Frank Capra

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Frank Capra at the editing table during his military service, ca.1943

Frank Capra (born May 18, 1897 in Bisacquino , Sicily as Francesco Rosario Capra , † September 3, 1991 in La Quinta , California ) was an American film director, producer and author of Italian origin. He was one of the most successful directors of his generation.

Coming from a poor family of emigrants, Capra was one of Hollywood's most popular and respected directors in the 1930s and 1940s. He won three Oscar for best director with the films It Happened in One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes Into Town (1936) and Life Artist (1938) . Other major film classics he has directed include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Arsenic and Lace Cap (1944), Isn't Life Beautiful? (1946) and his last feature film The Lower Ten Thousand (1961), a remake of his own film Lady for a Day (1933). He often shot tragic comedies in the context of the Great Depression , which - always on the side of the "little man" - took a stand on social issues. As his success waned, he retired in 1964 after making 54 films.

Early life

Frank Capra was born in Bisacquino , a village near Palermo , and was baptized Francesco Rosario. He was the youngest of seven - surviving - children of the fruit picker Salvatore Capra and his wife Sarah. The family was Roman Catholic and closely associated with the Church.

The family emigrated to the United States in 1903 when he was five years old. The thirteen-day boat trip across the Atlantic had the family for lack of funds in cheap steerage bring the misery there described Capra later as one of its worst life experiences. The family settled in the eastern part of Los Angeles , in a district that Capra later described as the "Italian Ghetto". As in Italy, his father worked as a fruit picker. Frank had to earn money as a newspaper boy for ten years while he was attending school.

Frank Capra graduated from high school after ten years and then attended the California Institute of Technology . To finance his studies, he had to earn money with various jobs: he played banjo in night clubs, worked in the laundry room of his university and as a waiter, and cleaned machines in a local power station. Capra graduated in chemical engineering in the spring of 1918. Soon after, he joined the US Army as a Second Lieutenant in the First World War . As a military instructor, he taught math at Fort Point National Historic Site in San Francisco .

But Capra fell ill with the then raging Spanish flu and had to be sent back to his mother. A little later his father died in an accident. When he lived in their home with his mother and siblings, he was the only family member with a college degree, but the only one without a steady income. After a year without work, he fell into a period of depression.

After overcoming his depression, Capra lived for the next few years in various accommodations around San Francisco; He traveled across the country on trains or with soldiers. In order to be able to finance his life to some extent, Capra worked as a temporary worker on farms, as a film statistic, as a poker player and as a sales representative, selling among others the works of the philosopher Elbert Hubbard . At the age of 24, Capra made the 32-minute documentary La Visita Dell'Incrociatore Italiano LIBYA in San Francisco. This was his first contact with the film, although the little documentary brought him no attention or success.

Film career

1922–1928: The beginnings of the silent film era

In 1922, while working as a sales representative, Capra came across a newspaper advertisement seeking directors for a new San Francisco film studio. On the phone, he told the producers that he was straight from Hollywood and had experience in the film business. Studio founder Walter Montague (1855-1924) hired Capra and gave him $ 75 to make a ten-minute silent film. The budding director shot the film Fultah Fisher's Boarding House with a cameraman and amateur actors in just two days , the plot of which was based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling .

After Walter Montague's film studio had little success and was quickly dissolved, Capra looked for new jobs in the film business and finally got a permanent position in another small film studio in San Francisco.

Capra (right) with Roy Boulting while editing a film (February 1944)

Here Capra caught the attention of Hollywood producer Harry Cohn , who guided him to his new film studio in Los Angeles. During this time he worked as a prop master, film editor, title writer and assistant director; However, through these diverse tasks he learned the basics of the film business. In 1924 Capra worked briefly in the script department of producer Hal Roach and wrote gags for the little thugs , among other things . At the end of the same year, Roach's greatest competitor Mack Sennett Capra was able to recruit as a writer for the films of comedian Harry Langdon ; there he worked with Arthur Ripley . Langdon's comedian character was characterized by limitless slowness, naivety and innocence, which is why she mostly couldn't cope with the big, hard world. Capra, who has now finally developed into a comedy specialist, played a role in Langdon becoming one of Hollywood's most successful comedians in the mid-1920s.

