One of seven children, Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily. On May 10, 1903, his family left for America aboard the ship Germania, arriving in New York on May 23rd. “There’s no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They’re all miserable. It’s the most degrading place you could ever be,” Capra said about his Atlantic passage. “Oh, it was awful, awful. It seems to always be storming, raining like hell and very windy, with these big long rolling Atlantic waves. Everybody was sick, vomiting. God, they were sick. And the poor kids were always crying.”
The family boarded a train for the trip to California, where Frank’s older brother Benjamin was living. On their journey, they subsisted on bread and bananas, as their lack of English made it impossible for them to ask for any other kind of foodstuffs. On June 3, the Capra family arrived at the Southern Pacific station in Los Angeles, at the time, a small city of approximately 102,000 people. The family stayed with Capra’s older brother Benjamin, and on September 14, 1903, Frank began his schooling at the Castelar Elementary school.
In 1909, he entered Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School. Capra made money selling newspapers in downtown L.A. after school and on Saturdays, sometimes working with his brother Tony. When sales were slow, Tony punched Frank to attract attention, which would attract a crowd and make Frank’s papers sell quicker. Frank later became part of a two-man music combo, playing at various places in the red light district of L.A., including brothels, getting paid a dollar per night, performing the popular songs. He also worked as a janitor at the high school in the early mornings. It was at high school that he became interested in the theater, typically doing back-stage work such as lighting.
Capra’s family pressured him to drop out of school and go to work, but he refused, as he wanted to partake fully of the American Dream, and for that he needed an education. Capra later reminisced that his family “thought I was a bum. My mother would slap me around; she wanted me to quit school. My teachers would urge me to keep going….I was going to school because I had a fight on my hands that I wanted to win.”
Capra graduated from high school on January 27, 1915, and in September of that year, he entered the Throop College of Technology (later the California Institute of Technology) to study chemical engineering. The school’s annual tuition was $250, and Capra received occasional financial support from his family, who were resigned to the fact they had a scholar in their midst. Throop had a fine arts department, and Capra discovered poetry and the essays of Montaigne, which he fell in love with, while matriculating at the technical school. He then decided to write.
“It was a great discovery for me. I discovered language. I discovered poetry. I discovered poetry at Caltech, can you imagine that? That was a big turning point in my life. I didn’t know anything could be so beautiful.” Capra penned “The Butler’s Failure,” about an English butler provoked by poverty to murder his employer, then to suicide.”
Capra was singled out for a cash award of $250 for having the highest grades in the school. Part of his prize was a six-week trip across the U.S. and Canada. When Capra’s father, Turiddu, died in 1916, Capra started working at the campus laundry to make money.
After the U.S. Congress declared War on Germany on April 6, 1917, Capra enlisted in the Army, and while he was not a naturalized citizen yet, he was allowed to join the military as part of the Coastal Artillery. Capra became a supply officer for the student soldiers at Throop, who have been enrolled in a Reserve Officers Training Corps program. At his enlistment, Capra discovered he was not an American citizen; he became naturalized in 1920.
On September 15, 1918, Capra graduated from Throop with his bachelor’s degree, and was inducted into the U.S. Army on October 18th and shipped out to the Presidio at San Francisco. An armistice ending the fighting of World War One would be declared in less than a month. While at the Presidio, Capra became ill with the Spanish influenza that claimed 20 million lives worldwide. He was discharged from the Army on December 13th and moved to his brother Ben’s home in L.A. While recuperating, Capra answered a cattle call for extras for John Ford’s film “The The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919) (Capra, cast as a laborer in the Ford picture, introduced himself to the film’s star, Harry Carey. Two decades later, Capra, designated the #1 director in Hollywood by “Time” magazine, would cast Carey and his movie actress wife Olive in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for which Carey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination).
While living at his mother’s house, Capra took on a wide variety of manual laboring jobs, including errand boy and ditch digger, even working as an orange tree pruner at 20 cents a day. He continued to be employed as an extra at movie studios and as a prop buyer at an independent studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, which later became the home of Columbia Pictures, where Capra would make his reputation as the most successful movie director of the 1930s. Most of his time was spent unemployed and idle, which gave credence to his family’s earlier opposition to him seeking higher education. Capra wrote short stories but was unable to get them published. He eventually got work as a live-in tutor for the son of “Lucky” Baldwin, a rich gambler. (He later used the Baldwin estate as a location for Dirigible (1931)).
Smitten by the movie bug, in August of that year, Capra, former actor W. M. Plank, and financial backer Ida May Heitmann incorporated the Tri-State Motion Picture Co. in Nevada. Tri-State produced three short films in Nevada in 1920, Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), The Pulse of Life (1917), and The Scar of Love (1920), all directed by Plank, and possibly based on story treatments written by Capra. The films were failures, and Capra returned to Los Angeles when Tri-State broke up. In March 1920, Capra was employed by CBC Film Sales Co., the corporate precursor of Columbia Films, where he also worked as an editor and director on a series called “Screen Snapshots.” He quit CBC in August and moved to San Francisco, but the only jobs he could find were that of bookseller and door-to-door salesman. Once again seeming to fulfill his family’s prophecy, he turned to gambling, and also learned to ride the rails with a hobo named Frank Dwyer. There was also a rumor that he became a traveling salesman specializing in worthless securities, according to a “Time” magazine story “Columbia’s Gem” (August 8, 1938 issue, V.32, No. 6).
