra

     An immigrant who touched millions by capturing American ideals on film, becoming one of cinema’s most influential directors, Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Palermo, Sicily, to a peasant family. With his parents and three of his six siblings, he came to Los Angeles, California when he was six years old. Often experiencing the widespread prejudice towards Italians in Anglo-dominated America, Capra would always be conscious of his status as an immigrant and "outsider," a feeling reflected in much of his work. In California, Capra’s father found work as a fruit picker while his mother and siblings also held various jobs to support the family. Frank himself sold newspapers on the streets, "stuffed" papers at The Los Angeles Times, and played the guitar in a downtown brothel to help pay for his education at Manual Arts High School. Burning with youthful ambition, he later toiled in a steel plant to earn enough to enter the California Institute of Technology in 1916, where he intended on a career in science but also discovered literature. Capra was building a distinguished academic record when his father, having just bought a lemon grove with his savings, died in a farm accident, a tragedy that would resonate in several of the director’s future films. With his family now in a precarious financial situation, Capra was loaned a tuition fee by Caltech officials to complete his education. After graduating in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering and a short hitch in the Army during the closing days of World War I, Capra began a three-year period of drifting. He performed manual labor, sold books and stocks, worked as a poker player, and had his first jobs in the film industry in 1919-20 as an extra in Hollywood and a partner in an unsuccessful venture producing shorts in Nevada.

THE STRONG MAN (1926) with Harry Langdon     His permanent involvement in motion pictures began in San Francisco in 1921 when he was hired by a local producer to direct a one-reel adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House. For the next two years, Capra worked as an assistant at a San Francisco film lab and the editor of the locally-produced two-reel Center Comedies. In the fall of 1923, Capra, newly married to actress Helen Howell, moved to Hollywood where he worked briefly for the Hal Roach studio as a writer before being hired by Mack Sennett. There, he became part of a writing team collaborating on a series of two-reel comedies featuring Harry Langdon. Langdon soon became Sennett’s biggest star and in the fall of 1925, the comedian left the studio to start his own company, taking Capra with him. After assisting Langdon and director Harry Edwards on their first feature, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), Capra directed Langdon in The Strong Man, a major critical and popular success upon its release in 1926. Capra’s touch was already apparent in the comic story of a Belgian war veteran, a wide-eyed innocent who goes to America in search of a girl, his pen pal during the war, and ends up defeating a corrupt gang of bootleggers that had taken over her small town. Capra’s immigrant background and years of wandering clearly found expression in his feature debut, while Langdon’s encounter with city slickers and his battle with the forces of corruption foreshadow similar situations in subsequent Capra films. 

     The production history of Long Pants (1927), the second film in which Capra directed Langdon, was much more troubled. Beset with problems in his marriage and creative differences with Langdon on the set, Capra was fired by the star after the completion of the film. Capra next went to New York to direct Claudette Colbert in her film debut, For the Love of Mike. But the film proved such a flop in 1927 that Capra briefly returned to his writing job for Sennett before being hired as a director by producer Harry Cohn for his up-and-coming studio, Columbia.

     With the release of his first features for the studio in 1928, Capra soon became its preeminent director and was rewarded with Submarine (1928), a large-scale action adventure film about Navy fliers he inherited when the previous director, Irvin Willat, was fired by Cohn. The film’s success inspired two follow-ups in the sound era directed by Capra, also on a large scale and with Submarine’s stars, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves: Flight (1929), depicting the actions of Marines in Nicaragua, and Dirigible (1931), the story of an expedition to the South Pole. However, Columbia was still ranked as a Poverty Row company so most of Capra’s early films were made quickly and for smaller budgets. Yet it was in these more modest pictures that he began expressing his distinctive personal vision. His third Columbia film, The Matinee Idol (1928), starring Bessie Love as the manager of a traveling stage troupe, reveals Capra’s appreciation for strong women as well THE MATINEE IDOL (1928) with Bessie Loveas his ability to combine hilarious comedy with poignant drama. When the heroine acts in a hammy Civil War melodrama her father wrote, the sophisticated New York audience bursts into laughter, convulsed by its amateurishness. Her father flees in humiliation while she berates the audience, reminding them that it is not a comedy. This situation with small town people being derided by urban pseudo-sophisticates would recur in later Capra works like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra’s consuming interest in the newspaper world as a tremendous force for either good or ill, reflecting his early experiences working at The Los Angeles Times, is first evident in his final silent, The Power of the Press (1929), another excellent film, this one about a reporter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who discovers that a criminal gang is guilty of the murder for which his fiancée (Jobyna Ralston) has been unfairly accused.