When Langdon moved from Mack Sennett's studio to First National to be able to make feature films there, he took Capra with him as his main writer and director. In 1926 and 1927 they made two feature films, the first of which, The Strong Man , had great success with both audiences and critics. Langdon has been compared to Charlie Chaplin , Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton during this time . During the shooting of the second film, however, there was a dispute between Capra and Langdon and the successful duo split up. The reactions to the film were negative and Langdon's star began to decline. After separating from the comedian, Capra shot For the Love of Mike , another silent film comedy for First National , in which Claudette Colbert, who was almost unknown at the time, also played a role. This film also received poor reviews and Capra did not get another contract with First National.

1928–1933: First successes with Columbia Pictures

The unemployed director was hired again in 1928 by producer Harry Cohn, who had once brought him to Hollywood, for his film studio Columbia Pictures . At that time Columbia was one of the so-called Poverty Row film studios in Hollywood, which could not compete with the large film studios and their high budgets. Columbia Pictures wanted to gain in importance and size and catch up with the larger film studios, but successful feature films had to be produced for this become. Capra was hired for this. The director made a total of twenty films for Columbia Pictures, nine of them in the first year. Most of Capra's nine films turned out to be very successful, so Cohn increased his salary from $ 1,000 per film to an annual salary of $ 25,000. Among other things, he shot the drama The Younger Generation (1929), about a Jewish family in New York whose son denies his Jewish roots in order to remain in the favor of his girlfriend.

At the end of the 1920s, talkies found their way into Hollywood; Unlike many of his colleagues, Capra welcomed this innovation and did not consider talkies to be a passing fad either. When producing his first sound films, his engineering degree was an advantage for him, because - as Capra's long-time cameraman Joseph Walker later recalled -, unlike most other directors, he also understood something of the technical matter and quickly learned about the technical innovations of sound film used. In addition to the cameraman Joseph Walker, who worked with the director on a total of 18 films, the screenwriter Robert Riskin was also regularly engaged by Capra. In many of Capra's films, Riskin wrote the witty and sharp dialogues and both became “Hollywood's most acclaimed director / writer team”.

After notable successes such as the adventure film Das Luftschiff (1931) and, above all, the comedy Before Blondes Is Warned (1931), which greatly advanced Jean Harlow's career, Capra shot the comedy Lady for a Day in 1933 . With 75-year-old May Robson  - who plays a poor apple seller who disguises herself as a lady - the film had a rather unusual leading actress. Nevertheless, he was nominated for four Oscars , including in the category Best Director for Capra, but received nothing at the awards ceremony. Still, Lady is considered Capra's first big hit for one day , and it was Columbia's first flick that was nominated for an Oscar for best film.

1934–1941: Great cinema classics and three Oscars for Best Director

In the following year, Capra was to surpass his success with Lady for a day : his road movie comedy It Happened in One Night (1934) became the first film to win all of the Oscars in the five main categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best script). Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled millionaire heiress in the film, who flees from her father to a snobbish lover and in this way not only gets to know the misery of the normal population in the Great Depression , but also falls in love with a down-to-earth reporter ( Clark Gable ). Despite this actually comical act, Capra also shows the problems of the average American citizen in the world economic crisis. It happened in one night is now considered the founding film of the screwball comedy par excellence and promoted Columbia Pictures to the ranks of the major Hollywood studios. Capra's next film about horse racing, Broadway Bill , was also a screwball comedy, but it wasn't as successful as It Happened In One Night .

After the Broadway Bill , Capra decided to exert even more influence on his scripts and to send political, social or moral messages to the public in his films. The first film of its kind was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in the lead roles. Cooper plays a lucky card poet, a friendly, naive country man who inherits a fortune in the millions and does a lot of good with his money before his greedy and fraudulent lawyers try to declare him crazy. Critic Alistair Cooke wrote on Mr. Deeds that Capra would begin making films more about subjects than people. For Mr. Deeds Goes Down town , Capra won his second Oscar for Best Director. In contrast, the adventure film In the Fetters of Shangri-La (1937) with Ronald Colman , which was based on the utopian novel The Lost Horizon by James Hilton , differed from Capra's previous films . The shoot consumed the then high sum of 1.5 million US dollars, among other things because the film is set in an exotic, beautifully utopian valley in the Himalayas - the sets of the film were therefore extremely complex.

On May 5, 1936, Capra, now the highest-paid director in Hollywood, hosted the 1936 Academy Awards .