Still based in San Francisco in 1921, producer Walter Montague hired Capra for $75 per week to help direct the short movie The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House (1922), which was based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Montague, a former actor, had the dubious idea that foggy San Francisco was destined to become the capital of movies, and that he could make a fortune making movies based on poems. Capra helped Montague produced the one-reeler, which was budgeted at $1,700 and subsequently sold to the Pathe Exchange for $3,500. Capra quit Montague when he demanded that the next movie be based upon one of his own poems.
Unable to find another professional filmmaking job, Capra hired himself out as a maker of shorts for the public-at-large while working as an assistant at Walter Ball’s film lab. Finally, in October 1921, the Paul Gerson Picture Corp. hired him to help make its two-reel comedies, around the time that he began dating the actress Helen Edith Howe, who would become his first wife. Capra continued to work for both Ball and Gerson, primarily as a cutter. On November 25, 1923, Capra married Helen Howell, and the couple soon moved to Hollywood.
Hal Roach hired Capra as a gag-writer for the “Our Gang” series in January, 1924. After writing the gags for five “Our Gang” comedies in seven weeks, he asked Roach to make him a director. When Roach refused (he somewhat rightly felt he had found the right man in director Bob McGowan), Capra quit. Roach’s arch rival Mack Sennett subsequently hired him as a writer, one of a six-man team that wrote for silent movie comedian Harry Langdon, the last major star of the rapidly disintegrating Mack Sennett Studios, and reigning briefly as fourth major silent comedian after Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Capra began working with the Harry Langdon production unit as a gag writer, first credited on the short Plain Clothes (1925).
As Harry Langdon became more popular, his production unit at Sennett had moved from two- to three-reelers before Langdon, determined to follow the example of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, went into features. After making his first feature-length comedy, His First Flame (1927) for Sennett, Langdon signed a three-year contract with Sol Lesser’s First National Pictures to annually produce two feature-length comedies at a fixed fee per film. For a multitude of reasons Mack Sennett was never able to retain top talent. On September 15, 1925, Harry Langdon left Sennett in an egotistical rage, taking many of his key production personnel with him. Sennett promoted Capra to director but fired him after three days in his new position. In addition to the Langdon comedies, Capra had also written material for other Sennett films, eventually working on twenty-five movies.
After being sacked by Sennett, Capra was hired as a gag-writer by Harry Langdon, working on Langdon’s first First National feature-length film, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). The movie was directed by Harry Edwards who had directed all of Harry Langdon’s films at Sennett. His first comedy for First National, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) did well at the box office, but it had ran over budget, which came out of Langdon’s end. Harry Edwards was sacked, and for his next picture, The Strong Man (1926), Langdon promoted Capra to director, boosting his salary to $750 per week. The movie was a hit, but trouble was brewing among members of the Harry Langdon company. Langdon was increasingly believing his own press.
His marriage with Helen began to unravel when it is discovered that she had a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy that had to be terminated. In order to cope with the tragedy, Capra became a work-a-holic while Helen turned to drink. The deterioration of his marriage was mirrored by the disintegration of his professional relationship with Harry Langdonduring the making of the new feature, Long Pants (1927).
The movie, which was released in March 1927, proved to be Capra’s last with Harry Langdon, as the comedian soon sacked Capra after its release. Capra later explained the principle of Langdon comedies to James Agee, “It is the principal of the brick: If there was a rule for writing Langdon material, it was this: his only ally was God. Harry Langdon might be saved by a brick falling on a cop, but it was verboten that he in any way motivated the bricks fall.”
During the production of Long Pants (1926), Capra had a falling out with Langdon. Screenwriter Arthur Ripley’s dark sensibility did not mesh well with that of the more optimistic Capra, and Harry Langdon usually sided with Ripley. The picture fell behind schedule and went over budget, and since Langdon was paid a fixed fee for each film, this represented a financial loss to his own Harry Langdon Corp. Stung by the financial set-back, and desiring to further emulate the great Chaplin, Harry Langdon made a fateful decision: He fired Capra and decided to direct himself. (Langdon’s next three movies for First National were dismal failures, the two surviving films being very dark and grim black comedies, one of which, The Chaser (1928), touched on the subject of suicide. It was the late years of the Jazz Age, a time of unprecedented prosperity and boundless bonhomie, and the critics, and more critically, the ticket-buying public, rejected Harry. In 1928, First National did not pick up his contract. The Harry Langdon Corp. soon went bankrupt, and his career as the “fourth major silent comedian” was through, just as sound was coming in.)
In April of 1927, Capra and his wife Helen split up, and Capra went off to New York to direct For the Love of Mike (1927) for First National, his first picture with Claudette Colbert. The director and his star did not get along, and the film went over budget. Subsequently, First National refused to pay Capra, and he had to hitchhike back to Hollywood. The film proved to be Capra’s only genuine flop.
By September 1927, he was back working as a writer for Mack Sennett, but in October, he was hired as a director by Columbia Pictures President and Production Chief Harry Cohn for $1,000. The event was momentous for both of them, for at Columbia Capra would soon become the #1 director in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the success of Capra’s films would propel the Poverty Row studio into the major leagues. But at first, Cohn was displeased with him. When viewing the first three days of rushes of his first Columbia film, That Certain Thing (1928), Cohn wanted to fire him as everything on the first day had been shot in long shot, on the second day in medium shot, and on the third day in close-ups.
