Frank Rosario Capra (1897-1991)
Date of Birth
18 May 1897, Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy
Date of Death
3 September 1991, La Quinta, California, USA (heart attack in his sleep)
5' 7" (1.70 m)
The critical stock of Frank Capra has fluctuated perhaps more wildly than that of any other major
director. During his peak years, the 1930s, he was adored by the press, by the industry and, of
course, by audiences. In 1934 It Happened One Night won nearly all the Oscars, and through the rest
of the decade a film of Frank Capra was either the winner or the strong contender for that honor.
Long before the formulation of the auteur theory, the Capra signature on a film was recognized. But
after World War II his career went into serious decline. His first post-war film, It's a Wonderful Life, was
not received with the enthusiasm he thought it deserved (although it has gone on to become one of
his most-revered films). Of his last five films, two are remakes of material he treated in the thirties.
Many contemporary critics are repelled by what they deem indigestible "Capracorn" and have even
less tolerance for an ideology characterized as dangerously simplistic in its populism, its patriotism, its
celebration of all-American values.
Indeed, many of Capra's most famous films can be read as excessively sentimental and politically
naive. These readings, however, tend to neglect the bases for Capra's success—his skill as a director
of actors, the complexity of his staging configurations, his narrative economy and energy, and most of
all, his understanding of the importance of the spoken word in sound film. Capra captured the
American voice in cinematic space. The words often serve the cause of apple pie, mom, the little man
and other greeting card clichés (indeed, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town writes verse for
greeting cards). But often in the sound of the voice we hear uncertainties about those very clichés.
Capra's career began in the pre-talkie era, when he directed silent comic Harry Langdon in two
successful films. His action films of the early thirties are not characteristic of his later work, yet
already, in the films he made with Barbara Stanwyck, his individual gift can be discerned. The
narrative pretext of The Miracle Woman is the urgency of Stanwyck's voice, its ability to move an
audience, to persuade listeners of its sincerity. Capra exploited the raw energy of Stanwyck in this
and other roles, where her qualities of fervor and near-hysterical conviction are just as essential to
her persona as her hard-as-nails implacability would be in the forties.
Stanwyck's voice is theatricalized, spatialized in her revivalist circus-tent
in The Miracle Woman and on the hero's suicide tower in Meet John Doe,
where her feverish pleadings are the only possible tenor for the film's
unresolved ambiguities about society and the individual.
John Doe is portrayed by Gary Cooper, another American voice with
particular resonance in the films of Capra. A star who seems to have
invented the "strong, silent" type, Cooper first plays Mr. Deeds, whose
platitudinous doggerel comes from a simple, do-gooder heart, but who
enacts a crisis of communication in his long silence at the film's climax,
a sanity hearing. When Mr. Deeds finally speaks it is a sign that the
community (if not sanity) is restored—the usual resolution of a Capra film.
As John Doe, Cooper is given words to voice by reporter Stanwyck, and
he delivers them with such conviction that the whole nation listens.
The vocal/dramatic center of the film is located in a rain-drenched ball
park filled with John Doe's "people." The hero's effort to speak the truth,
to reveal his own imposture and expose the fascistic intentions of his
sponsor, is stymied when the lines of communication are literally cut
between microphone and loudspeaker. The Capra narrative so often
hinges on the protagonist's ability to speak and be heard, on the drama
of sound and audition.
The bank run in American Madness is initiated by a montage
of telephone voices and images, of mouths spreading a
rumor. The panic is quelled by the speech of the bank
president (Walter Huston), a situation repeated in more
modest physical surroundings in It's a Wonderful Life. The
most extended speech in the films of Capra occurs in Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington. The whole film is a test of the
hero's voice, and it culminates in a filibuster, a speech that,
by definition, cannot be interrupted. The climax of State of
the Union involves a different kind of audience and audition.
There, the hero confesses his political dishonesty and his
love for his wife on television.
The visual contexts, both simple and complex, never detract
from the sound of Capra's films. They enhance it. The
director's most elaborately designed film, The Bitter Tea of
General Yen (recalling the style of Josef von Sternberg in its
chiaroscuro lighting and its exoticism) expresses the
opposition of cultural values in its visual elements, to be sure,
but also in the voices of Stanwyck and Nils Asther, a Swedish
actor who impersonates a Chinese war lord.
The Strong Man, First National, 1926.