Capra won his third Oscar for Best Director in five years for the comedy Lebenskünstler , and the production also won the Oscar for Best Film of the Year. Lebenskünstler is based on the successful piece You Can't Take It with You , which had a total of 837 performances on Broadway from December 1937. Jean Arthur and James Stewart play a young couple in the lead roles, whose extremely different families - some tough business people, the other alternative eccentrics - get to know each other. In the art of living had Raven Jimmy the Raven occupied his first appearance, the Capra in many of his later films. In 1939 Capra made one of his most famous films, the political satire Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , again with Arthur and Stewart in the leading roles. Capra made Stewart a Hollywood star with the lead roles in Life Artist and Mr. Smith . In Mr. Smith goes to Washington , Capra's patriotism becomes clear, he shows "the individual in the democratic system fighting against rampant corruption in politics". When it was released, the film was popular with critics and audiences, but many politicians were enraged. The then US ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy , asked Columbia boss Harry Cohn that the film should not be shown in Europe. Kennedy wrote to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the film created the false impression abroad that there was bribery, corruption and lawlessness in the US. Such an impression is fatal for America , especially in view of the beginning of the Second World War .

Why We Fight , Part 4: The Battle of Britain

Capra and Cohn ignored the criticism of the film and the director defended his film with the words: “The more insecure people are in the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the wind of risk, the more they need a sonorous statement America's Democratic Ideals. ” Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, but could only accept one award for Best Original Story against stiff competition. When the Vichy regime banned American films in theaters during World War II, many cinema owners showed Mr. Smith as a symbol of democracy as the last American film before the law came into force .

After that film, Capra left Columbia Pictures and made his next two films with Warner Bros. His first film there, Here's John Doe , was released in 1941. The film hero, played by Gary Cooper, is a former baseball player who travels through the country without work or money before he is proclaimed the average American citizen " John Doe " by news reporters and mutates into the hero of the masses. Published shortly before the United States entered World War II, Here is John Doe again shows patriotic traits and also contains a message against fascism: an unscrupulous and obviously fascist industrialist with dictatorial intentions exploits John Doe for his own ends and wants to become president. Many film historians see this film as one of the most personal of Capra, especially because the latter, like his film hero, had made a rapid ascent, but was also marked by uncertainties.

1941–1946: Second World War and "arsenic and lace cap"

Capra (right) receives the Army Distinguished Service Medal from General Marshall, 1945

Just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Capra entered the US Army with the rank of major. When he was called up, he not only gave up his Hollywood career for the time being, but also chaired the Directors Guild of America . Biographers later wrote that by joining as an immigrant he wanted to prove his patriotism to America; According to his own statement, he also wanted to move away from the glamor and money of Hollywood, which was in contrast to the content of his films. In the next few years he was involved in the shooting of numerous war documentaries for America. Its aim was to explain why the US soldiers went to war for their country and what their goals were. In doing so, he consciously distanced himself from propaganda films from Germany or Japan.

His seven-part, award-winning documentary film series from 1942 to 1945, Why We Fight , which Capra saw as an answer to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens , was a great success . In addition, with Walt Disney's help , he produced a total of 28 three- to five-minute black and white cartoons about " Private Snafu ", which were used for teaching purposes in the armed forces. Well-known Hollywood composers such as Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin were responsible for the background music for Capra's documentary films . General George C. Marshall , under whose command Capra was, said after viewing Capra's first Army film, “Colonel Capra, how did you manage that? It's the most beautiful thing! ”Capra's documentaries were subsequently translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese and Winston Churchill demanded that all Why we Fight films be shown in British cinemas.

In 1944, Capra's arsenic and lace cap was released with Cary Grant in the lead role, which Capra had already turned off in 1941. The comedy, enriched with black humor, is based on the play Spitzenhäubchen und Arsenik ( Arsenic and Old Lace ) by Joseph Kesselring and was adapted by the screenwriter Julius J. Epstein . The success of the stage version on Broadway delayed the premiere of the film until 1944, because the producers had contractually agreed to wait until after the play was canceled on Broadway before the film was evaluated. The film received excellent reviews and was also successful with audiences. Today he is considered a classic of black comedy.