“I did it that way for time,” Capra later recalled. “It was so easy to be better than the other directors, because they were all dopes. They would shoot a long shot, then they would have to change the setup to shoot a medium shot, then they would take their close-ups. Then they would come back and start over again. You lose time, you see, moving the cameras and the big goddamn lights. I said, ‘I’ll get all the long shots on that first set first, then all the medium shots, and then the close-ups.’ I wouldn’t shoot the whole scene each way unless it was necessary. If I knew that part of it was going to play in long shot, I wouldn’t shoot that part in close-up. But the trick was not to move nine times, just to move three times. This saved a day, maybe two days.”
Cohn decided to stick with Capra (he was ultimately delighted at the picture and gave Capra a $1,500 bonus and upped his per-picture salary), and in 1928, Cohn raised his salary again, now to to $3,000 per picture after he made several successful pictures, including Submarine (1928). The Younger Generation (1929), the first of a series of films with higher budgets to be directed by Capra, would prove to be his first sound film, when scenes were reshot for dialogue. In the summer of that year, he was introduced to a young widow, Lucille Warner Reyburn (who became Capra’s second wife Lou Capra). He also met a transplanted stage actress, Barbara Stanwyck, who had been recruited for the talkie but had been in three successive unsuccessful films and wanted to return to the New York stage. Harry Cohn wanted Stanwyck to appear in Capra’s planned film, Ladies of Leisure (1930), but the interview with Capra did not go well, and Capra refused to use her.
Stanwyck went home crying after being dismissed by Capra, and her husband, a furious Frank Fay, called Capra up. In his defense, Capra said that Stanwyck didn’t seem to want the part. According to Capra’s 1961 autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Fay said, “Frank, she’s young, and shy, and she’s been kicked around out here. Let me show you a test she made at Warner’s.” After viewing her Warners’ test for The Noose (1928), Capra became enthusiastic and urged Cohn to sign her. In January of 1930, Capra began shooting Ladies of Leisure (1930) with Stanwyck in the lead. The movies the two made together in the early ’30s established them both on their separate journeys towards becoming movieland legends. Though Capra would admit to falling in love with his leading lady, it was Lucille Warner Reyburn who became the second Mrs. Capra.
“You’re wondering why I was at that party. That’s my racket. I’m a party girl. Do you know what that is?”
Stanwyck played a working-class “party girl” hired as a model by the painter Jerry, who hails from a wealthy family. Capra had written the first draft of the movie before screenwriter Jo Swerling took over. Swerling thought the treatment was dreadful. According to Capra, Swerling told Harry Cohn, when he initially had approached about adapting the play “Ladies of the Evening” into Capra’s next proposed film, “I don’t like Hollywood, I don’t like you, and I certainly don’t like this putrid piece of gorgonzola somebody gave me to read. It stunk when Belasco produced it as Ladies of Leisure (1930), and it will stink as Ladies of Leisure, even if your little tin Jesus does direct it. The script is inane, vacuous, pompous, unreal, unbelievable – and incredibly dull.”
Capra, who favored extensive rehearsals before shooting a scene, developed his mature directorial style while collaborating with Stanwyck, a trained stage actress whose performance steadily deteriorated after rehearsals or retakes. Stanwyck’s first take in a scene usually was her best. Capra started blocking out scenes in advance, and carefully preparing his other actors so that they could react to Stanwyck in the first shot, whose acting often was unpredictable, so they wouldn’t foul up the continuity. In response to this semi-improvisatory style, Capra’s crew had to boost its level of craftsmanship to beyond normal Hollywood standards, which were forged in more static and prosaic work conditions. Thus, the professionalism of Capra’s crews became better than those of other directors. Capra’s philosophy for his crew was, “You guys are working for the actors, they’re not working for you.”
After “Ladies of Leisure,” Capra was assigned to direct Platinum Blonde (1931) starring Jean Harlow. The script had been the product of a series of writers, including Jo Swerling (who was given credit for adaptation), but was polished by Capra and Robert Riskin (who was given screen credit for the dialogue). Along with Jo Swerling, Riskin would rank as one of Capra’s most important collaborators, ultimately having a hand in 13 movies. (Riskin wrote nine screenplays for Capra, and Capra based four other films on Riskin’s work.)
Riskin created a hard-boiled newspaperman, Stew Smith for the film, a character his widow, the actress Fay Wray, said came closest to Riskin of any character he wrote. A comic character, the wise-cracking reporter who wants to lampoon high society but finds himself hostage to the pretensions of the rich he had previously mocked is the debut of the prototypical “Capra” hero. The dilemma faced by Stew, akin to the immigrant’s desire to assimilate but being rejected by established society, was repeated in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and in Meet John Doe (1941).
Capra, Stanwyck, Riskin and Jo Swerling all were together to create Capra’s next picture, The Miracle Woman (1931), a story about a shady evangelist. With John Meehan, Riskin wrote the play that the movie is based on, “Bless You, Sister,” and there is a possibly apocryphal story that has Riskin at a story conference at which Capra relates the treatment for the proposed film. Capra, finished, asked Riskin for his input, and Riskin replied, “I wrote that play. My brother and I were stupid enough to produce it on Broadway. It cost us almost every cent we had. If you intend to make a picture of it, it only proves one thing: You’re even more stupid than we were.”