     Capra’s first experiment with sound, The Younger Generation (1929), shifts between silent and talking sequences to depict the experiences of a Jewish immigrant family in New York. Capra himself selected Fannie Hurst’s story because of its closeness to his own background. The film is a powerful indictment of materialism, relating how a young, upwardly mobile Jew (played by Ricardo Cortez) in his quest for money and status rejects his own Lower East Side family as obstacles to his social advancement. Too late he discovers the value of human relationships. By then, his father has died and his family has abandoned him. All he has left as the film ends is his lavish, cold mansion.

     Capra eagerly met the challenge of sound and was in the forefront of those seeking to liberate early talkies from the confinement of the sound stage. A sterling example of his fluid technique in his first film of the ‘30s, Ladies of Leisure (1930), is a scene in an apartment intercutting between the working class heroine (Barbara Stanwyck) and the well-to-do artist (Ralph Graves) painting her portrait. There is no music or dialogue, just the sound of rain pouring down, an effect which intensifies the eroticism of the scene. Capra’s sensitivity in directing players is apparent in Barbara Stanwyck’s remarkable performance, a role that made her a major star in only her fourth film and inaugurated her fruitful collaboration with Capra. Ladies of Leisure is yet another example of the director’s social critique of the upper classes with the artist rebelling against his father’s snobbish values by falling in love with Stanwyck. Capra’s scorn for the artificial is underscored when the hero insists that the girl remove her make-up so she can appear natural when modeling for the painting.

     Capra became well-known for his close association with the screenwriters working on his films, especially Robert Riskin, a New York playwright brought out to Hollywood by Columbia in 1931. While the director had been developing his personal vision on film since his debut in 1926, Riskin’s long partnership with Capra proved essential to the filmmaker’s career. Having the theatrical experience Capra lacked, Riskin effectively used his ability to draw character on paper. This, together with his flair for witty dialogue including his uncanny ear for the rhythms of contemporary speech, helped Capra realize a remarkable series of films. Some critics contend that Riskin was Capra’s conscience or the source of his vision. While Capra undoubtedly deepened his perspective when exchanging ideas with Riskin who had a strong, articulate social conscience of his own, the Capraesque social vision was apparent in the very first films he made. Also, to assert as some critics have that the director did not acknowledge the screenwriter’s contributions belies the facts. Capra made many statements over the years, including in his autobiography, expressing his admiration for, and gratitude to, Riskin. At the same time, Capra believed strongly that the director was the auteur of the picture, what he called the "one man, one film" concept. Riskin and other Capra screenwriters collaborated with the director on the scripts from their inception. It was usually Capra who selected the story he wanted to adapt to the screen. During the course of scripting, he was constantly in contact with the writer, often adding or rewriting scenes himself. So from the beginning to the final editing which the director supervised, the films were ultimately Capra’s creations and bore his personal stylistic imprint.

     Riskin first collaborated with Capra by writing dialogue for the 1931 comedy, Platinum Blonde. A delightful social comedy engagingly played by a cast headed by Robert Williams, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, the film concerns a newspaper reporter (Williams) who, while working on a story, meets and falls in love with a beautiful rich girl (Harlow). But after they are married, his easy-going, natural manner fails to adjust to the artificiality of her wealthy family’s lifestyle. In the end, he returns to his roots by moving into an ordinary apartment where he begins working on a play with the help of his true love, fellow reporter Loretta Young.

