Frank Capra Capra, Frank - Essay

Joseph McBride


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Capra 1897–

American director, screenwriter, and producer.

Capra's optimistic American comedies exalt the "little man" as a figure capable of discovering and healing a corrupt society. His "screwball" comedies, providing simple solutions to complex problems, were popular during the Great Depression.

Born in Sicily, Capra came to the United States at the age of six. After studying at the California Institute of Technology, he was hired to direct "cine-poems" before working as a gagman for Mack Sennett. In 1923 he went to work with Harry Langdon, establishing the actor as a famed simpleton. Capra's association with Columbia pictures began in 1928, with a series of low-budget movies. His interest in social themes as the basis of his unabashedly sentimental films came to the fore in 1932 with American Madness, a satirical poke at the banking world. Before beginning the series of New Deal comedies that made him famous, Capra made several films, among them Platinum Blonde, Ladies of Leisure, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, displaying an unexpectedly erotic turn to Capra's style.

It Happened One Night is Capra's quintessential "screwball" comedy. This simple story attains an aura of glamour that belies its unpretentiousness, because of the film's optimism and high integrity. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington convey Capra's belief in the innocent man as the American hero who overcomes corruption with honesty and decency.

While his films have been generally well-received, some critics label Capra's sentimentality "Capra-corn," finding it overly idealistic. You Can't Take It With You and Lost Horizon, Capra's adaptations of literature for the screen, incorporate his Utopian outlook. His thirties films display strong characterization as well as a sure touch for comical pacing. In 1939 Capra left Columbia and formed his own company, producing Meet John Doe and Arsenic and Old Lace before the advent of World War II.

During World War II, Capra served as a major in the US Signal Corps and made a series of combat documentaries called Why We Serve. These films are now regarded as a serious fusion of documentary style and heroic imagery. The films made after the war are generally conceded to be less successful than those of the thirties. Perhaps an exception is It's a Wonderful Life, where the Capra hero does not save the country on his own, but rather is aided by the device of a deus ex machina. Even this well-received film had a different mood to it than the engagingly optimistic films of his prewar period, and his attempt to adapt to America's philosophy of the forties was unsuccessful. Both State of the Union and Pocketful of Miracles are indicative of the weaknesses of Capra's later style. His most recent works are remakes of his own films that seem overly sentimental by today's standards. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Alexander Bakshy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A superior picture, if only by virtue of its two magnificent scenes of evangelistic mummery in a tabernacle, is "The Miracle Woman"…. Here, at least, is some excellent and genuine material of life, striking in its unfamiliarity and effectively presented. The director of the film, Frank Capra, can be congratulated on the skilful handling of these scenes; and there is also merit in the story in so far as it attempts to expose the fakery that goes under the name of evangelism. Its romantic motif, however, leaves much to be desired. With all its adumbrations of a blind boy, formerly an aviator, falling in love with the evangelist, and of his rather theatrical penchant for revealing his mind through a ventriloquist dummy, it never succeeds in ringing true and convincing.

Alexander Bakshy, "Films: 'The Miracle Woman'," in The Nation (copyright 1931 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 133, No. 3452, September 2, 1931, p. 237.∗

Mordaunt Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are few serious moments in "It Happened One Night," a screen feast …, and if there is a welter of improbable incidents these hectic doings serve to generate plenty of laughter. The pseudo suspense is kept on the wing until a few seconds before the picture ends, but it is a foregone conclusion that the producers would never dare to have the characters … separated when the curtain falls….

"It Happened One Night" is a good piece of fiction, which, with all its feverish stunts, is blessed with bright dialogue and a good quota of relatively restrained scenes. Although there are such flighty notions as that of having Ellie running away from a marriage ceremony when the guests—and particularly King Westley—had expected to hear her say "I will"; or those depicting Warne volleying vituperation over the telephone at his city editor; there are also more sober sequences wherein Warne and Ellie spread cheer to the audience, notwithstanding their sorry adventures with little or no money.

Mordaunt Hall, "'It Happened One Night'," in The New York Times (© 1934 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1934, p. 1035.

