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Frank Capra

Frank Capra cuts army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II.
Born Francesco Rosario Capra
May 18, 1897(1897-05-18)
Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy
Died September 3, 1991 (aged 94)
La Quinta, California, U.S.
Occupation Director, Writer, Producer
Years active 1922–1961
Spouse(s) Helen Howell (1923-1927)
Lou Capra (1932-1984); 4 children

Frank Russell Capra (May 18, 1897 – September 3, 1991) was a Sicilian-born American film director and a creative force behind a number of films of the 1930s and 1940s, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).


Early life

Born as Frank Rosario Capra (some sources indicate Francesco Rosario Capra) in Bisacquino, Sicily, he immigrated to the United States in 1903 with his parents, Turiddu Capra (later known as "Salvatore") and Rosaria (later known as "Sarah"; née Nicolosi) and his siblings Giuseppa, Giuseppe, and Antonia.

In California the family met with Benedetto Capra (the oldest sibling, known as "Benjamin") and settled in Los Angeles. Frank Capra attended Manual Arts High School there. In 1918, he graduated from Throop Institute (now the California Institute of Technology) with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering.

World War I

During World War I, Capra enlisted in the United States Army on October 18, 1918. He taught ballistics and mathematics to artillerymen at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio of San Francisco. While there, he caught Spanish flu and was medically discharged with rank of second lieutenant on December 13, 1918. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1920 as Frank Russell Capra.

Film career

Capra began as a prop man in silent films.[1] However, Capra's first exposure to films occurred in 1915 while he was attending Manual Arts High School. At Manual Arts, Capra's teacher, Rob Wagner, directed Our Wonderful Schools, a documentary on the Los Angeles Unified School District. Capra worked on the film as an editor. The film was produced by Reliance Film Company and released by Mutual Film. The film won a medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition fair in San Francisco. Later, Capra wrote and directed silent film comedies starring Harry Langdon and the Our Gang kids. Capra went to work for Mack Sennett in 1924 and then moved to Columbia Pictures, where he formed a close association with screenwriter Robert Riskin (husband of Fay Wray) and cameraman Joseph Walker. However, Sidney Buchman replaced Riskin as writer in 1940.

For the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy were originally offered the roles, but each felt that the script was poor, and Loy described it as one of the worst she had ever read, later noting that the final version bore little resemblance to the script she and Montgomery were offered.[2] After Loy, Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullavan also each rejected the part.[3] Constance Bennett wanted to, but only if she could produce it herself. Then Bette Davis wanted the role,[4] but she was under contract with Warner Brothers and Jack Warner refused to loan her to Columbia Studios.[5] Capra was unable to get any of the actresses he wanted for the part of Ellie Andrews, partly because no self-respecting star would make a film with only two costumes.[6] Harry Cohn suggested Claudette Colbert to play the lead role. Both Capra and Clark Gable enjoyed making the movie; Colbert did not. After the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Capra directed a steady stream of films for Columbia Pictures, intended to be inspirational and humanitarian.

The best known of Capra's films are Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the original Lost Horizon, You Can't Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life. His ten-year break from screwball comedy ended with the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Among the actors who owed much of their early success to Capra were Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant and Donna Reed. Capra called Jean Arthur "[his] favorite actress".

Capra's films in the 1930s enjoyed success at the Academy Awards. It Happened One Night was the first film to win all five top Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). In 1936, Capra won his second Best Director Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; in 1938 he won his third Director Oscar in five years for You Can't Take It with You, which also won Best Picture. In addition to his three directing wins, Capra received directing nominations for three other films (Lady for a Day, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life). On May 5, 1936, Capra was also host of the 8th Academy Awards ceremony.

World War II

Frank Capra was commissioned as a major in the United States Army Signal Corps during World War II. He produced State of the Union and directed or co-directed eight documentary propaganda films between 1942 and 1948, including the seven-episode U.S. government-commissioned Why We Fight series—consisting of Prelude to War (1942), The Nazis Strike (1942), The Battle of Britain (1943), Divide and Conquer (1943), Know Your Enemy: Japan (1945), Tunisian Victory (1945), and Two Down and One to Go (1945)—as well as produced the African-American targeted The Negro Soldier (1944). Why We Fight is widely considered a masterpiece of propaganda and won an Academy Award. Prelude to War won the 1942 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Capra regarded these films as his most important works. As a colonel, he received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.