     Platinum Blonde projects a breezy, optimistic spirit which Capra and Riskin would utilize in later films. But Capra’s vision in those years also embraced a darker take on the human condition. Even Rain or Shine (1930), a broad comedy set in a circus, concludes with an amazing sequence in which the audience, incited by villains trying to steal the enterprise, become a raging mob, destroying the circus under the illusion they have been cheated. In the 1931 drama, The Miracle Woman, based on a play co-authored by Riskin, Capra shows religion itself being turned into a circus-like attraction. A young woman (Barbara Stanwyck), embittered by societal hypocrisy, enters into partnership with an unscrupulous promoter to sell spirituality to the public and becomes a charismatic evangelist milking the crowds in elaborate staged appearances. The 1932 drama, Forbidden, from an original story by Capra himself, presents a newspaperman in a much more negative light than The Power of the Press or Platinum Blonde. An editor (Ralph Bellamy) is obsessed with trying to unmask the private life of a powerful politician (Adolphe Menjou), a married man who has for years hidden his illicit affair and the fact that his adopted daughter is actually his own, the result of his liaison with the other woman (Barbara Stanwyck). Far from being a heroic crusader exposing corruption in high places, the editor is portrayed as a vicious pit bull, emblematic of a hypocritical society which insists people deny their true feelings in order to conform to a "respectable" public image.

Walter Huston in AMERICAN MADNESS (1932)     American Madness (1932), a joint project of Capra and Riskin, was the director’s first depiction of the social conflicts of the Depression era. In this cinematic masterwork with its integration of sound and image, dialogue and action that often reaches a dizzying pace, Capra capitalized on the economic unrest and bank failures of the early ‘30s by depicting an idealistic bank president (Walter Huston) whose faith in people is in conflict with the bank’s conservative board of directors. When mass panic over a robbery leads to a run on the bank, Huston’s intervention proves a calming influence and prevents the crowd from degenerating into a violent mob.

Nils Asther and Barbara Stanwyck in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)    While idealism wins out in American Madness, in his next film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a naive idealism limited by cultural and racial prejudice produces disaster in an unfamiliar environment. The film concerns an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) trapped in a civil war in China and then rescued by a warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther), whose personality is an extraordinary combination of ruthlessness and tenderness. Finding herself falling in love with the general in spite of herself, her efforts to "reform" him by inducing him to spare the life of his former mistress only results in his betrayal and death. Rich in psychological insight and moral complexity, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was followed by a Capra film in a very different vein. Lady for a Day, his second film in 1933, was a sentimental comedy, a heartwarming modern fairy tale in which an apple vendor (May Robson) has been reduced to poverty to provide for her daughter’s upbringing abroad. When the girl and her aristocratic European fiancé visit New York, the elderly lady, aided by her underworld friends as well as the governor and the mayor, masquerades as a wealthy dowager to impress her daughter.

     Capra’s next film brought him unprecedented fame and popularity while becoming part of American legend. It Happened One Night (1934) had its origins in Samuel Hopkins Adams’s "Night Bus," a magazine story that Capra and Riskin refashioned into an exhilarating, witty comedy. Its stars, Clark Gable as the newspaperman pursuing a story about a runaway heiress and Claudette Colbert as the rich girl, were loaned to Columbia by their studios and gave performances with such brilliance and élan that they helped launch a genre. Every subsequent screwball comedy was indebted to the romantic banter between the couple and the succession of hilarious situations in It Happened One Night. The film’s irresistible blending of high-spirited, sophisticated comedy with realism further increased its hold over the public. Capra insisted on shooting much of the film on location to convey the spirit of America in the Depression years, the look and feel of highways, buses and motels, as the romance between the protagonists developed over the course of their travels. Again, Capra interjects his critique of materialism when reporter Gable rejects the phony lifestyle of the idle rich and ultimately wins Colbert over to his romantic celebration of a life freed from artificial social constraints. This perspective reappeared in Capra’s second film of 1934, Broadway Bill, starring Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, a tale of a man who rejects the acquisitive monopoly capitalism of his father-in-law to enjoy the simpler pleasure of training a race horse.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)     When It Happened One Night swept all the major awards at the Motion Picture Academy ceremony in 1935, Capra, who for some years had set his sights on an Oscar, was at the pinnacle of his career. He had triumphed in film beyond his wildest expectations while helping to raise Columbia to the status of a major studio. In his personal life, too, he was now happily married (since 1932) to Lucille Reyburn and the proud father of a growing family. Yet having to all intents achieved the American dream, Capra was suddenly wracked with self-doubt and a feeling he was somehow unworthy of all this success. These inner torments brought on a severe illness from which he emerged determined to make films that would champion the cause of the common man. The first film to result from his renewed commitment was the classic comedy-drama, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. A variant on the immigrant theme, the story concerns Longfellow Deeds (Cooper), an eccentric, tuba-playing idealist in a small town who suddenly inherits a fortune and migrates to New York where he comes up against the jaded impersonality and pseudo-sophistication of the big city. There, he is mocked and caricatured by the press, and eventually faces an insanity charge when he attempts to give away his millions to the poor. Ultimately, Deeds’s innate goodness wins over his detractors, including the cynical newspaperwoman (Arthur) who had written damaging stories about him but ends up falling in love with him. Cooper’s character, by defending his own personal eccentricities during his sanity hearing, underscores Capra’s belief in individuality resisting the mass conformity of modern life.