For the Love of Mike, First National, 1927.
Long Pants, First National, 1927.
The Matinee Idol, Columbia, 1928.
The Power of the Press, Columbia, 1928.
Say It with Sables, Columbia, 1928.
So This Is Love, Columbia, 1928.
Submarine, Columbia, 1928.
That Certain Thing, Columbia, 1928.
The Way of the Strong, Columbia, 1928.
Flight, Columbia, 1929.
The Donovan Affair, Columbia, 1929.
Younger Generation, Columbia, 1929.
Ladies of Leisure, Columbia, 1930.
Rain or Shine, Columbia, 1930.
Dirigible, Columbia, 1931.
The Miracle Woman, Columbia, 1931.
Platinum Blonde, Columbia, 1931.
American Madness, Columbia, 1932.
Forbidden, Columbia, 1932.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Columbia, 1933.
Lady for a Day, Columbia, 1933.
Broadway Bill (also known as Strictly Confidential), Columbia, 1934.
It Happened One Night, Columbia, 1934.
Fultah Fisher's Boarding House, 1922
The Swim Princess,1928
The Burglar (also known as Smith's Burglar), 1928.
FILM DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Columbia 1936.
Lost Horizon, Columbia, 1937.
You Can't Take It with You, Columbia, 1938.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Columbia, 1939.
Meet John Doe, Warner Brothers, 1941.
Arsenic and Old Lace, Warner Brothers, 1944.
It's a Wonderful Life, Liberty/RKO Radio Pictures, 1946
State of the Union, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1948.
Riding High, Paramount, 1950.
Here Comes the Groom, Paramount, 1951.
A Hole in the Head, United Artists, 1959.
Pocketful of Miracles, United Artists, 1961.
PRODUCER; FILM DOCUMENTARIES
Why We Fight, U.S. War Department,
Part 1: "Prelude to War," 1942
Part 2: "The Nazis Strike," 1943
Part 3:"Divide and Conquer," 1943
Part 4: "The Battle of Britain," 1943
Part 5: "The Battle of Russia," 1944
Part 6: "The Battle of China," 1944
Part 7: "War Comes to America," 1945.
Tunisian Victory, U.S. War Department, 1944.
Know Your Ally: Britain, U.S. War Department, 1944.
The Negro Soldier, U.S. Office of War Information, 1944.
Two Down, One to Go, U.S. War Department, 1945.
Know Your Enemy: Japan, U.S. War Department, 1945.
Know Your Enemy: Germany, U.S. War Department, 1945.
Our Mr. Sun, Bell System Science Series, 1956.
Hemo the Magnificent, Bell System Science Series, 1957
The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, Bell System Science Series,
The Unchained Goddess, Bell System Science Series, 1958
Attack! The Battle of New Britain, 1944
Rendezvous in Space, 1964.
Less unusual but not less significant harmonies are sounded in It Happened One
Night, where a society girl (Claudette Colbert) learns "real" American speech from a
fast-talking reporter (Clark Gable). The love scenes in Mr. Deeds are for Gary
Cooper and Jean Arthur, another quintessential Capra heroine, whose vocal
personality is at least as memorable as her physical one. In James Stewart Capra
finds his most disquieting voice, ranging in Mr. Smith from ingenuousness to
hysterical desperation and in It's a Wonderful Life to an even higher pitch of hysteria
when the hero loses his identity.
The sounds and sights of Capra's films bear the authority of a director whose
autobiography is called The Name above the Title. With that authority comes an
unsettling belief in authorial power, the power dramatized in his major films, the
persuasiveness exercised in political and social contexts. That persuasion reflects
back on the director's own power to engage the viewer in his fiction, to call upon a
degree of belief in the fiction—even when we reject the meaning of the fable.
inducted into the Delta films Hall of Fame - Director
Walk of Fame - Star on the Walk of Fame Motion Picture
At 6614 Hollywood Blvd.
American Film Institute, USA - Life Achievement Award
Venice Film Festival - Career Golden Lion
Directors Guild of America, USA - Lifetime Achievement Award
Golden Globes, USA - Golden Globe - Best Motion Picture Director for: It's a Wonderful Life
Directors Guild of America, USA - DGA Honorary Life Member Award
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar - Best Director for: You Can't Take It with You
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar - Best Director for: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Venice Film Festival - Special Recommendation for: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar - Best Director for: It Happened One Night