Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out / Columbia Pictures)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Frank Capra

Frank Capra is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American cinema, known for his unforgettable classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life which are revisited by modern audiences. Named by historians as a personification of the ‘American Dream’, Capra’s work often reflected the mythology of class mobility popularised by American capitalism.

Born in a small town in Sicily, Capra’s family moved to America when he was five years old and Capra worked while attending school before he eventually went to study Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology despite the wishes of his family who wanted him to start work straight out of school.

He began his journey in the world of cinema after reading a newspaper article about a new film studio. Capra went on to make incredibly successful projects which garnered a lot of praise from critics before experiencing a decline after the Second World War but his legacy lives on in the popular consciousness. Here, we trace his career through Capra’s six definitive films.

Frank Capra’s six definitive films:

It Happened One Night (1934)

An incredibly successful venture by Capra, It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy classic which revolves around a rich woman who decides to escape from the clutches of her controlling father. During her adventures, she falls in love with a reporter (Clark Gable) who is only there for the big scoop.

It Happened One Night made history by becoming the first film to win all five major categories at the Academy Awards – a feat that has only been equalled by two other films since then. Even now, this film is considered to be among Capra’s finest.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Featuring the likes of Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is another Capra film featuring journalism shenanigans. It tells the story of a man who inherits 20 million dollars during the Great Depression which attracts a lot of attention.

Back when it was first released, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town resonated with audiences as well as critics. Iconic novelist Graham Greene heaped praise on the project as well, pointing out that Capra’s film had “a kinship with his audience, a sense of common life, a morality.”

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Among Capra’s most popular films, You Can’t Take It With You is an engaging romantic comedy about a woman from an eccentric and free-thinking family who becomes engaged to the son of a highly conservative and snobbish banker.

You Can’t Take It With You continued the fantastic run that Capra was on, winning him his third Oscar for Best Director following the success of It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. This 1938 gem ended up becoming yet another critical and commercial success under Capra’s belt.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Often listed as one of the greatest films made in the history of American cinema, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stars James Stewart in a truly iconic role. The film constructs a fascinating political commentary partially based on the life of US Senator Burton Wheeler.

While most of Capra’s films deal with individual success, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington transcends the illusion of the ‘American Dream’ by highlighting the systemic failures of the country that proudly refers to itself as the greatest democracy in the world.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

An adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s play, Arsenic and Old Lace stars Cary Grant as a critic who is about to embark on his honeymoon when he discovers a corpse and begins his descent into a world full of insanity and deadly crimes.

Capra initially envisioned Bob Hope in the lead but Cary Grant pulls it off very well. Featuring hilarious comedy elements and a macabre cinematic atmosphere, Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the most interesting films Capra ever directed.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The Frank Capra film that has endured the test of the time the best, It’s a Wonderful Life is probably the most famous Christmas film ever made. It stars James Stewart as a thoroughly selfless man who has spent his life helping others but is pushed to the brink of suicide.

When it was released, the film had a lukewarm commercial response but its stature has only continued to grow with each passing year. Capra considered this to be his favourite personal project while Stewart named it among his favourite roles.