skip navigation
Frank Capra

Frank Capra

Up
Down

share:

TCM Archive Materials VIEW ALL ARCHIVES (12)

Also Known As: Francesco Capra, Frank R Capra, Col. Frank Capra, Frank R. Capra, Lt. Col. Frank Capra Died: September 3, 1991
Born: May 18, 1897 Cause of Death: natural causes
Birth Place: Italy Profession: director, producer, screenwriter, propman, editor, gagwriter, janitor, lab apprentice, salesman

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

ywood in 1952. He spent the next seven years working with CalTech for the Defense Department on a project studying psychological warfare, after which he went to India for a film festival as a U.S. emissary, only to have his credentials delayed for content in "State of the Union." During this time, he also wrote and produced four science-based educational documentaries for Bell Telephone: "Our Mr. Sun," "Hemo the Magnificent," "Strange Case of Cosmic Rays" and "Unchained Goodness." Capra returned to Hollywood filmmaking with "A Hole in the Head" (1959), which starred Frank Sinatra as a widower who stops at nothing to fulfill his dream of building a huge amusement park. Capra next directed what turned out to be his last Hollywood film, "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), a remake of his own "Lady for a Day," starring Bette Davis as Apple Annie.Capra tried one last time to mount a feature film when he went into pre-production on "Marooned" for Columbia in 1964. Frustrated with then-studio head Mike Frankovich for what he deemed unreasonable script approvals and budgets, Capra left the project and officially retired. Later in the decade, John Sturges took the reigns of "Marooned," which was eventually...

ywood in 1952. He spent the next seven years working with CalTech for the Defense Department on a project studying psychological warfare, after which he went to India for a film festival as a U.S. emissary, only to have his credentials delayed for content in "State of the Union." During this time, he also wrote and produced four science-based educational documentaries for Bell Telephone: "Our Mr. Sun," "Hemo the Magnificent," "Strange Case of Cosmic Rays" and "Unchained Goodness." Capra returned to Hollywood filmmaking with "A Hole in the Head" (1959), which starred Frank Sinatra as a widower who stops at nothing to fulfill his dream of building a huge amusement park. Capra next directed what turned out to be his last Hollywood film, "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), a remake of his own "Lady for a Day," starring Bette Davis as Apple Annie.

Capra tried one last time to mount a feature film when he went into pre-production on "Marooned" for Columbia in 1964. Frustrated with then-studio head Mike Frankovich for what he deemed unreasonable script approvals and budgets, Capra left the project and officially retired. Later in the decade, John Sturges took the reigns of "Marooned," which was eventually released in 1969. Meanwhile, Capra directed his last film, "Rendezvous in Space" (1964), which was made for the Martin-Marietta Corporation, builders of the Titan rocket boosters, and fell in line with the tradition of his great war-time documentaries. In 1967, Capra and his wife, Lucille, left Hollywood and relocated to La Quinta, CA, where the director spent the rest of his days publishing his memoirs, The Name Above the Title (1971), and giving lectures as a popular speaker on college campuses. After suffering a series of strokes in the 1980s that put him under 24-hour nursing care, Capra died in his sleep from a heart attack on Sept. 3, 1991 in his La Quinta home. He was 94. Capra left behind a legacy as a director who made movies with simple messages, which often required a suspension of disbelief in order to respond to them. His genius as a moviemaker was getting the audience past that hurdle and pulling mercilessly at the heart-strings. Francois Truffaut once said of him: "In recognizing the facts of human suffering, uncertainty, anxiety, the everyday struggles of life, Capra, with his unquenchable optimism, was a healing force. This good doctor, who was also a great director, became a restorer of men's spirits." string of iconic films, Capra went on to adapt the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), which helped to perpetuate the director's utopian vision of the world and reportedly became the director¿s most profitable film. "You Can¿t Take It With You" was a whimsical screwball comedy about an eccentric family headed by a former businessman-turned-artist (Lionel Barrymore), who is happy spending all day painting despite his obvious lack of talent. But when one of the daughters (Jean Arthur) falls in love with her boss¿ son, the family tries and horribly fails to act normal in an effort to impress the in-laws. Once again, Capra found himself in contention for Best Director at the Academy Awards. His next film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), which was also his last film for Columbia, truly encapsulated the idea of idealism triumphing over evil. Capra discovered his best representative of this ideal in the form of actor James Stewart, who played a newly elected senator sent to do battle against crooked politicians in the name of "truth, justice and the American way." Though such easy cures for the political and press corruption so visibly illustrated were not readily available, the film exhibited the master director at work, using all the techniques at his disposal to pack an emotional wallop in every scene, particularly Stewart¿s famed emotionally draining filibuster. Long shots, quick cuts in close-up, and montages that conveyed an accelerated storyline without disrupting it complemented a stellar cast that helped deliver another Oscar-nominated masterpiece for Capra.