Jo Swerling adapted Riskin’s play, which he and his brother Everett patterned after Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry.” Like the Lewis novel, the play focuses on the relationship between a lady evangelist and a con man. The difference, though, is that the nature of the relationship is just implied in Riskin’s play (and the Capra film). There is also the addition of the blind war-vet as the moral conscience of the story; he is the pivotal character, whereas in Lewis’ tale, the con artist comes to have complete control over the evangelist after eventually seducing her. Like some other Capra films, The Miracle Woman (1931) is about the love between a romantic, idealizing man and a cynical, bitter woman. Riskin had based his character on lady evangelist Uldine Utley, while Stanwyck based her characterization on Aimee Semple McPherson.
Recognizing that he had something in his star director, Harry Cohn took full advantage of the lowly position his studio had in Hollywood. Both Warner Brothers and mighty MGM habitually lent Cohn their troublesome stars — anyone rejecting scripts or demanding a pay raise was fodder for a loan out to Cohn’s Poverty Row studio. Cohn himself was habitually loathe to sign long-term stars in the early 1930s (although he made rare exceptions to Peter Lorre and The Three Stooges) and was delighted to land the talents of any top flight star and invariably assigned them to Capra’s pictures. Most began their tenure in purgatory with trepidation but left eagerly wanting to work with Capra again.
In 1932, Capra decided to make a motion picture that reflected the social conditions of the day. He and Riskin wrote the screenplay for American Madness (1932), a melodrama that is an important precursor to later Capra films, not only with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) which shares the plot device of a bank run, but also in the depiction of the irrationality of a crowd mentality and the ability of the individual to make a difference. In the movie, an idealistic banker is excoriated by his conservative board of directors for making loans to small businesses on the basis of character rather than on sounder financial criteria. Since the Great Depression is on, and many people lack collateral, it would be impossible to productively lend money on any other criteria than character, the banker argues. When there is a run on the bank due to a scandal, it appears that the board of directors are rights the bank depositors make a run on the bank to take out their money before the bank fails. The fear of a bank failure ensures that the failure will become a reality as a crowd mentality takes over among the clientèle. The board of directors refuse to pledge their capital to stave off the collapse of the bank, but the banker makes a plea to the crowd, and just like George Bailey’s depositors in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the bank is saved as the fears of the crowd are ameliorated and businessmen grateful to the banker pledge their capital to save the bank. The board of directors, impressed by the banker’s character and his belief in the character of his individual clients (as opposed to the irrationality of the crowd), pledge their capital and the bank run is staved off and the bank is saved.
In his biography, “The Name Above the Picture,” Capra wrote that before American Madness (1932), he had only made “escapist” pictures with no basis in reality. He recounts how Poverty Row studios, lacking stars and production values, had to resort to “gimmick” movies to pull the crowds in, making films on au courant controversial subjects that were equivalent to “yellow journalism.”
What was more important than the subject and its handling was the maturation of Capra’s directorial style with the film. Capra had become convinced that the mass-experience of watching a motion picture with an audience had the psychological effect in individual audience members of slowing down the pace of a film. A film that during shooting and then when viewed on a movieola editing device and on a small screen in a screening room among a few professionals that had seemed normally paced became sluggish when projected on the big screen. While this could have been the result of the projection process blowing up the actors to such large proportions, Capra ultimately believed it was the effect of mass psychology affecting crowds since he also noticed this “slowing down” phenomenon at ball games and at political conventions. Since American Madness (1932) dealt with crowds, he feared that the effect would be magnified.
He decided to boost the pace of the film, during the shooting. He did away with characters’ entrances and exits that were a common part of cinematic “grammar” in the early 1930s, a survival of the “photoplays” days. Instead, he “jumped” characters in and out of scenes, and jettisoned the dissolves that were also part of cinematic grammar that typically ended scenes and indicated changes in time or locale so as not to make cutting between scenes seem choppy to the audience. Dialogue was deliberately overlapped, a radical innovation in the early talkies, when actors were instructed to let the other actor finish his or her lines completely before taking up their cue and beginning their own lines, in order to facilitate the editing of the sound-track. What he felt was his greatest innovation was to boost the pacing of the acting in the film by a third by making a scene that would normally play in one minute take only 40 seconds.
When all these innovations were combined in his final cut, it made the movie seem normally paced on the big screen, though while shooting individual scenes, the pacing had seemed exaggerated. It also gave the film a sense of urgency that befitted the subject of a financial panic and a run on a bank. More importantly, it “kept audience attention riveted to the screen,” as he said in his autobiography. Except for “mood pieces,” Capra subsequently used these techniques in all his films, and he was amused by critics who commented on the “naturalness” of his direction.
Capra was close to completely establishing his themes and style. Justly accused of indulging in sentiment which some critics labeled “Capra-corn,” Capra’s next film, Lady for a Day (1933) was an adaptation of Damon Runyon’s 1929 short story “Madame La Gimp” about a nearly destitute apple peddler whom the superstitious gambler Dave the Dude (portrayed by Warner Brothers star Warren William) sets up in high style so she and her daughter, who is visiting with her finance, will not be embarrassed. Dave the Dude believes his luck at gambling comes from his ritualistically buying an apple a day from Annie, who is distraught and considering suicide to avoid the shame of her daughter seeing her reduced to living on the street. The Dude and his criminal confederates put Annie up in a luxury apartment with a faux husband in order to establish Annie in the eyes of her daughter as a dignified and respectable woman, but in typical Runyon fashion, Annie becomes more than a fake as the masquerade continues.