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in LOST HORIZON (1937)     The director’s idealism was next dramatized in Lost Horizon (1937) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Lost Horizon was a spectacular dramatization of James Hilton’s novel about the mythical country of Shangri-La, a land hidden in the Himalayas and governed by a High Lama according to the principles of peace and love. Ronald Colman stars as Conway, a visionary Englishman who discovers this Utopia when he and other passengers on an airplane are transported from a wartorn China to the remote theocracy. Made at a time when the world was rapidly moving towards a new great war, Lost Horizon skillfully captures the yearning of the era for a resolution to the problems that were tearing humanity apart. You Can’t Take It With You, based on the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, contains a comic variant on the same theme with the Shangri-La now a family of endearingly eccentric Americans who do as they please in defiance of the Depression and a grasping millionaire munitions manufacturer who threatens to uproot their New York City neighborhood in order to build a large office building. 

James Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)     Capra’s work in the 1930s culminated with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), often ranked with It’s a Wonderful Life as one of his two greatest films. With a cast headed by James Stewart and Jean Arthur, the film deals with an idealistic, newly appointed junior senator, Jefferson Smith (Stewart), who discovers that a corrupt political machine is running his state. When he learns that his state’s senior senator (Claude Rains), whom he had admired all his life as a man of principle, has long since sold out to a corrupt boss (Edward Arnold) with near-dictatorial control over the state, his ideals are shaken. The machine musters all its power to destroy Smith when he tries to expose the level of corruption in his state. He makes a ringing defense of democracy in a speech on the Senate floor, but it is only the confession of the now-penitent senator who had earlier denounced him that finally saves the day. Capra’s depiction of high-level corruption aroused considerable debate at the time while his portrayal of the arrogant Washington press corps deriding his hero’s naiveté evoked a furious response from them. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has long since been recognized as one of the most incisive studies of American politics on film. Capra’s mastery of cinematic narrative, his ability to sweep the audience into an emotional crescendo through the force of the performances, and his rapid editing style is brilliantly realized in this film.

     As the 1940s began and with the rest of the world embroiled in war, Capra, now the president of the Director’s Guild, was becoming more and more vocal about social inequities and the threat posed to democracy by fascism. Along with scores of other liberal-minded Hollywood luminaries, Capra’s name appeared in ads in The New York Times supporting President Roosevelt’s 1940 reelection and rallying to the defense of the Soviet Union when it was invaded by the Nazis in 1941. Professionally, Capra ended his long, sometimes contentious association with Harry Cohn and Columbia to form a partnership with Riskin to produce independent pictures. The film they created, Meet John Doe (1941), reflected Capra’s apprehensions about fascism. Gary Cooper plays a drifter, an unemployed bush-league baseball player turned into a headline story by newspaper reporter Barbara Stanwyck, who represents him as a critic of the world’s injustices. Newspaper owner Edward Arnold decides to use Cooper’s image to create an idealistic movement, the John Doe Clubs, a front for him to attain political power in his drive to become an American dictator. When Cooper discovers the media mogul’s real agenda, the tycoon prevents him from going public by inciting the supporters of the movement to become a raging mob arrayed against their former idol. Because of Capra’s indecision about the ending, the film concludes with a draw between the tycoon and those citizens in the clubs who have come to their senses about Cooper and rallied to his defense. Harking back to The Miracle Woman, Meet John Doe traces a far greater conspiracy, an attempted coup d’etat by the wealthy to impose a fascistic, militarist regime in the United States. It remains one of American cinema’s most powerful and prophetic works, an extraordinarily bleak vision of idealism masking a totalitarian, reactionary agenda.