Capra moved on to direct the last of his so-called social films, "Meet John Doe" (1941), which happened to be the first of his independent ventures. The story focused on a female reporter, disgruntled from being fired, who causes a public sensation after writing a fake suicide note from a John Doe claiming to kill himself by jumping off of city hall. But when the public wants to meet said John Doe, a fascistic tycoon (Edward Arnold) with presidential ambitions hires a former ballplayer-turned-homeless man (Gary Cooper) to play Doe, using him as a springboard to launch his political aspirations. Though the film turned a profit, Capra and producing partner Riskin were forced to dissolve their production company due to excessive taxes. Meanwhile, Capra joined the rest of Hollywood in waving the flag during World War II, reentering the service to devote his filmmaking talents to the American propaganda effort. With his new commission as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Capra directed a series of what he called his most important films for the U.S. War Department, including the "Why We Fight" series, which consisted of seven films like "The Nazis Strike" (1942) and the Oscar-winning "Prelude to War" (1942). After his service was completed, Capra left with the rank of colonel and received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.

Capra¿s only commercial film to appear during the war was "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), a farcical comedy about a pair of spinster sisters (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) who poison lonely bachelors to put them out of their lovelorn misery. Meanwhile, their newly married nephew (Cary Grant) goes to great pains keeping his family¿s secrets away from his blushing new bride (Priscilla Lane). Adapted from the Joseph Kesselring play in 1941, the film remained on the shelf for three years before being released to near-universal praise. Once back in civilian clothes, the director went to work on the perennial Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a picture that lost money at the box office during its initial release, but later became a yearly must-see yuletide movie. Capra considered it his greatest achievement, with time having borne him out as the sentimental tale continued to improve with age. For his examination of the human heart, he cast James Stewart as small-town Everyman George Bailey, whose ambitions to leave Bedford Falls and see the world have been thwarted by circumstances and his own giving heart. Having sacrificed his own education so his brother could have one, while protecting the town from his greedy banker boss, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George thinks his life is a failure, leading him to contemplate suicide by jumping off a bridge. But a bumbling angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) intercedes, showing him how much Bedford Falls and his family truly needs him. Shot under the auspices of his newly-formed Liberty Films, "It¿s a Wonderful Life" was full of Capra¿s contagious optimism and faith in the basic goodness of people, perfectly captured with Stewart¿s iconic return to his town after thinking himself dead, wishing everyone and everything a "Merry Christmas."

The box office failure of "It's a Wonderful Life" presaged the fate of his subsequent five features, none of which found much success. One of the best of these was his next picture ¿ and the last made for Liberty Films ¿ "State of the Union" (1948), a lighthearted comedy based on the hit Broadway play about an idealist industrialist (Spencer Tracy) sickened by political corruption who decides to run for president. After selling Liberty to Paramount, Capra entered the waning years of his career, directing the musical comedy "Riding High" (1950), starring Bing Crosby and Coleen Gray, and another musical romantic comedy "Here Comes the Groom" (1951), also starring Crosby and Jane Wyman, before stepping away from Holl

