Capra, Frank

Capra, Frank
born May 18, 1897, near Palermo, Sicily, Italy
died Sept. 3, 1991, La Quinta, Calif., U.S.

U.S. film director.

At age six he immigrated with his family to the U.S. After holding various jobs in the film industry, he emerged as a major director with That Certain Thing (1928) and Platinum Blonde (1931). He won Academy Awards for It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), stories that portray naive idealists who triumph over more worldly types. He chose the same theme for his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) but departed from his usual style in Lost Horizon (1937) and Meet John Doe (1941). Capra also won a third Academy Award for You Can't Take It with You (1938). He made the documentary series Why We Fight during World War II and the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

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▪ American film director
born May 18, 1897, near Palermo, Sicily, Italy
died September 3, 1991, La Quinta, California, U.S.

      American motion-picture director best known for a series of gently satiric and sentimental situation comedies during the 1930s and '40s.

      Capra's family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was six. After graduating in 1918 from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he became an army engineering instructor. From 1921 Capra was a director of motion-picture shorts, a property man, a film cutter, a writer of film titles, a gag writer for Hal Roach (Roach, Hal) and Mack Sennett (Sennett, Mack) comedies, and a director of such popular Harry Langdon comedies as Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), The Strong Man (1926), and Long Pants (1927). Capra began his long association with Columbia Pictures (Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc.) in 1928 and went on to direct some of the studio's most prestigious films. His early Columbia films include The Power of the Press (1928) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Platinum Blonde (1931), one of Jean Harlow (Harlow, Jean)'s first starring vehicles; and Lady for a Day (1933), for which Capra received his first Academy Award nomination for best director.

      Capra's “golden period” began with It Happened One Night (1934), the first picture to win an Oscar in each of the five major categories: best picture, actor, actress, director, and screenplay. He directed some of the most popular films of the 1930s, including Broadway Bill (1934) and Lost Horizon (1937), and won two more Oscars, for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It with You (1938). Similar in their humorous presentation of a naive, idealistic hero, the films project an essential optimism as the hero triumphs over shrewder individuals.

 Given an uncommon amount of freedom (which he might not have had at a larger studio), Capra followed his “one man, one film” theory, feeling that as a director, he was responsible for every aspect of his films. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the tale of an idealistic young senator (memorably portrayed by James Stewart (Stewart, James)) who battles corruption in Washington, D.C., has remained one of his most popular works. The mixture of patriotism, idealism, and sentimentality, found in this and many Capra films, was dubbed “Capra-corn” by the director himself. Leaving Columbia after Mr. Smith, Capra continued his examination of the American political system with Meet John Doe (1941), an independent feature starring Gary Cooper (Cooper, Gary) as an ex-baseball player who becomes a populist hero. Also in 1941 Capra directed a successful film version of the Broadway stage hit Arsenic and Old Lace; owing to the stipulations of the play's producers, the film was not released until 1944, but Capra chose to make it quickly before departing for army service so that his family could subsist on his salary during the war years. While a major in the army Signal Corps during the years 1942–45, Capra directed a series of well-regarded documentaries titled Why We Fight, which were commissioned by the U.S. government to increase American support for the war effort.

      His first postwar film was It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the story of a despairing man who is saved from suicide during the Christmas season by being shown how much his seemingly insignificant life has improved the lives of those around him. Although the film garnered Oscar nominations for best picture, director, and actor (James Stewart), it was a box office disappointment upon its release. Only after it was shown repeatedly on television in the 1970s did audiences and critics recognize the film as Capra's masterpiece. The film ranked 11th on the American Film Institute's 1999 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and it remains a perennial holiday favourite.

 It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's final film of stature, although his last five pictures were respectable efforts. The Spencer Tracy (Tracy, Spencer)-Katharine Hepburn (Hepburn, Katharine) comedy State of the Union (1948) is a pleasant blend of domestic and political satire. His two middling Bing Crosby (Crosby, Bing) vehicles—Riding High (1950) and Here Comes the Groom (1951)—were reasonably successful. The changing tastes of the postwar years, however, rendered anachronistic Capra's brand of sentiment and gentle humour, and he spent much of the 1950s making science documentaries for younger television viewers. His final two films, A Hole in the Head (1959) with Frank Sinatra (Sinatra, Frank) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) with Bette Davis (Davis, Bette), were good efforts, but Capra's approach seemed a bit formulaic by that time. He revealed his dissatisfaction with Hollywood in the poststudio system days in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title (1971), and chose to retire after Pocketful of Miracles rather than adapt his philosophy to a new system. He received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1982.

Additional Reading
Charles J. Maland, Frank Capra (1994); Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (1996); Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1993, reissued 2000).

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Universalium. 2010.

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