Otis C. Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Considering its subject, ["It Happened One Night"] is better than it has any right to be—better acted, better directed, better written…. [Everybody] being in love with everybody else in pleasantly conclusive fashion, there enters more confusion as to who loves whom and why than might be expected of a Molière comedy. Barring the incidents of the bus ride, the outlines of the story have a deadly enough familiarity all through anyway. What the picture as a whole shows is that by changing such types as the usual pooh-bah father and city editor into people with some wit and feeling, by consistently preferring the light touch to the heavy, and by casting actors who are thoroughly up to the work of acting, you can make some rather comely and greenish grasses grow where there was only alkali dust before. (p. 364)

Otis C. Ferguson, "Worth Seeing," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1934 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 78, No. 1014, May 9, 1934, pp. 364-65.

Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra] takes a plot with as few restrictions as possible (it has the necessary sentimental angle and forward motion but is fairly empty of anything else) and proceeds to fill it up with situations and characters from life—working the situations into some direct line with wonderful care both for their speed and clarity as parts and for their associative values, their cumulative effect in the whole story; working over the casting and combined performance of the best actors he can get hold of; making his own show with genius and humble labor from start to finish. His type of comedy differs from that of René Clair in minor respects (with the possible exception of Lubitsch, there have been no others so far who can keep up with him); but the two have in common the same basic drollery, good spirits, and human sympathy, the same quick perception and whatever magic it is that can keep several irons in the fire all the time, and the fire blowing bright. Capra hasn't the hard universal brilliance of Clair at his best (some years ago now) and his prize effects happen in twos rather than in Clair's one-two-three formation; but he is more homey, less apt to make his sentiment slush, closer to the lives of his audience, enlisting more of their belief and sympathy…. (pp. 127-28)

And everywhere the picture goes, from the endearing to the absurd, the accompanying business is carried through with perfect zip and...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Graham Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Deeds is Capra's finest film (it is on quite a different intellectual level from the spirited and delightful It Happened One Night), and that means it is a comedy quite unmatched on the screen. For Capra has what Lubitsch, the witty playboy, has not: a sense of responsibility, and what Clair, whimsical, poetic, a little precious and à la mode, has not, a kinship with his audience, a sense of common life, a morality; he has what even Chaplin has not, complete mastery of his medium, and that medium the sound-film, not the film with sound attached to it. Like Lang, he hears all the time just as clearly as he sees and just as selectively. I do not think anyone can watch Mr. Deeds for long without being aware of a technician as great as Lang employed on a theme which profoundly moves him: the theme of goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world. That was the theme of Fury, too, but Capra is more fortunate than Lang. Lang expresses the theme in terms of terror, and terror on the screen has always, alas! to be tempered to the shorn lamb; Capra expresses it in terms of pity and ironic tenderness, and no magnate feels the need to cramp his style or alter his conclusion….

[The story] sounds as grim a theme as Fury; innocence lynched as effectively at a judicial inquiry as in a burning courthouse, but there is this difference between Lang and Capra; Lang's happy ending was imposed on him, we did not believe in it; Capra's is natural and unforced. He believes in the possibility of happiness; he believes, in spite of the controlling racketeers, in human nature. Goodness, simplicity, disinterestedness: these in his hands become fighting qualities…. The picture glows with … humour and shrewdness, just as Lang's curdles with his horror and disgust…. (p. 96)

Graham Greene, "'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'" (originally published in The Spectator, August 28, 1936), in his The Pleasure-Dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935–40 (copyright © 1972 by Graham Greene), Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp. 96-7.

Graham Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Lost Horizon] is a very long picture, this disappointing successor to Mr. Deeds, and a very dull one as soon as the opening scenes are over…. Here the Capra-Riskin partnership is at its best, and we are unprepared for the disappointments which follow: the flavourless uplifting dialogue, the crude humour, the pedestrian direction, and the slack makeshift construction….

Of course, the picture isn't quite as bad as that. It does attempt, however clumsily and sentimentally, more than the average film; a social conscience is obscurely at work, but at work far less effectively than in Mr. Deeds, and as for the humour—it consists only of Mr. Edward Everett Horton wearing Eastern clothes. The conscious humour that is to say, for the glimpses of English political life give a little much needed relief…. But it is in the last sequence that the Capra-Riskin collaboration fails most disastrously…. A few newspaper headlines tell us that Conway has reached safety, and it is only at secondhand in a long uncinematic scene in a London club that we learn what we should have seen with our own eyes: Conway's reaction to "civilization." If the long dull ethical sequences had been cut to the bone there would have been plenty of room for the real story: the shock of western crudity and injustice on a man returned from a more gentle and beautiful way of life. (p. 148)

Graham Greene, "'Lost Horizon'" (originally published in The Spectator, April 23, 1937), in his The Pleasure-Dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935–40 (copyright © 1972 by Graham Greene), Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp. 145, 148.