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Pocketful of Miracles (1961) Director
2.
  A Hole in the Head (1959) Director
3.
  Here Comes the Groom (1951) Director
4.
  Riding High (1950) Director
5.
  State of the Union (1948) Director
6.
  It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Director
7.
  Two Down and One To Go! (1945) Director
9.
  Tunisian Victory (1944) Director
10.
  Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1903:
Spent sixth birthday in steerage on the "Germania" en route from Italy to USA; moved with family to California; sold newspapers and played banjo in Los Angeles honky-tonks to pay for education
1918:
Enlisted in US Army as a private after college graduation; taught ballistics and mathematics to artillerymen at Fort Scott, San Francisco; demobilized with rank of second lieutentant
:
Hustled a living as a poker player and sold wildcat mining stocks
1922:
Became a book salesman, selling Elbert Hubbard's "Little Journeys" door-to-door
1922:
Short film directing debut, "The Ballad of Fultah Fisher's Boarding House/Fultah Fisher's Boarding House"; made in San Francisco for Shakespearean actor Walter Montague's new studio
:
Apprenticed at Walter Bell's small film lab where he printed, dried and spliced amateur films and dailies for Hollywood comedy director Bob Eddy
1923:
Worked as prop man, film editor and gagman for Bob Eddy
:
Co-wrote--but did not direct--numerous shorts and two features; joined Hal Roach studios as a gagman of "Our Gang" comedies; hired as gag writer by Mack Sennett for Harry Langdon comedies
1926:
Co-directed (uncredited) and co-wrote Harry Edwards' "Tramp Tramp Tramp", starring Langdon
1926:
Solo feature directing debut, "The Strong Man", starring Langdon
1927:
Co-scripted (with Arthur Ripley) Edwards' "His First Flame", starring Langdon
1927:
Last film with Langdon, "Long Pants"
1927:
Went to NYC where he directed Claudette Colbert in her film debut, "For the Love of Mike"
:
Briefly Returned to work for Sennett
1928:
Joined Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures as a director; contract called for relatively paltry sum of $1000 a picture but gave Capra complete control of his projects, the first being "That Certain Thing"; helmed eight more features that year with "Submarine" establishing him as a bankable director
1929:
First real talkie, "The Younger Generation"; "Submarine" had sound effects and snatches of dialogue
1930:
First collaboration with screenwriter Jo Swerling, "Ladies of Leisure"
1931:
First collaboration with screenwriter Robert Riskin, "Platinum Blonde"
1932:
Fifth and last collaboration for 14 years with Swerling, "Forbidden"
1933:
Earned first Academy Award nomination for Best Director for "Lady for a Day", adapted by Riskin from a Damon Runyan story
1934:
First blockbuster hit, "It Happened One Night"; became first fim to sweep the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Riskin), Best Actor (Clark Gable) and Best Actress (Colbert)
1936:
Weighed in with the first of his social comedies, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", winning second Best Director Academy Award
1938:
Earned third Best Director Oscar for film version of George S Kaufman and Moss Hart's stage hit, "You Can't Take It with You"; first of three films with actor James Stewart
1939:
Earned Oscar nomination as Best Director for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", with Stewart in the title role; last film for Columbia
1939:
Formed Frank Capra Productions with Riskin
:
Commissioned as a major in the US Army Signal Corps; produced all, and directed some, of the films in the "Why We Fight" and "Know Your Ally/Know Your Enemy" documentary series; discharged after WWII with rank of colonel
1945:
Formed Liberty Films with production head Samuel Briskin, William Wyler and George Stevens which made only one film, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946); Liberty Films sold to Paramount in 1948
1946:
Received last Academy Award nomination as Best Director for "It's a Wonderful Life", starring Stewart; Swerling contributed additional scenes
1950:
Directed "Riding High", a remake of his earlier "Broadway Bill" (1934), starring Bing Crosby
1951:
Reteamed with Crosby for "Here Comes the Groom"; 11th and last collaboration with Riskin
1952:
Retired to his ranch; worked with CalTech on Defense Department project studying psychological warfare; went to India as US State Department emissary to a film festival that the USA feared would be controlled by Communists; had security clearance delays due to content of "State of the Union" (1948)
:
Produced, directed and wrote four educational science documentaries for Bell Telephone: "Our Mr. Sun", "Hemo The Magnificent", "Strange Case of Cosmic Rays" and "Unchained Goddess"
1961:
Directed last feature "A Pocketful of Miracles", a remake of "Lady for a Day"
1964:
Shot last film, "Rendezvous in Space", a short made for the Martin-Marietta Corporation
1964:
Moved back onto the Columbia lot to begin pre-production on "Marooned"; blaming then-studio chief Mike Frankovich for forcing him to submit to what he considered unreasonable script approvals and budgets, left this pet film project and officially retired; picture eventually released in 1969 with John Sturges at the helm
1967:
Left Hollywood with his wife to settle in La Quinta, California
:
Suffered a series of minor strokes and was under 24-hour nursing care in the late 1980s
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Manual Arts High School: Los Angeles , California -
California Institute of Technology: Pasadena , California - 1918

Notes

Credited as Frank R. Capra on early films

"It Happened One Night" (1934) was the first film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. No other film won all five major awards until "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975.