It's a Wonderful Life (1946) was considered a box office disappointment but it was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Editing. The American Film Institute named it one of the best films ever made, putting it at the top of the list of AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers, a list of what AFI considers to be the most inspirational American movies of all time. The film also appeared in another AFI Top 100 list: it placed at 11th on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list of the top American films.

Capra directed two films at Paramount Pictures starring Bing Crosby, Riding High (1950) and Here Comes the Groom (1951). It was eight years before he directed another theatrical film, A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra, which was his first film in color.

Capra's final theatrical film was with Glenn Ford and Bette Davis, named Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a remake of his 1933 film Lady for a Day. He planned to do a science fiction film later in the decade but never got around to pre-production. Capra produced several science-related television specials in color for the Bell Labs, such as Our Mr. Sun (1956), Hemo the Magnificent (1957), The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (1957), and Meteora: The Unchained Goddess (1958). These educational science documentaries were popular favorites for showing in school science classrooms.

In 1982, the American Film Institute honored Frank Capra with television film The American Film Institute Salute to Frank Capra, hosted by Jimmy Stewart. In 1986, Capra received the National Medal of Arts.


In 1971, Capra published his autobiography, The Name Above the Title.[7] Upon the book's publication, Capra became a popular guest speaker on the college lecture circuit. Capra was also the subject of a 1991 biography by Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success.

Personal life

Capra was a Republican who was active in the anti-Communist cause and also donated funds to the Human Life Amendment PAC.[8]


His son Frank Capra, Jr. — one of the four children born to Capra's second wife, Lucille Capra — was the president of EUE Screen Gems Studios, in Wilmington, North Carolina, until his death on December 19, 2007.

Death and legacy

Frank Capra died in La Quinta, California, of a heart attack in his sleep in 1991 at the age of 94. He was interred in the Coachella Valley Cemetery in Coachella, California.

He left part of his 1,100-acre (4 km2) ranch in Fallbrook, California, to Caltech.[9] The Cinema Archives, run by film historian Jeanine Basinger, at Wesleyan University contain the personal papers of Capra.


Capra films usually carry a definite message about the basic goodness of human nature and show the value of unselfishness and hard work. His wholesome, feel-good themes have led some to term his style Capra-corn, but those who hold his vision in high regard prefer the term Capraesque.

Awards and honours


Academy Awards

Capra won a total of six Academy Awards. He was nominated six times for Best Director and six times for Outstanding Production/Best Picture. Out of six nominations for Best Director, Capra received the award three times. He briefly held the record for winning the most Best Director Oscars when he won for the third time in 1938, until this record was matched by John Ford in 1941, and then later surpassed by Ford in 1952. William Wyler also matched this record upon winning his third Oscar in 1959. With three directing Oscars each, Capra and Wyler have received the second highest number of directing awards in Oscar history, behind Ford's four.

Year Film Award Winner
1933 Lady for a Day Best Director Frank Lloyd - Cavalcade
Outstanding Production Winfield Sheehan - Cavalcade
1934 It Happened One Night Best Director Yes check.svgY
Outstanding Production Yes check.svgY With Harry Cohn
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Best Director Yes check.svgY
Outstanding Production Hunt Stromberg - The Great Ziegfeld
1937 Lost Horizon Outstanding Production Henry Blanke - The Life of Emile Zola
1938 You Can't Take It With You Best Director Yes check.svgY
Outstanding Production Yes check.svgY
1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Best Director Victor Fleming - Gone with the Wind
Outstanding Production David O. Selznick - Gone with the Wind
1943 Prelude to War Best Documentary Yes check.svgY
1944 The Battle of Russia Best Documentary, Features Desert Victory
1946 It's a Wonderful Life Best Director William Wyler - The Best Years of Our Lives
Best Motion Picture Samuel Goldwyn - The Best Years of Our Lives

