“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” – Frank Capra
By the 1920s, Hollywood was becoming a burgeoning industry. The cinema of this decade provided a glimpse of the fantasies that the people demanded with grand stories about gangsters, sheriffs, epic heroes and comedic jokers. These films provided an escape for the audience, creating make-belief worlds marked by opulence or glory, worlds that could never be inhabited by the ordinary man. However, the Great Depression severed the attraction that the audience felt towards such heroes and reinforced the disconnect between the fantasy projected by the cinema of that time and the terrible reality. The exalted status of a film protagonist was no longer relevant.
Capra was born on May 18th, 1897 in a small town in Sicily, Italy. His family moved to America when he was five aboard a steamship. His father worked as a fruit-picker and Capra used to sell newspapers after school to add what little he could to the family income. Against his parents’ wishes, Capra did not start working right after graduating from high school. He studied Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, an experience about which he said, “It changed my whole viewpoint on life, from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person.” Soon after, he was drafted in the military for WW-I where he taught mathematics to artillerymen until he caught the Spanish Flu and was let go. Although he was the only member of his family who had a college degree, he was extremely disillusioned by the fact that he was the only one in his family who did not have a steady job. Desperate for work, he read an article in the newspaper about a movie studio opening in San Francisco. He contacted them and lied to them about having prior experience in filmmaking just so that he could get a chance. The studio’s founder believed Capra and offered him $75 to create a single reel silent comedy. He jumped at the opportunity and hired a cameraman as well as amateur actors in order to create the reel in a couple of days. This short film was the beginning of Frank Capra’s legendary career.
Capra continued to make silent films for a while but he later admitted, “I wasn’t at home in silent films.” Because of Capra’s engineering education, he adapted more easily to the new sound technology than most directors. Moving into the ‘30s, Capra continued to make successful films but he also experimented with the focus behind each of his works, something that changed Hollywood forever. His first iconic feature of the decade was It Happened One Night (1934), one of the first screwball comedies and the first film to win Academy Awards for all the top five categories. Elements of the ‘American Dream’ in the film resonated with the audience of that time and proved what playwright Arthur Miller insisted years later, that the common man is a relevant subject for art. It Happened One Night also inspired the popular genre of road films, a tradition that is still alive to this day. His other film of ’34 was Broadway Bill, a film that marked a turning point in Capra’s career. He began putting positive spins on his work and injected a sense of optimism into the populist nature of his works. Capra said that his “films must let every man, woman and child know that God loves them, that [Capra] loves them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they learn to love each other”.
Through his films, Capra investigated how power relations worked in American society of that time, putting up his own vision of the limitless potential of good character and the common individual. Between the years of 1936 and 1946, Capra developed his vision of the American system with films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). These films were all products of Capra’s strong belief in the power of the individual against collective evils. Carol Krenz’s famous book, 100 Years of Hollywood, states that “Capra’s movies bore such a strikingly original style and personal stamp that the director’s own name became an adjective: the term ‘Capraesque’ was used to describe triumph over long odds by an ordinary citizen.” This ‘rags to riches’ arc was a reflection of Capra’s own story who rose from the position of a poor immigrant to one of the top American filmmakers of his time, embodying the American Dream. It dismantled the glorification of traditional film heroes and replaced those heroes with ordinary men, characters that the American audience really related to. His optimistic view of the common man was also patriotic in nature because he believed that American democracy could only flourish when the individuals had agency and the power to change their own fortunes.
During WW-II, the US Military hired Frank Capra to create propaganda films because of how influential his work was. He made very successful war-documentaries, experimenting with the genre to make them seem like feature films. When he finally retired, Capra blamed his resignation on the changes in Hollywood. There was no place for Capraesque optimism in a world of postmodern cynicism, something he refused to bow down to. His Capraesque vision influenced countless directors, including illustrious filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Akira Kurosawa and even David Lynch. Film historian Ian Freer rightly noted, “He had created feelgood entertainments before the phrase was invented, and his influence on culture, from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch, and from television soap operas to greeting-card sentiments—is simply too huge to calculate.”
For his innovative vision and immense contribution to the legacy of cinema, Frank Capra will always be counted among the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.