Robert Riskin wrote the first four drafts of Lady for a Day (1933), and of all the scripts he worked on for Capra, the film deviates less from the script than any other. After seeing the movie, Runyon sent a telegraph to Riskin praising him for his success at elaborating on the story and fleshing out the characters while maintain his basic story. Lady for a Day (1933) was the favorite Capra film of John Ford, the great filmmaker who once directed the unknown extra. The movie cost $300,000 and was the first of Capra’s oeuvre to attract the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, getting a Best Director nomination for Capra, plus nods for Riskin and Best Actress. The movie received Columbia’s first Best Picture nomination, the studio never having attracted any attention from the Academy before Lady for a Day (1933). (Capra’s last film was the flop remake of Lady for a Day (1933) with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford, Pocketful of Miracles (1961))
Capra reunited with Stanwyck and produced his first universally acknowledged classic, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), a film that now seems to belong more to the oeuvre of Josef von Sternberg than it does to Frank Capra. With “General Yen,” Capra had consciously set out to make a movie that would win Academy Awards. Frustrated that the innovative, timely, and critically well-received American Madness (1932) had not received any recognition at the Oscars (particularly in the director’s category in recognition of his innovations in pacing), he vented his displeasure to Columbia boss Cohn.
“Forget it,” Cohn told Capra, as recounted in his autobiography. “You ain’t got a Chinaman’s chance. They only vote for that arty junk.”
Capra set out to boost his chances by making an arty film featuring a “Chinaman” that confronted that major taboo of American cinema of the first half of the century, miscegenation.
In the movie, the American missionary Megan Davis is in China to marry another missionary. Abducted by the Chinese Warlord General Yen, she is torn away from the American compound that kept her isolated from the Chinese and finds herself in a strange, dangerous culture. The two fall in love despite their different races and life-views. The film ran up against the taboo against miscegenation embedded in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association’s Production Code, and while Megan merely kisses General Yen’s hand in the picture, the fact that she was undeniably in love with a man from a different race attracted the vituperation of many bigots.
Having fallen for Megan, General Yen engenders her escape back to the Americans before willingly drinking a poisoned cup of tea, his involvement with her having cost him his army, his wealth, and now his desire to live. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) marks the introduction of suicide as a Capra theme that will come back repeatedly, most especially in George Bailey’s breakdown on the snowy bridge in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Despair often shows itself in Capra films, and although in his post-“General Yen” work, the final reel wraps things up in a happy way, until that final reel, there is tragedy, cynicism, heartless exploitation, and other grim subject matter that Capra’s audiences must have known were the truth of the world, but that were too grim to face when walking out of a movie theater. When pre-Code movies were rediscovered and showcased across the United States in the 1990s, they were often accompanied by thesis about how contemporary audiences “read” the films (and post-1934 more Puritanical works), as the movies were not so frank or racy as supposed. There was a great deal of signaling going on which the audience could read into, and the same must have been true for Capra’s films, giving lie to the fact that he was a sentimentalist with a saccharine view of America. There are few films as bitter as those of Frank Capra before the final reel.
Despair was what befell Frank Capra, personally, on the night of March 16, 1934, which he attended as one of the Best Director nominees for Lady for a Day (1933). Capra had caught Oscar fever, and in his own words, “In the interim between the nominations and the final voting…my mind was on those Oscars.” When Oscar host Will Rogers opened the envelope for Best Director, he commented, “Well, well, well. What do you know. I’ve watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom, and I mean the bottom. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Come on up and get it, Frank!”
Capra got up to go get it, squeezing past tables and making his way to the open dance floor to accept his Oscar. “The spotlight searched around trying to find me. ‘Over here!’ I waved. Then it suddenly swept away from me — and picked up a flustered man standing on the other side of the dance floor – Frank Lloyd!”
Frank Lloyd went up to the dais to accept HIS Oscar while a voice in back of Capra yelled, “Down in front!”
Capra’s walk back to his table amidst shouts of “Sit down!” turned into the “Longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All of my friends at the table were crying.”
That night, after Lloyd’s Cavalcade (1933), beat Lady for a Day (1933) for Best Picture, Capra got drunk at his house and passed out. “Big ‘stupido,'” Capra thought to himself, “running up to get an Oscar dying with excitement, only to crawl back dying with shame. Those crummy Academy voters; to hell with their lousy awards. If ever they did vote me one, I would never, never, NEVER show up to accept it.”
Capra would win his first of three Best Director Oscars the next year, and would show up to accept it. More importantly, he would become the president of the Academy in 1935 and take it out of the labor relations field a time when labor strife and the formation of the talent guilds threatened to destroy it.
The International Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had been the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer in 1927 (it dropped the “International” soon after its formation). In order to forestall unionization by the creative talent (directors, actors and screenwriters) who were not covered by the Basic Agreement signed in 1926, Mayer had the idea of forming a company union, which is how the Academy came into being. The nascent Screen Writers Union, which had been created in 1920 in Hollywood, had never succeeded in getting a contract from the studios. It went out of existence in 1927, when labor relations between writers and studios were handled by the Academy’s writers’ branch.