1946–1964: "Isn't Life Beautiful?" And Declining Success

After the end of the world war, Capra founded his own production company Liberty Films with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens in order to gain even more control over his works. However, after Capra's films, Isn't Life Beautiful? (1946) and The Best Man (1948) already dissolved. The lavish tragic comedy Isn't life beautiful? is probably Capra's most famous strip today. The film starring James Stewart was a financial failure when it was released, although it was nominated for five Academy Awards. It was only after countless broadcasts on US television that the film was rediscovered from the 1970s and is now considered a Christmas classic. The film is about a man who has done a lot for the population of his small town, but loses his courage to live after a mishap on Christmas Eve and wants to throw himself off the bridge so that an angel has to help him. In his “optimistic belief in the good in people” and his “imaginative style”, it is a typical Capra film. The life is wonderful, is not it? was voted the most inspirational American film of all time by the American Film Institute .

When life is not beautiful? Critics accused Capra for the first time of an over-sentimental and over-idealistic kind. His film themes from the Great Depression increasingly no longer matched the tastes of the public, which had changed, and his films were no longer as successful. Capra himself blamed the rising power of the film stars who interfered in his directorial work. After The Best Man With Couple Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy , most of his films were also no longer commercially successful. After two inconsequential, less successful films with Bing Crosby , he produced four scientific documentaries for television in the 1950s as part of the Bell Laboratory Science Series , which were later often shown in American school classes. At the Berlinale 1958 , Capra acted as jury president. It was not until 1959 that Capra turned another feature film with the comedy One Size Too Big with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson , but this only brought in mixed results. His last feature film The Lower Ten Thousand was a remake of his own film Lady for a Day from 1933, with Bette Davis this time playing the role of the apple seller. After all, the film received three Oscar nominations, yet most critics consider the original film to be better than the remake. Subsequently, Capra only shot the documentary Rendezvous in Space (1964) for the Martin Marietta concern .

Personal life, political views, and retirement

Retired Capra (right) with Alan Greenberg

Frank Capra married actress Helen Howell in 1923 and divorced in 1928. In the same year he married Lucille Warner. The marriage, which ended with Warner's death in 1984, has a daughter and three sons - one son died as an infant. One son was the film producer Frank Capra junior , whose son is the assistant director Frank Capra III. (* 1959).

Capra's interests included hunting, fishing and climbing, and he also owned a four-square-kilometer ranch in Fallbrook . He also collected rare and old books, so an auction in 1948 brought him a total of 68,000 US dollars for a book. In old age he played the guitar and wrote some short stories and lyrics. Capra had a particular interest in science and mathematics.

Between 1935 and 1939 Capra served as chairman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences , and he was also president of the Directors Guild of America for three years , which he helped found. Politically, the patriotic Capra was a Republican and Conservative as well as an opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his policies in the Great Depression. Because Capra had achieved such great success from a bad background, Capra believed that all people could do this with hard work and saw no reason for government aid. However, he was against corruption and was also critical of the economy. In addition, he often worked with left-wing scriptwriters, which is why many of his films had a "left wing" and were critical of capitalism, for example. Isn't life beautiful behind ? was even suspected of "subversive communist propaganda" by the FBI. In his documentary film The Unchained Goddess, made in 1958 , some today see a clear anticipation of the modern criticism of the fossil-economic causes of climate change .

After his last film in 1964, Capra spent many years in retirement and also took care of the fame of his films. In 1971 he published his autobiography The Name Above The Title . He was also involved in documentaries as a contemporary witness and received various awards. He was in good health until the late 1980s before suffering a series of heart attacks. Frank Capra died of a heart attack in La Quinta in 1991 at the age of 94 . He was buried in the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery in Coachella Valley . His records and writings are on hold at Wesleyan University .

Direction style and meaning

Frank Capra's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Frank Capra is still considered one of the most influential directors in Hollywood to this day. In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the two or three most famous and successful directors in the world. He was one of the few directors whose names were also known to a broader cinema audience. As a special honor, he himself understood that his name was above the title of the film. He called his autobiography The Name Above the Title . In particular, the fact that his films bore a certain signature and that Capra films were almost always recognizable as such helped Capra to achieve this success. In this way he was in contrast to many other directors in the studio system who shot the films that their producers had just “presented” to them. He demanded as much independence as possible from producers and therefore worked for years with a smaller studio like Columbia, where he had a little more freedom.