Graham Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[You Can't Take It With You] is the Christmas Carol over again—with its sentimentality and its gusto and its touches of genius: no technical mistakes this time as there were in Lost Horizon. The director emerges as a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels—vaguely—that something is wrong with the social system. Mr. Deeds started distributing his money, and the hero of Lost Horizon settled down in a Thibetan monastery—equipped with all the luxury devices of the best American hotels—and Grandpa Vanderhof persuades, in this new picture, the Wall Street magnate who has made the coup of his career and cornered the armaments industry to throw everything up and play the...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. Smith Goes to Washington] is a mixture of tough, factual patter about Congressional cloakrooms and pressure groups, and a naïve but shameless hooraw for the American relic—Parson Weems at a flag-raising. It seems just the time for it, just the time of excitement when a barker in good voice could mount the tub, point toward the flag, say ubbuh-ubbah-ubbah and a pluribus union? and the windows would shake. But where all this time is Director Capra?

I'm afraid Mr. Capra began to leave this world at some point during the production of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his best picture…. (p. 273)

Politically, the story is eyewash. The machinery of the Senate and the machinery of how it may be used to advantage are shown better than they ever have been. But the main surviving idea is that one scout leader who knows the Gettysburg Address by heart but wouldn't possibly be hired to mow your lawn can throw passionate faith into the balance and by God we've got a fine free country to live in again.

There are some fine lines and there is a whole magazine of nice types; but the occasional humor is dispersed and the people are embarrassed by just the slugging, unimaginative sort of direction that Capra became famous for avoiding. When the hero is supposed to be made innocent, they write him down an utter fool; when there is supposed to be evil, wickedness triumphs as slick as pushing a button…. The only good sequence was the lovely bit where Miss Arthur and friend got very tight by degrees, and by degrees more reckless and tearful, until they weave up to tell little boy blue that somebody swiped his horn. This seems a case of winning by a lapse; it is like the old Capra, and pretty lonesome. (pp. 273-74)

Otis Ferguson, "Mr. Capra Goes Someplace" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 100, No. 1300, November 1, 1939), in The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, edited by Robert Wilson (© 1971 by Temple University), Temple University Press, 1971, pp. 273-75.

Graham Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Here is Capra, without the help of Riskin, back to his finest form [in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington]—the form of Mr. Deeds. It has always been an interesting question, how much Capra owed to his faithful scenario writer. Now it is difficult to believe that Riskin's part was ever very important, for all the familiar qualities are here—the exciting close-ups, the sudden irrelevant humour, the delight—equal to that of the great Russians—in the ordinary human face. (p. 260)

It is a great film, even though it is not a great story…. (p. 261)

Graham Greene, "'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'" (originally published in The Spectator, January...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Meet John Doe] is almost a point-for-point replica of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but some of the old felicity is there again and there are actually comedy sequences in it. I am not holding out too much hope, for today there is nothing Americans so like to be told from the screen as that they are Americans. So why should anybody with a formula and a credit line like skywriting bother with making a swell simple movie as his "production for 1941"?… (p. 349)

The message is that since it is all the little men who truly make the big world, they should live together and hang together, doing away with hate and suspicion and bad-neighborliness. Fine. Ringing. Of course there are present...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

James Agee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One important function of good art or entertainment is to unite and illuminate the heart and the mind, to cause each to learn from, and to enhance, the experience of the other. Bad art and entertainment misinform and disunite them. Much too often ["It's a Wonderful Life"] appeals to the heart at the expense of the mind; at other times it urgently demands of the heart that it treat with contempt the mind's efforts to keep its integrity; at still other times the heart is simply used, on the mind, as a truncheon. ["It's a Wonderful Life"] does all this so proficiently, and with so much genuine warmth, that I wasn't able to get reasonably straight about it for quite a while. I still think it has a good deal of charm and...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Joseph Kostolefsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Hole in the Head] is bound to disappoint some of Frank Capra's admirers, but they can console themselves, between laughs, by reflecting that if Capra isn't making the kind of pictures he once did, they aren't seeing them as they once did. Much of his earlier work relied on a stereotype of the good little people resisting the bad big people; it belonged to the 'thirties and would seem out of place today (He Who Must Die notwithstanding). The goodness, however, remains, and accounts for some sticky passages, most of them centering on Eddie Hodges, a nice youngster but too patently an emblem of vulnerable innocence. He doesn't cry much, but you know he could, and shouldn't have to.