The Academy had brokered studio-mandated pay-cuts of 10% in 1927 and 1931, and massive layoffs in 1930 and 1931. With the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt took no time in attempting to tackle the Great Depression. The day after his inauguration, he declared a National Bank Holiday, which hurt the movie industry as it was heavily dependent on bank loans. Louis B. Mayer, as president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. (the co-equal arm of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association charged with handling labor relations) huddled with a group from the Academy (the organization he created and had long been criticized for dominating, in both labor relations and during the awards season) and announced a 50% across-the-board pay cut. In response, stagehands called a strike for March 13th, which shut down every studio in Hollywood.
After another caucus between Mayer and the Academy committee, a proposal for a pay-cut on a sliding-scale up to 50% for everyone making over $50 a week; which would only last for eight weeks, was inaugurated. Screen writers resigned en masse from the Academy and joined a reformed Screen Writers Guild, but most employees had little choice and went along with it. All the studios but Warner Bros. and Sam Goldwyn honored the pledge to restore full salaries after the eight weeks, and Warners production chief Darryl F. Zanuck resigned in protest over his studio’s failure to honor its pledge. A time of bad feelings persisted, and much anger was directed towards the Academy in its role as company union.
The Academy, trying to position itself as an independent arbiter, hired the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse for the first time to inspect the books of the studios. The audit revealed that all the studios were solvent, but Harry Warner refused to budge and Academy President ‘Conrad Nagel’ resigned, although some said he was forced out after a vote of no-confidence after arguing Warner’s case. The Academy announced that the studio bosses would never again try to impose a horizontal salary cut, but the usefulness of the Academy as a company union was over.
Under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the self-regulation imposed by the National Industrial Relations Act (signed into law on June 16th) to bring business sectors back to economic health was predicated upon cartelization, in which the industry itself wrote its own regulatory code. With Hollywood, it meant the re-imposition of paternalistic labor relations that the Academy had been created to wallpaper over. The last nail in the company union’s coffin was when it became public knowledge that the Academy appointed a committee to investigate the continued feasibility of the industry practice of giving actors and writers long-term contracts. High salaries to directors, actors, and screen writers was compensation to the creative people for producers refusing to ceded control over creative decision-making. Long-term contracts were the only stability in the Hollywood economic set-up up creative people,. Up to 20%-25% of net earnings of the movie industry went to bonuses to studio owners, production chiefs, and senior executives at the end of each year, and this created a good deal of resentment that fueled the militancy of the SWG and led to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in July 1933 when they, too, felt that the Academy had sold them out.
The industry code instituted a cap on the salaries of actors, directors, and writers, but not of movie executives; mandated the licensing of agents by producers; and created a reserve clause similar to baseball where studios had renewal options with talent with expired contracts, who could only move to a new studio if the studio they had last been signed to did not pick up their option.
The SWG sent a telegram to FDR in October 1933 denouncing this policy, arguing that the executives had taken millions of dollars of bonuses while running their companies into receivership and bankruptcy. The SWG denounced the continued membership of executives who had led their studios into financial failure remaining on the corporate boards and in the management of the reorganized companies, and furthermore protested their use of the NIRA to write their corrupt and failed business practices into law at the expense of the workers.
There was a mass resignation of actors from the Academy in October 1933, with the actors switching their allegiance to SAG. SAG joined with the SWG to publish “The Screen Guilds Magazine,” a periodical whose editorial content attacked the Academy as a company union in the producers’ pocket. SAG President Eddie Cantor, a friend of Roosevelt who had bee invited to spend the Thanksgiving Day holiday with the president, informed him of the guild’s grievances over the NIRA code. Roosevelt struck down many of the movie industry code’s anti-labor provisions by executive order.
The labor battles between the guilds and the studios would continue until the late 1930s, and by the time Frank Capra was elected president of the Academy in 1935, the post was an unenviable one. The Screen Directors Guild was formed at King Vidor’s house on January 15, 1936, and one of its first acts was to send a letter to its members urging them to boycott the Academy Awards ceremony, which was three days away. None of the guilds had been recognized as bargaining agents by the studios, and it was argued to grace the Academy Awards would give the Academy, a company union, recognition. Academy membership had declined to 40 from a high of 600, and Capra believed that the guilds wanted to punish the studios financially by depriving them of the good publicity the Oscars generated.
But the studios couldn’t care less. Seeing that the Academy was worthless to help them in its attempts to enforce wage cuts, it too abandoned the Academy, which it had financed. Capra and the Board members had to pay for the Oscar statuettes for the 1936 ceremony. In order to counter the boycott threat, Capra needed a good publicity gimmick himself, and the Academy came up with one, voting D.W. Griffith an honorary Oscar, the first bestowed since one had been given to Charles Chaplin at the first Academy Awards ceremony.
The Guilds believed the boycott had worked as only 20 SAG members and 13 SWG members had showed up at the Oscars, but Capra remembered the night as a victory as all the winners had shown up. However, ‘Variety’ wrote that “there was not the galaxy of stars and celebs in the director and writer groups which distinguished awards banquets in recent years.” “Variety” reported that to boost attendance, tickets had been given to secretaries and the like. Bette Davis and Victor McLaglen had showed up to accept their Oscars, but McLaglen’s director and screenwriter, John Ford and Dudley Nichols, both winners like McLaglen for The Informer (1935), were not there, and Nichols became the first person to refuse an Academy Award when he sent back his statuette to the Academy with a note saying he would not turn his back on his fellow writers in the SWG. Capra sent it back to him. Ford, the treasurer of the SDG, had not showed up to accept his Oscar, he explained, because he wasn’t a member of the Academy. When Capra staged a ceremony where Ford accepted his award, the SDG voted him out of office.