     With the increasing likelihood that the United States would soon enter World War II, Capra volunteered his services to the Army Signal Corps. Before leaving Hollywood, he directed a film version of the Broadway hit, Arsenic and Old Lace, for Warner Brothers, an assignment he took on in order to keep his family solvent while he went to work for the military. He completed shooting just after the Pearl Harbor attack. In Washington, D.C., the government assigned him to supervise Army training films intended to explain to the troops the history of the war and the reasons why the United States needed to defeat the enemy. By skillfully editing film clips, including footage shot by the enemy, and interweaving them with stirring music and narration, Capra and his team of writers and technicians created the Why We Fight series, some of the most effective propaganda documentaries ever made. Capra, even while using film shot by others, was able to incorporate some of his personal style in the series. He was committed heart and soul to the Allied cause, but he was appalled to realize that his own side, the champions of freedom and democracy, were bombing civilians in the enemy countries, atrocities akin to the terrors of the German airraids that he experienced in London. Sickened by the slaughter on both sides, Capra recorded his dismay in his diaries at the time. He emerged from this inner conflict with a strong commitment to pacifism and a fresh determination to restate on film his belief in a more just and equitable world based on the value of the individual.

     Capra returned to Hollywood and civilian life determined to maintain his creative independence. In partnership with his fellow directors, William Wyler and George Stevens, he formed a new organization, Liberty Films, to produce their own films. It was for Liberty that Capra created the film which, in a very real sense, distilled all his own life experiences and two decades of filmmaking into a masterpiece that has touched innumerable people over the decades, It’s a Wonderful Life, first shown during the 1946 Christmas season. The story concerns George Bailey (James Stewart); his life in the New England town of Bedford Falls; his youthful dreams and aspirations which yield to the realities of keeping the family savings and loan association afloat; his courtship and marriage to Mary (Donna Reed); and the thwarting of his attempts to help the people in his community by the grasping town banker, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Pushed over the edge to suicide, George is rescued by an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who provides him with a vision of what the town might be like had he never existed. In Capra’s most extraordinary variation on the immigrant motif, George becomes a stranger in his own community as the townspeople, even his own mother, fail to recognize him. The town, now known as Pottersville, is a dark, corrupt city dominated by the banker, Capra’s grim vision of man’s existence filled with all the angst of what might yet be the American future. Finally, after one desperate encounter after another and his realization that his life had indeed touched many others for the better, George is released from this nightmarish state. The film ends on a note of affirmation as he is reunited with his family and friends. But while they have escaped Potter’s clutches, as in Meet John Doe, the capitalist villain goes unpunished. Critical and popular reaction to It’s a Wonderful Life was mixed in 1946-47, but in the 1970s, it reemerged as a television staple and became Capra’s most beloved and often seen film, enlisting widely varying interpretations but clearly recognized by most as one of the great works of American cinema.

     Capra’s second film for Liberty, State of the Union (1948), starred Spencer Tracy as a liberal Republican candidate for the presidency and Katharine Hepburn as his wife. Tracy sees the White House as a chance to realize his progressive beliefs; however, caught up in the corruption of power politics, he sells out in order to win votes. Chastened by his wife’s criticism of his move as well as his own conscience, he publicly renounces his quest in a televised address reproaching his own failings and decrying the state of American politics. With Capra poised to surrender his independence to join the industry as a contract director, the film has obvious autobiographical overtones. It would also be the last of his classic political films. Significantly, the hero's visionary ideals such as a world government, reflecting Capra’s own views, aroused opposition from the increasingly powerful right-wing in an America and Hollywood now being intimidated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