(The entire section is 343 words.)

John Cutts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The films of Frank Capra have been a parade of some of the best things yet produced by the American Cinema. And they have been films very American in outlook, humour and feeling. This is not to say, far from it, that his work has been limited in its appeal. Rather that Capra has a definite talent for evoking American dreams and hopes. Since the war, the director has only made a brief handful of pictures …, but, even so, his general neglect in post-war critical circles has been shameful…. I can't help feeling that his latest film, Pocketful of Miracles, is in for a somewhat stormy critical passage.

In the first place, it's such a blithe and cheery piece. A film not above wearing its heart...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Isabel Quigly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Strictly for adults of a sort is a fairy-tale you can spot by its title, Pocketful of Miracles…. The odd thing about it isn't its badness but the fact that, bad as it is, it is made by Frank Capra, that legendary name, and made through and through, produced and directed; and it is tempting to read permanent declensions into what, after all, may be just one of those aberrations that warm-hearted souls are liable to. Capra, champion of the underdog, the simple and the inarticulate, might suddenly—it isn't all that surprising—be carried away into sentimentality by a tale about a tippling old apple-woman and her golden-hearted gangster friends. The surprise is in how far he has gone, how obvious, even how...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

James Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Whatever] it is that gives the thirties their air of curious innocence also gives Capra, at this distance, a slight but distinct aspect of futility. The hero of Mr Smith Goes to Washington consciously embraces a lost cause, but twenty-four years later the nobility of this looks faintly ridiculous and pathetic. In a period insulated at one end by a technical innovation (the sound film) and at the other by the war, Capra suffers the fate of his generation…. Capra speaks to us now in accents poignant but somehow muffled….

This is most true of the most perfect of the comedies, the earliest of the films….

[For example, most] of the humours of It Happened One Night...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

William S. Pechter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The unique Capra genre has been defined by Richard Griffith, the film historian, as the "fantasy of goodwill," and he has also described its archetypical pattern. "In each film, a messianic innocent, not unlike the classic simpletons of literature … pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His inexperience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls forth the goodwill of the 'little people,' and through their combined protest, he triumphs." This ritual of innocence triumphant did little to ingratiate Capra to an intellectual audience to whom he represented only the triumph of the Saturday Evening Post. But though the apparent vein of cheery optimism which...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

Andrew Bergman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Capra's erratic background was reflected in his best films. The seemingly wide-eyed immigrant boy who travelled the traditional path to success in college (carrying trays in the commons, pen and slide rule concealed beneath the white jacket) was obviously one with faith in the classic American route to opportunity and fulfillment. But the Capra who hustled farmers and sold coupons to their wives, the Capra who turned from chemical engineering to the glib sales pitch and "I'm from Hollywood," was more cold-eyed than wide-eyed. Those two Capras—immigrant dreamer and conman—gave a peculiarly attractive and beguiling quality to his best work. He had a perfect pitch for Americana, for depicting what he passed over as...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Jeffrey Richards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Pursuit of Happiness is, perhaps, more than any other, the central theme in Capra's work. Happiness is to be found in peace, contentment, enjoyment of life, above all, freedom from the rat race, the individual asserting himself to escape from the oppressive hand of the forces of Organization. This idea was expressed in abstract terms in Lost Horizon …, a film dismissed by almost all influential film critics as pretentious and absurd…. In fact, it is one of the most dazzling pieces of film-making to come out of Hollywood in the '30s…. The last memorable image of the film is of Robert, a lone, tiny figure, against a vast expanse of snow, struggling onwards through a blinding storm, trying to find his...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Stephen Handzo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To a remarkable extent, Capra's films caught the mood of America in the Thirties and Forties. When sufficiently little was happening in the world for the masses to be bemused for weeks by the deserved misfortunes of the rich, Capra rebuilt the Depression-bruised male ego with reassurance that, despite unemployment, he was still virile and the master of any situation…. Deeds and You Can't Take It With You combined the folk experience of the Depression (bankruptcy, eviction) born equally of the renewed confidence inspired by the New Deal and the need to dispel the lingering malaise. Mr. Smith tempered the muckraking of the earlier Thirties with the vindication of a flawed democracy that was...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Joyce Nelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Capra, by utilizing character 'types', references to Populist heroes, and comic-strip forms of editing, has created, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film which, however much it may appear to be exploring complex issues, remains an appeal to child-like wish-fulfillment in its world of hero and villains.

