Frank Capra Biography and Impact

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Frank Capra Have you ever heard about the great filmmaker Francesco Rosario Capra? Perhaps you’ve heard of his 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Laurie Boeder)? Or his 1941 film “Meet John Doe” (Laurie Boeder)? These two are just a few films of his great work. Capra was a unique filmmaker. He struggled to keep his dream alive and managed to become one of the most successful filmmakers ever. 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” (Jon C. Hopwood).

They boarded a train and head to California where they stayed with Capra’s older brother, Benjamin, in Los Angeles. At age 6, Capra attended Castelar Elementary School. After elementary school, Frank Capra attended Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School. In the mornings, he would work as a janitor at his school and after school, he would work in downtown Los Angeles selling newspapers. Later, he joined 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. ” (Jon C. Hopwood).

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At his school, the theatre attracted him, He would work backstage during plays and would usually assist with the lights. Throughout his high school life, his family would pressure him into dropping out and getting a job. Capra wanted to live the American dream but an education was necessary in order to fulfill his goal. Frank Capra managed to graduate from high school on January 27, 1915 and in the “September of that year, he entered the Throop College of Technology” (Jon C. Hopwood), which was later known as the California Institute of Technology, to study chemical engineering.

Here was where Capra discovered his love for poetry and the essays of Montaigne. Due to his commitment to school, he was awarded a cash prize of $250 and a 6-week trip across the U. S. and Canada for having the highest grade at Throop. “After the U. S. Congress declared War on Germany on April 6, 1917,” (Jon C. Hopwood) he later left to go to the Army. Since he wasn’t a “naturalized” citizen, he was only allowed to join the Coastal Artillery. There, he became supply officer for the students at Throop supplies. On September 15, 1918, Capra graduated from Throop with his bachelor’s degree” (Jon C. Hopwood). Frank Capra was sent to Presidio at San Francisco since he was inducted in the U. S. Army. At Presidio, Capra caught the Spanish influenza and was sent back home. He lived with his mother and would work manual labor jobs. Capra had trouble finding a decent job, even though he . While Frank Capra visited San Francisco, he had “answered a newspaper advertisement placed by an actor who was looking for a director to help him create film versions of his favorite poetry” (World Biography).

Capra worked as an extra in many films “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” (Jon C. Hopwood). Besides being an extra in films, Capra worked on writing stories. He tried to get them published but wasn’t able to. A rich gambler hired Capra as a tutor for his son. Capra, former actor W. M. Plank, and financial backer Ida May Heitmann incorporated the Tri-State Motion Picture Co. in Nevada. They produced 3 films but sadly became a failure.

Frank moved back to Los Angeles and then returned once again to San Francisco. In San Francisco, he worked as door-to-door salesmen. His unsuccessful struggles lead him to gambling. It was said that he “learned to ride the rails with a hobo named Frank Dwyer” (Jon C. Hopwood). Producer Walter Montague hired Capra to direct a short film, “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House,” based on one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems. Frank Capra insisted on making a film based on his own poems. Montague disagreed and later, Capra.

Frank Capra struggled to find another professional filmmaking job but was hired later that same year by Paul Gerson Picture Corporation to help make its two-reel comedies. He began dating the actress Helen Edith Howe and later married on November 25, 1923. The couple moved to Hollywood where he would work as a gag-writer for Hal Roach for the “Our Gang” series in January,1924. Frank Capra wrote five “Our Gang” comedies in seven weeks and asked Roach for the position as a director. Roach’s refusal caused Capra to quit.

After quitting on Roach, Capra also worked for a while with the famous comedian of the silent movie era, Harry Langdon, as a gag-writer. The film “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” was a collaboration of Langdon (he was working on his first national feature length film), Harry Edwards (which directed all of Langdon’s films at Sennet), and Capra. Edwards over-ran the film budget making Langdon to pay for the extra costs out of his own pocket. Langdon wasn’t happy with the result even if it did well at box office. He fired Edwards and promoted Capra as director, boosting up his salary to $750 a week. It was with Langdon that Capra made his first feature films, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants” (World Biography). The films were hits but trouble began within the Langdon corporation. As Capra worked with Langdon, Frank Capra’s wife “discovered that she had a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy that had to be terminated” (Jon C. Hopwood). Capra turned to work and became a workaholic in order to cope with the tragedy. His wife turned to drinking. During the production of “Long Pants”, Capra had a conflict with Langdon.

The screenwriter, Arthur Ripley, had a “dark sensibility that did not mesh well with that of the more optimistic Capra, and Harry Langdon usually sided with Ripley” (Jon C. Hopwood). The picture fell behind schedule and went over budget and since Langdon was paid a fixed fee for each film, it represented a financial loss to his own Harry Langdon Corp. Shocked by the financial set-back, Harry Langdon made a fateful decision: He fired Capra and decided to direct himself. After being fired, Capra and his wife, Helen, split up. He went to New York to direct “For the Love of Mike”.

Capra and Claudette Colbert, the star, did not get along and the film went over budget. They refused to pay Capra and he had to move back to Hollywood. He then began work for Mack Sennett and then moved to Columbia where he formed a close association with screenwriter Robert Riskin (later replaced as writer) and cameraman Joseph MacDonald. In 1930, Capra began working with another writer named Jo Swerlin. Although Capra usually worked with Swerlin, one of his greatest works came from Robert Riskin. The Riskin-Capra collaboration lead to the film “It Happened One Night. It “won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), and Best Actor and Actress Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert” (Frank Capra Biography). “Capra directed a steady stream of films intended to be inspirational and humanitarian” (World Biography). The three best known were “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life”. Capra also directed or co-directed eight war documentaries including “Prelude to War” (1942), “The Nazis Strike”(1942), “The Battle of Britain” (1943), “Divide and Conquer” (1943), “Know Your Enemy” (1945), “Tunisian Victory” (1945) and “Two Down and One to Go” (1945).

His Academy Award winning documentary series, “Why We Fight,” is “widely considered a masterpiece of propaganda, surpassed only by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will” (Frank Capra Biography). Capra was faced with the task of convincing an isolationist nation to enter the war, desegregate the troops, and ally with the Russians, among other things. Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life” was ignored on its initial release, but it became a favorite for television programming on Christmas Day after its copyright expired.

It was the first film for Jimmy Stewart after his service in World War Two. After this film, Capra made five others. None were as successful. Before Frank Capra completely retired, he made his last film: “Pocketful of Miracles,” in 1961. “It was another box office disappointment, and from then until his death in 1991 he never got behind the camera again” (World Biography). In 1971, Capra published his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title. ” Frank Capra lived an unstable career. His life was filled of struggles but managed to get through.

Besides these films mentioned, Capra made many others. After his retirement from filmmaking in the 1960s, he began a new career; as a teacher, speaking at more than 250 schools and film festivals to give inspiration to the new generation of filmmakers. In my opinion, Frank Capra was a great person whom never forgot who he was and where he came from. All his struggles lead him to his success. He might have had a troublesome life, but he managed to put everything aside and become one of the most memorable filmmakers in the filmmaking world.

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Frank Capra Biography and Impact. (2016, Dec 16). Retrieved from

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