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.)