     Capra directed only four more films after the dissolution of Liberty: two Bing Crosby vehicles for Paramount, Riding High (1950), a musical remake of Broadway Bill, and Here Comes the Groom (1951); A Hole in the Head (1957), a comedy starring Frank Sinatra; and his last film, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a remake of Lady for a Day. On the whole, these late films are less effective than the majority of his classic features of 1926-48. Between the Crosby and Sinatra films, he returned to his first love, science, directing four informative and entertaining television programs on the subject, a series so skillfully put together that it was shown in classrooms across the country for years. Unlike contemporaries of his such as Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, and Wyler who did some of their most notable work in the 1950s and 1960s, Capra disappeared from the Hollywood film industry for much of this period. But in a sense, Capra, like Griffith before him, had always stood apart from the industry. At Columbia, he attained an autonomy denied most directors of the time since, once the budget was agreed upon, he was able, with Cohn’s blessing, to make whatever film he chose without interference. His most impressive post-Columbia films, Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life, and State of the Union, were all independently produced. Along with Capra’s inability to adapt to the structure of the industry, the changing political and social climate in the post-war years was a further factor in his eclipse in the ‘50s. The height of his popularity in the ‘30s and early ‘40s coincided with the era of the Popular Front uniting people of progressive faith to fight the Depression and then fascism. This coalition quickly fell apart after the war. The now-ascendant rightists viewed Capra’s films as particularly suspect. Indeed, a 1947 internal report by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI cited It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as subversive, left-wing attacks on capitalism. But to the beleaguered liberals of the ‘50s, Capra’s idealism now seemed fuzzy and naively out of touch with post-war realities. Capra, however, was never a man to fade quietly into obscurity. In 1971, he reemerged with The Name Above the Title, a vastly entertaining if not always accurate autobiography recording his struggles and triumphs. To the rebellious college youth of the 1970s, disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the contemporary power structure, Capra’s films with their combination of idealistic faith in the individual and distrust of institutions were highly relevant. As a result, the director became a popular featured speaker at college campuses. His later life climaxed in 1982 when he received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Following the death of his wife Lucille, with whom he had shared an exceptionally close relationship for over half a century, he suffered a stroke in 1985 and withdrew from the public eye. He died on September 3, 1991, at the age of 94 in his home in La Quinta, California. Survivors included a daughter and two sons, one of whom, Frank Capra, Jr., had become a prominent film producer in his own right.

     Frank Capra remains one of the cinema’s most provocative and intellectually stimulating directors. His work has been the subject of countless analyses, including those by Jeanine Basinger, Leland Poague, and Raymond Carney whose brilliant study of the filmmaker links him to American transcendentalism and romantic painting. His work has been a continued source of inspiration to such later directors as Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, and John Cassavetes, and Japan’s Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima. He has received virtually universal praise for his exceptional cinematic skills and his unusual gift for directing players. It was Capra who made Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur stars and helped shape the screen images of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert. And from the standpoint of his thematics, the Sicilian immigrant, along with John Ford, was the director who was most responsible for expressing the American national consciousness on screen in the ‘30s and ‘40s. However, Capra still has fierce detractors, like Joseph McBride whose extremely negative biography of the director depicts him as an opportunist more interested in self-promotion than the ideals expressed in his films. McBride’s one-sided interpretation, deriving from his highly selective approach to research, was embraced by critics who had long disparaged the filmmaker as the sweetly sentimental purveyor of "Capracorn." Ironically, this view of Capra as a complacent manipulator of mass emotions has also been promulgated by his latter-day conservative admirers who have sought to recast him as the "family values" director in contrast to contemporary Hollywood’s supposed ultraliberalism. Even among the critics who most appreciate him as a subtle and powerful artist, there are sharp divisions between those who revere him as an idealist with an affirmative vision of mankind and those who see his point of view as darker and much more despairing. In truth, Capra resists any attempts at simple categorization because his work is multi-layered. Much like his literary antecedents, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Capra was both a popular humorous entertainer and a complex visionary artist. Also like Dickens and Twain, Capra was simultaneously radical and conservative in his outlook, a romantic and a realist in his aesthetics, a man of both tremendous faith and immense doubt. The force and enthusiasm with which he developed and transmitted his vision galvanized his gifted collaborators who responded with equal conviction to his magnetism. The architect of his films from start to finish, Frank Capra was one of film’s premier geniuses who helped to realize the art’s full potential through a body of work that continues to challenge and appeal to the mind and heart. 

REFERENCES: Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971; Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996); Leland A. Poague, Another Frank Capra (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Stephen Hunter, "Auteur of Corn," The Washington Post, January 2, 1998; Jeanine Basinger, The "It’s a Wonderful Life" Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986); Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Richard Glatzer and John Raeburn (ed.), Frank Capra: The Man and His Films (The University of Michigan Press, 1975); Victor Scherle and William Turner Levy, intro. by William O. Douglas, The Films of Frank Capra (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1977); William M. Drew, "Frank Capra: A Lighthouse in a Foggy World" (interview), American Classic Screen, July/August, 1979.


Frank Capra: 

It's a Wonderful Life:

The FBI's views of It's a Wonderful Life and other Capra films as being subversive:

Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.


Published August 10, 2002 by Gilda Tabarez at

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