American Film Institute

Directors Guild of America

Golden Globe Award

Venice Film Festival

American Film Institute recognition

United States National Film Registry


Year Title Production Co. Cast Notes
Silent films
1915 Our Wonderful Schools Reliance Film Company Documentary; film editor
1922 Fultah Fisher's Boarding House Fireside Productions Short film
1926 The Strong Man Harry Langdon Corporation Harry Langdon
1927 Long Pants Harry Langdon Corporation Harry Langdon
1927 For the Love of Mike Robert Kane Productions Claudette Colbert / Ben Lyon
1928 That Certain Thing Columbia Viola Dana
1928 So This is Love? Columbia Shirley Mason
1928 The Matinee Idol Columbia Bessie Love / Johnny Walker
1928 The Way of the Strong Columbia Mitchell Lewis / Alice Day / William Norton Bailey
1928 Say It with Sables Columbia Helene Chadwick / Francis X. Bushman / Margaret Livingston
1928 Submarine Columbia Jack Holt / Ralph Graves / Dorothy Revier
1928 The Power of the Press Columbia Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
1928 The Burglar Mack Sennett Short film / Co-directed with Phil Whitman
Sound films
1929 The Younger Generation Columbia Ricardo Cortez Talking sequences
1929 The Donovan Affair Columbia Jack Holt
1929 Flight Columbia Jack Holt / Ralph Graves
1930 Ladies of Leisure Columbia Barbara Stanwyck / Ralph Graves
1930 Rain or Shine Columbia Joe Cook
1931 Dirigible Columbia Jack Holt / Ralph Graves / Fay Wray
1931 The Miracle Woman Columbia Barbara Stanwyck
1931 Platinum Blonde Columbia Loretta Young / Robert Williams / Jean Harlow
1932 Forbidden Columbia Barbara Stanwyck / Adolphe Menjou
1932 American Madness Columbia Walter Huston Co-directed with Allan Dwan / Roy William Neill
1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen Columbia Barbara Stanwyck / Nils Asther
1933 Lady for a Day Columbia May Robson / Warren William / Guy Kibbee
1934 It Happened One Night Columbia Clark Gable / Claudette Colbert
1934 Broadway Bill Columbia Warner Baxter / Myrna Loy
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Columbia Gary Cooper / Jean Arthur
1937 Lost Horizon Columbia Ronald Colman / Jane Wyatt
1938 You Can't Take It with You Columbia Lionel Barrymore / Jean Arthur / James Stewart
1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Columbia James Stewart / Jean Arthur
1941 Meet John Doe Frank Capra Productions Gary Cooper / Barbara Stanwyck
1943 The Nazis Strike U.S. War Department Documentary / Short film / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1943 Divide and Conquer U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1943 The Battle of Britain Warner Bros. Documentary / Co-directed with Anthony Veiller
1943 Prelude to War U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1943 The Battle of Russia U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1944 The Battle of China U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1944 Tunisian Victory U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Hugh Stewart
1944 Arsenic and Old Lace Warner Bros. Cary Grant / Priscilla Lane
1945 Your Job in Germany Documentary / Short film
1945 Know Your Enemy: Japan U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Joris Ivens
1945 Two Down and One to Go U.S. War Department Documentary / Short film
1945 War Comes to America U.S. War Department Documentary / Co-directed with Anatole Litvak
1946 It's a Wonderful Life Liberty Films James Stewart / Donna Reed
1948 State of the Union Liberty Films Spencer Tracy / Katharine Hepburn
1950 Riding High Paramount Pictures Bing Crosby Remake of Broadway Bill
1951 Here Comes the Groom Paramount Pictures Bing Crosby / Jane Wyman
1959 A Hole in the Head Sincap Productions Frank Sinatra / Edward G. Robinson First color film
1961 Pocketful of Miracles Franton Production Glenn Ford / Hope Lange / Bette Davis Eastmancolor film / Remake of Lady for a Day

See also



  1. ^ Capra 1971, pp. 17, 20.
  2. ^ Kotsabilas-Davis and Loy 1987, p. 94.
  3. ^ Wiley and Bona 1987, p. 54.
  4. ^ Weems, Erik. "It Happened One Night - Frank Capra." Updated June 22, 2006.
  5. ^ Chandler 2006, p. 102.
  6. ^ moviediva: It HappenedOneNight
  7. ^ Gewen, 1992
  8. ^ Political Donations.
  9. ^ The Caltech Y History

Bibliography of cited references

  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-30680-771-8.
  • Chandler, Charlotte. The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-78628-639-3.
  • Gewen, Barry. "It Wasn't Such a Wonderful Life." The New York Times, May 3, 1992. Retrieved: May 2, 2007.
  • Kotsabilas-Davis, James; Loy, Myrna. Being and Becoming. New York: Primus, Donald I Fine Inc., 1987. ISBN 1-55611-101-0.
  • McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Touchstone Books, 1992. ISBN 0-671-79788-3.
  • Oderman, Stuart. Talking To the Piano Player: Silent Film Stars, Writers and Directors Remember. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2005. ISBN 1-59393-013-5.
  • Wiley, Mason and Damien, Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. ISBN 0-345-34453-7.

External links


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