To save the Academy and the Oscars, Capra convinced the board to get it out of the labor relations field. He also democratized the nomination process to eliminate studio politics, opened the cinematography and interior decoration awards to films made outside the U.S., and created two new acting awards for supporting performances to win over SAG.
By the 1937 awards ceremony, SAG signaled its pleasure that the Academy had mostly stayed out of labor relations by announcing it had no objection to its members attending the awards ceremony. The ceremony was a success, despite the fact that the Academy had to charge admission due to its poor finances. Frank Capra had saved the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he even won his second Oscar that night, for directing Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). At the end of the evening, Capra announced the creation of the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award to honor “the most consistent high level of production achievement by an individual producer.” It was an award he himself was not destined to win.
By the 1938 awards, the Academy and all three guilds had buried the hatchet, and the guild presidents all attended the ceremony: SWG President Dudley Nichols, who finally had accepted his Oscar, SAG President Robert Montgomery, and SDG President King Vidor. Capra also had introduced the secret ballot, the results of which were unknown to everyone but the press, who were informed just before the dinner so they could make their deadlines. The first Irving Thalberg Award was given to long-time Academy supporter and anti-Guild stalwart Darryl F. Zanuck by Cecil B. DeMille, who in his preparatory remarks, declared that the Academy was “now free of all labor struggles.”
But those struggles weren’t over. In 1939, Capra had been voted president of the SDG and began negotiating with AMPP President ‘Joseph Schenck’, the head of 20th Century-Fox, for the industry to recognize the SDG as the sole collective bargaining agent for directors. When Schenck refused, Capra mobilized the directors and threatened a strike. He also threatened to resign from the Academy and mount a boycott of the awards ceremony, which was to be held a week later. Schenck gave in, and Capra won another victory when he was named Best Director for a third time at the Academy Awards, and his movie, You Can’t Take It with You (1938), was voted Best Picture of 1938.
The 1940 awards ceremony was the last that Capra presided over, and he directed a documentary about them, which was sold to Warner Bros’ for $30,000, the monies going to the Academy. He was nominated himself for Best Director and Best Picture for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but lost to the Gone with the Wind (1939) juggernaut. Under Capra’s guidance, the Academy had left the labor relations field behind in order to concentrated on the awards (publicity for the industry), research and education.
“I believe the guilds should more or less conduct the operations and functions of this institution,” he said in his farewell speech. He would be nominated for Best Director and Best Picture once more with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in 1947, but the Academy would never again honor him, not even with an honorary award after all his service. (Bob Hope, in contrast, received four honorary awards, including a lifetime membership in 1945, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award in 1960 from the Academy.) The SDG (subsequently renamed the Directors Guild of America after its 1960 with the Radio and Television Directors Guild and which Capra served as its first president from 1960-61), the union he had struggled with in the mid-1930s but which he had first served as president from 1939 to 1941 and won it recognition, voted him a lifetime membership in 1941 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1959.
Whenever Capra convinced studio boss Harry Cohn to let him make movies with more controversial or ambitious themes, the movies typically lost money after under-performing at the box office. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) and Lost Horizon (1937) were both expensive, philosophically minded pictures that sought to reposition Capra and Columbia into the prestige end of the movie market. After the former’s relative failure at the box office and with critics, Capra turned to making a screwball comedy, a genre he excelled at, with It Happened One Night (1934). Bookended with You Can’t Take It with You (1938), these two huge hits won Columbia Best Picture Oscars and Capra Best Director Academy Awards. These films, along with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are the heart of Capra’s cinematic canon. They are all classics and products of superb craftsmanship, but they gave rise to the canard of “Capra-corn.” One cannot consider Capra without taking into account The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), American Madness (1932), and Meet John Doe (1941), all three dark films tackling major issues, Imperialism, the American plutocracy, and domestic fascism. Capra was no Pollyanna, and the man who was called a “dago” by Mack Sennett and who went on to become one of the most unique, highly honored and successful directors, whose depictions of America are considered Americana themselves, did not live his cinematic life looking through a rose-colored range-finder
In his autobiography “The Name Above the Title,” Capra says that at the time of American Madness (1932), critics began commenting on his “gee-whiz” style of filmmaking. The critics attacked “gee whiz” cultural artifacts as their fabricators “wander about wide-eyed and breathless, seeing everything as larger than life.” Capra’s response was “Gee whiz!”
Defining Hollywood as split between two camps, “Mr. Up-beat” and “Mr. Down-beat,” Capra defended the up-beat gee whiz on the grounds that, “To some of us, all that meets the eye IS larger than life, including life itself. Who ca match the wonder of it?”
Among the artists of the “Gee-Whiz:” school were Ernest Hemingway, Homer, and Paul Gauguin, a novelist who lived a heroic life larger than life itself, a poet who limned the lives of gods and heroes, and a painter who created a mythic Tahiti, the Tahiti that he wanted to find. Capra pointed to Moses and the apostles as examples of men who were larger than life. Capra was proud to be “Mr. Up-beat” rather than belong to “the ‘ashcan’ school” whose “films depict life as an alley of cats clawing lids off garbage cans, and man as less noble than a hyena. The ‘ash-canners,’ in turn, call us Pollyannas, mawkish sentimentalists, and corny happy-enders.”