Capra's genre was comedy , but many of his comedies are interspersed with tragic and sentimental moments, biting social criticism and pathos . Often a positive story is shown in a negative setting, for example the love story in It Happened in a Night Amidst embittered people marked by the Great Depression . He always used the good "little man" as the main character, which was played mainly by James Stewart or Gary Cooper . His films often contained messages about the good in human nature and show what can be achieved through altruism and hard work. This character asserts himself against the villains through his benevolent, somewhat naive and idealistic manner. Wealthy or powerful people, on the other hand, often appeared as villains, a good example being Edward Arnold's incarnations of power-hungry industrialists in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Here's John Doe . The powerful villains of his films were rarely punished in the end because he thought it was more realistic. Another aspect of his film is the American Dream , combined with a certain patriotism and belief in freedom. His best films are characterized by quick-witted but natural-looking dialogues, striking and often comical characters, a high speed and some action. In the end, despite many problems, there is a positive, almost fairytale happy ending .

Capra improvised a lot on his films and often only came to the film set with imprecise scripts. In contrast to many almost dictatorial directors at the time, he mostly had a pleasant but artistic atmosphere on the set. Although he had dynamic and fast camera movements and cuts in his films, Capra was rather opposed to technical gimmicks such as experimental camera perspectives, which he understood as a bad distraction for the audience. Some critics discovered a certain purism in his work. Behind the camera he mostly trusted the same people for many years and he cast many actors like HB Warner in several of his films. His films are often disparagingly called "Capra-Corn", the positive opposite term is "Capraesque". With his works he influenced many later, important directors significantly.


Awards (selection)

Films in the top 250 of the IMDb
space Movie
24 The life is wonderful, is not it?
193 Mr. Smith is going to Washington
231 It happened in one night


  • 1934: Nomination for Best Director for Lady for a Day
  • 1935: Award for Best Director for It Happened In One Night
  • 1937: Award as Best Director for Mr. Deeds goes to town
  • 1939: Award as best director for bon vivants
  • 1940: Best Director nomination for Mr. Smith goes to Washington
  • 1947: Nomination for Best Director for Isn't Life Beautiful?

Capra is one of only six directors who managed to make two films that were awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. ( It happened in one night and life artist ). The other directors are Clint Eastwood , Vincente Minnelli , William Wyler , Francis Ford Coppola and Miloš Forman .

Golden Globes

  • 1947: Award for Best Director for Isn't Life Beautiful?

American Film Institute

Venice International Film Festival

Hollywood Walk of Fame

  • 1960: Stern for his film work

In 1984 Frank Capra was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters . In 1986 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts .


  • Autobiography. (OT: The Name Above the Title ). Diogenes, Zurich 1992, ISBN 3-257-01938-6 .


  • Jeanine Basinger (Ed.): The It's a Wonderful Life Book. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1994, ISBN 0-394-74719-4 .
  • Dieter Krusche, Jürgen Labenski : Reclam's film guide. 7th edition, Reclam, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-15-010205-7 , p. 645
  • Victor Scherle, William Turner Levy: The Complete Films of Frank Capra. Citadel Press, New York / Secaucus 1992, ISBN 0-8065-1296-2 .
  • Robert Sklar, Vito Zagarrio, Thomas Schatz: Frank Capra. Autorship and the Studio System. Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1998, ISBN 1-56639-608-5 .
  • Ursula Vossen: Frank Capra. In: Andreas Friedrich (Ed.): Film genres. Fantasy and fairy tale film. Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-018403-7 .

Web links

Commons : Frank Capra  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^
  2. a b Joseph McBride: Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1992, ISBN 1-60473-839-1 .
  3. ^ Italian ghetto. In: Joseph McBride: Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success.
  4. 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 .
  5. Barry Gwenn, "It Wasn't Such a Wonderful Life," Times (1992)
  6. Pendergast 2000, pp. 428-429.
  7. Capra, Frank (1971). The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Lightning Source Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-306-80771-8 .
  8. Pendergast 2000, pp. 428-429.
  9. a b Capra, Frank (1971). The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Lightning Source Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-306-80771-8 .
  10. ^ Dieter Krusche, Jürgen Labenski: Reclams film guide. 10th edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 1996, p. 311.
  11. McBride, Joseph, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Simon & Schuster 1992. ISBN 0-671-73494-6
  12. ^ Wilson, Victoria: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 . Simon & Schuster, 2013, p. 266
  13. ^ FBI considered It's a Wonderful Life Communist Propaganda
  14. See the corresponding sources in the Capra Lemma of the English Wikipedia
  15. ^ Frank Capra in the Find a Grave database . Retrieved April 29, 2016.
  16. The Top 250 of the IMDb (as of April 26, 2020)
  17. ^ Honorary Members: Frank Capra. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed March 2, 2019 .