"I always felt the world cannot fall apart as long as free men see the rainbow, feel the rain and hear the laugh of a child." --Frank Capra (From "The Name Above the Title")

Capra often attributed his conversion to "social comedy" to a visit from a "faceless little man" introduced to him during a period of illness by a Christian Scientist friend. The man, whose name he never learned, pointed out that he was able to "talk to hundreds of millions, for two hours--and in the dark. The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you these talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for his purpose." Inspired, the director set about conveying a message to the American people: "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other." --Frank Capra (quoted in "World Film Directors", Volume One)

About "It's a Wonderful Life": "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people." --Frank Capra

"I respect films, because I know what goes into them. Nobody starts out to make a bad film. I take my hat off to anyone who can complete a picture. They can't all be successes, because we're dealing with an art form, and there are no formulas. Mathematics and art don't speak the same language.

"The best pictures are yet to be made." --Frank Capra, on "The Merv Griffin Show", August 14, 1973 (From "The Complete Films of Frank Capra" by Victor Scherle and William Turner Levy. Citadel Press: 1992)

"Frank Capra made old-fashioned American values and crying in the movies a national pastime. He celebrated the noblest impulses of woman and man, showed all of us our dark side and then pointed a flashlight at the way out." --Steven Spielberg quoted in USA Today, September 4, 1991.

"Capra innovations included accelerated, faster-than-life pacing with overlapping dialogue; unaffected, conversational speech; removal of men's makeup, and the tape recording of previews to gauge audience reactions that might necessitate revisions.

Noted for getting actors to perform at the top of their talent, Mr. Capra made stars of Harry Langdon, Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck." --From The New York Times obituary by Peter B Flint, September 4, 1991.

Received Distinguished Service Medal from the US Army Forces in 1945

Awarded France's Legion of Merit Honor and the Order of the British Empire

In 1952, Capra was named US delegate of the International Film Festival in Bombay

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Helen Howell. Actor. Married in 1924; divorced in 1928.
companion:
Barbara Stanwyck. Actor. Acted in five of Capra's films, beginning with "Ladies of Leisure" (1930) and ending with "Meet John Doe" (1941); had relationship in the early 1930s while she was still married to Frank Fay; Capra wanted to marry her but she refused him.
wife:
Lucille Florence Reyburn. Married engineer Francis Clarke Reyburn in 1928; widowed c. 1929; married Capra in 1932; had four children together; born on April 23, 1903; died on July 1, 1984; claimed to be a descendent of Horatio, Lord Nelson and Sir Thomas More.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Salvatore Capra. Fruit grower, fruit picker. Born in 1852; died in 1919; married Ignazia Catanese in 1878; died six months later; married second wife (Capra's mother) on August 8, 1879.
mother:
Rosaria Capra. Married Salvatore Capra on August 8, 1879.
brother:
Benedetto Capra. Born c. 1885; immigrated to USA in 1900.
sister:
Luigia Capra. Older; moved to USA with her husband c. 1906.
sister:
Ignazia Capra. Older; married; lived in Sicily.
sister:
Guiseppa Capra. Born c. 1889.
brother:
Antonino Capra. Born c. 1891.
sister:
Antonia Capra. Younger; born c. 1900.
son:
Frank Warner Capra. Producer, executive. Born c. 1933 received associate producer credit for John Sturges' "Marooned" (1969), a project his father had abandoned due to studio interference.
son:
John Capra. Born on April 12, 1935; died on August 23, 1938 after what was to be a routine tonsillectomy.
daughter:
Lucille Capra. Born on September 16, 1937.
son:
Thomas Capra. News director, TV producer. Born on February 12, 1941; executive producer of NBC's "Today" Show, beginning in 1990.
grandson:
Frank Capra III. Producer, director.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title" Macmillan
"Frank Capra"
"Frank Capra: One Man--One Film"
"The Films of Frank Capra"
"Frank Capra: The Catastrope of Success" Simon & Schuster
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Please support TCMDB by adding to this information.

Click here to contribute