What really moves Capra is that in America, there was room for both schools, that there was no government interference that kept him from making a film like American Madness (1932). (While Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Joseph P. Kennedy had asked Harry Cohn to stop exporting Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to Europe as it portrayed American democracy so negatively.) About Mr. Up-beat and Mr-Downbeat and “Mr. In-between,” Capra says, “We all respect and admire each other because the great majority freely express their own individual artistry unfettered by subsidies or strictures from government, pressure groups, or ideologists.”
In the period 1934 to 1941, Capra the created the core of his canon with the classics It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), wining three Best Director Oscars in the process. Some cine-historians call Capra the great American propagandist, he was so effective in creating an indelible impression of America in the 1930s. “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties,” John Cassavetes was quoted as saying. “Maybe it was all Frank Capra.”
After the United States went to war in December 1941, Frank Capra rejoined the Army and became an actual propagandist. His “Why We Fight” series of propaganda films were highly lauded for their remarkable craftsmanship and were the best of the U.S. propaganda output during the war. Capra’s philosophy, which has been variously described as a kind of Christian socialism (his films frequently feature a male protagonist who can be seen a Christ figure in a story about redemption emphasizing New Testament values) that is best understood as an expression of humanism, made him an ideal propagandist. He loved his adopted country with the fervor of the immigrant who had realized the American dream. One of his propaganda films, The Negro Soldier (1944), is a milestone in race relations.
Capra, a genius in the manipulation of the first form of “mass media,” was opposed to “massism.” The crowd in a Capra film is invariably wrong, and he comes down on the side of the individual, who can make a difference in a society of free individuals. In an interview, Capra said he was against “mass entertainment, mass production, mass education, mass everything. Especially mass man. I was fighting for, in a sense, the preservation of the liberty of the individual person against the mass.”
Capra had left Columbia after “Mr. Smith” and formed his own production company. After the war, he founded Liberty Films with John Ford and made his last masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Liberty folded prior to its release (another Liberty film, William Wyler’s masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was released through United Artists). Though Capra received his sixth Oscar nomination as best director, the movie flopped at the box office, which is hard to believe now that the film is considered must-see viewing each Christmas. Capra’s period of greatness was over, and after making three under-whelming films from 1948 to ’51 (including a remake of his earlier Broadway Bill (1934)), Capra didn’t direct another picture for eight years, instead making a series of memorable semi-comic science documentaries for television that became required viewing for most 1960’s school kids. His last two movies, A Hole in the Head (1959) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) his remake of Lady for a Day (1933) did little to enhance his reputation.
But a great reputation it was, and is. Capra’s films withstood the test of time and continue to be as beloved as when they were embraced by the movie-going “masses” in the 1930s. It was the craftsmanship: Capra was undeniably a master of his medium. The great English novelist Graham Greene, who supported himself as a film critic in the 1930s, loved Capra’s films due to their sense of responsibility and of common life, and due to his connection with his audience. (Capra, according to the 1938 “Time” article, believed that what he liked would be liked by moviegoers). In his review of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Greene elucidated the central theme of Capra’s movies: “Goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world.”
But it was Capra’s great mastery over film that was the key to his success. Comparing Capra to Dickens in a not wholly flattering review of You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Green found Capra “a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels — vaguely — that something is wrong with the social system” (807). Commenting on the improbable scene in which Grandpa Vanderhof persuades the munitions magnate Anthony P. Kirby to give everything up and play the harmonica, Greene stated:
“It sounds awful, but it isn’t as awful as all that, for Capra has a touch of genius with a camera: his screen always seems twice as big as other people’s, and he cuts as brilliantly as Eisenstein (the climax when the big bad magnate takes up his harmonica is so exhilarating in its movement that you forget its absurdity). Humour and not wit is his line, a humor that shades off into whimsicality, and a kind of popular poetry which is apt to turn wistful. We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal – to that great soft organ with its unreliable goodness and easy melancholy and baseless optimism. The cinema, a popular craft, can hardly be expected to do more.”
Capra was a populist, and the simplicity of his narrative structures, in which the great social problems facing America were boiled down to scenarios in which metaphorical boy scouts took on corrupt political bosses and evil-minded industrialists, created mythical America of simple archetypes that with its humor, created powerful films that appealed to the elemental emotions of the audience. The immigrant who had struggled and been humiliated but persevere due to his inner resolution harnessed the mytho-poetic power of the movie to create proletarian passion plays that appealed to the psyche of the New Deal movie-goer. The country during the Depression was down but not out, and the ultimate success of the individual in the Capra films was a bracing tonic for the movie audience of the 1930s. His own personal history, transformed on the screen, became their myths that got them through the Depression, and when that and the war was over, the great filmmaker found himself out of time. Capra, like Charles Dickens, moralized political and economic issues. Both were primarily masters of personal and moral expression, and not of the social and political. It was the emotional realism, not the social realism, of such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which he was concerned with, and by focusing on the emotional and moral issues his protagonists faced, typically dramatized as a conflict between cynicism and the protagonist’s faith and idealism, that made the movies so powerful, and made them register so powerfully with an audience.
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