Long before we actually see Jefferson Smith … on screen, Capra provides us with the essentials of his character. First, Capra peoples the Taylor Political Machine with rotund, cigar-smoking 'types' easily recognizable as villainous. Smith will contrast both physically and morally with this group. Next, Capra associates him with innocence by having his name be suggested for Senator by the...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

FrançOis Truffaut

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Capra is the last survivor of that great quartet of American comedy; Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, and Preston Sturges. An Italian, born in Palermo, he brought to Hollywood the secrets of the commedia dell'arte. He was a navigator who knew how to steer his characters into the deepest dimensions of desperate human situations (I have often wept during the tragic moments of Capra's comedies) before he reestablished a balance and brought off the miracle that let us leave the theater with a renewed confidence in life.

The growing harshness of social life after the war, the spread of egoism, the obstinate conviction of the rich that they could "take it with...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Donald C. Willis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I interpret [the slump of Capra's films in the later thirties] as Capra's initially faltering attempt to assimilate an acute, new, altruistic impulse (which he accounts for, somewhat mystically, in his book) into his highly-refined filmmaking technique. (p. 2)

If Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon and You Can't Take It With You happened to become box-office hits, it's almost entirely due to Capra's technical, sugar-coating skills, to his gift for entertaining, to the fact that [his] first "message" movies didn't just awkwardly "say something." There is a discernible gap between the entertaining surfaces of Mr. Deeds and You Can't Take It With You and their simplistic,...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Leland A. Poague

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a general rule, comedy attends to and reflects upon human desires for love, life, and fertility. Comic plots emphasize sequences of reversal and recovery that in turn reflect mythological sequences of death and rebirth….

Elements of the miraculous, the wonderful, and the fantastic are found in all comedies. Shakespeare's comedies abound with fantastic characters and situations….

Capra's films present no exception to this general comic characteristic. Aspects of the improbable, the fantastic, and the unexpected always seem at work in Capra's films, throwing characters off balance, upsetting their sense of equilibrium, deceiving and confusing normally perceptive individuals....

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

John Raeburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

American Madness, [Capra's] film about an idealistic banker, is one of the finest American movies to emerge from the early years of the Depression. Very little in Capra's early career as a director suggested he was capable of creating a film as sharp in its social observation and as ambitious in its analysis of American values as this melodrama about robbery, murder, a bank panic, and the conflict between social responsibility and greed. (p. 57)

There is a good deal of "business" in the plot of American Madness but basically the film centers on what would become Capra's perennial subject in his best films: the conflict between a resolute individual, full of goodwill toward his fellow...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)

Robin Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most overtly presented of the … structural oppositions [in It's a Wonderful Life] is that between the two faces of Capitalism, benign and malignant: on the one hand, the Baileys (father and son) and their Building and Loan Company, its business practice based on a sense of human needs and a belief in human goodness; on the other, Potter …, described explicitly as a spider, motivated by greed, egotism and miserliness, with no faith in human nature. Potter belongs to a very deeply rooted tradition. He derives most obviously from Dickens' Scrooge …—a Scrooge disturbingly unrepentant and irredeemable—but his more distant antecedents are in the ogres of fairy tales.

The opposition...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

John Tibbetts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Miracle Woman is perhaps the first American commercial feature film to deal intelligently with the less savory aspects of popular evangelism, showing it as a secularized merchandising of life and hope at the hands of ruthless opportunists….

[The] film carries another implication more specifically pertinent to its immediate cultural and social context: Fallon's message of salvation on earth carries a special significance for the disadvantaged of Depression America. Her adherents, which include tenement families, middle-class citizens, and disabled veterans of the Great War, are a cross-section of those most desperately in need of hope and promise amidst a society plunged into economic...

(The entire section is 941 words.)