Frank Capra – Espousing the Average Joe
“His genius has been applied not only to the art but to the business of making great motion pictures. This he has accomplished without compromising his own exact sense of the good, the beautiful and the appropriate; without ever losing a friend or having a scene censored. A series of his hits, which were to become widely recognised screen classics made Columbia a major studio. He has earned more awards than he would bother to count. He has not only achieved a place of distinction, in that select company of really fine directors, he also heads the list as the greatest motion picture director in the world,” thus wrote John Ford about Frank Capra. When a film director makes, during a lustre coated career of half a century, thirty-eight films out of which only two were failures with many making screen history, one need not waste powder and shot to prove that such a person is a great film-maker.
His art and genius helped to lift Columbia Pictures from the degrading depths of Poverty Row to the heights of Hollywood hills. Frankly, Capra was Columbia and truly an all time great of the celluloid camera and cut world.
Frank Capra was born in Sicily on May 18, 1897, his peasant family migrated to the USA in 1903. Settling down in sunny California, the family sent Frank, the only in one in a family of six children to school, even though this luxury was forbidden. A bright-eyed bambino, Capra worked his way through college, by selling newspapers and working as a janitor, to qualify as a first-class chemical engineer in 1918 and at age 21, stood at the crossroads of life in the land of opportunity.
He quit his first job teaching ballistic mathematics to artillery officers at an army college in San Francisco to drift for three long years leading the life of a bum playing guitars, hopping freight cars and selling photos door-to-door. This here-today-and-there tomorrow nomadic life enabled him to know all about people their likes and dislikes, fads and foibles, pet phobias and perversions. Such wealth of experience of life in the raw was to stand him in good stead later when he made all those films and it is not surprising that most of his films are all about the common man – the John Doe – and his relationship with society.
Attracted by an ad in a newspaper, he strolled into the office of Walter Montague, a vaudeville man trying his hand at producing movies. With his breezy air, feigned facet of superiority, wise cracking tough talk and native wit, Capra conned his way to land the job of directing a one-reel feature film for Montague – ‘The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House’ (1922) based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Having never been inside a movie studio or be able to distinguish between a close-up and call-sheet, he only had his intelligence and commonsense as backups. With beginner’s luck favoring him, the film about fierce eyed sailors and foul-speaking floozies of the Calcutta waterfront was a hit and it gave him a cue for his future: movies would be his lifetime occupation.
He decided to accumulate the skill and knowledge – working in a film lab for two years learning the fundamentals of film technology; how to cut a scene and how to put meaningless bits of film into a cohesive whole. Joining Mack Sennet, the high-priest of humor and the creator of the zany Keystone Kops, Capra wrote impressive gags for a while till he was called in to direct his first film ‘The Strong Man’ (1926) featuring Chaplin’s competitor, Harry Langdon.
Hitting the bull’s-eye, he did ‘Long Pants’ (1927) before moving to New York to make ‘For the Love of Mike’ (1927). A miserable flop, it was also Claudette Colbert’s début. The balloon burst and Capra found himself holding bits of rubber. Eating humble pie as there were no takers for his directorial wares, he scurried back to Hollywood to pick up his gag writer gig. His crushed world had turned a full circle so fast.
Tough as they come who chewed nuts, bolts and humans for breakfast, Harry Cohn, co-founder of Columbia Pictures and his studio were at that time, scraping the bottom of the barrel by creaky B grade movies. While scanning an alphabetical list looking around for unemployed directors to work for peanuts, Capra’s name came first and he came to Columbia to create celluloid custard and cream pies for Cohn, launching a brave rare new era for Columbia. Cohn and Capra made screen history. ‘That Certain Thing’, ‘So This Is Love’, ‘The Matinee Idol’ (all 1928) were some of his early films. While they made money, they did not set the Golden Gate Bridge on fire. He pulled Columbia out of the red but for Capra, the true blue creative filmmakers’ goal was to get those Oscars – the Holy Grail, as he called them. He wished to make films that would stand the test of time.
While waiting at a barber shop, Capra chanced to read a short story, ‘Night Bus’, written by Samuel Hopkins Adams in the Cosmopolitan magazine. It was about a bored with life rich heiress, who runs away and meets a tough, no-nonsense reporter who finally tames her impressed Capra. Cohn and his front office cronies were not unduly impressed. “Oh, no, not one more bus movie,” they groaned. Casting became a problem. The script went round from star to star but there were no takers but Capra kept his nose pressed against the grindstone. He eventually persuaded Claudette Colbert to play the spoiled girl and Clark Gable to act the reporter. Wide awake and working round the clock, his lips glued to the megaphone and eyes everywhere on sets and in cutting rooms, Capra completed the film in just four weeks! Most scenes were shot on real locations like buses, roads, coffee shops, motels and the like. ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934) became sensation of the year and swept away five Oscar Awards – Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Writer and Director. Capra has arrived.
Always down to earth, Capra cared for the common man, honest and free from isms and feigned superiority. Capra believed that an honest man carved his own aura, crown of happiness and social standing in the noblest of all titles – ‘an honest man’. His next film, espoused this belief. ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’ (1936) had the brilliant Gary Cooper playing the lead Jean Arthur, then comparatively un known did the role of a city reporter who finds the small-fry Cinderfella amusing, and later falls in love.
A social-minded film, it fetched Capra his second Oscar in 1936 and words like ‘canoodling’ and ‘pixilated’ used for the first time, moved into the English dictionary.
Delving into the sugar-sweet waters of literature, James Hilton’s successful novel ‘Lost Horizon’ (1937) about Shangri-La – an inaccessible, snow bound Tibetan monastery was adapted by his long time collaborator Robert Riskin.
Portions of the film were shot in a Los Angeles cold storage warehouse since it was too expensive for location. A thirty-eight year old man played the 200-year old Lama and to pick up his whispers, wide-open mikes were used. As those sensitive mikes picked up gurgles in near-by stomachs, the smart director ruled out carbonated drinks for all persons on sets during shooting hours!
Finishing against tight schedules, the reaction at the sneak projection was totally adverse, Laughs at wrong places and pregnant silences elsewhere, Capra’s horizon suddenly caved in on him and he was lost in the debris. In a flash of inspiration he deleted the first two reels and it hit the jackpot!
Many thought the Cohn-Capra team had gone crazy when they paid $200,000 for the Hart-Kaufman Broadway play ‘You can’t take it With You’ (1938). A laugh riot, the play had a ‘love thy neighbor’ theme and was about a happy-go-lucky family of rebels and others who join them, living in perfect harmony to doing things they had always wanted to do.
James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur playing key roles gave memorable performances as Capra proved his mastery in handling clean, social comedy. Completing a hat trick, this got Capra his third Oscar.
A two-page synopsis of an out of print book caught Capra’s attention. A satire about Senate politics against the Washington backdrop it had great social significance and the Simple Simon, pure small town guy fighting against odds and corruption in high places seemed to cry out for Capra! He went to Washington to observe and get the feel of the Senate and city. James Stewart seemed the ideal choice to play the young wet-behind-the-ears-senator hero. Using multiple camera technique and new method of shooting close-ups, Capra gave the film his Midas touch and ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939) got a rousing welcome but Capra was not welcome in Washington after that.
Venturing on his own after his contract with Columbia ended in 1939, he and Riskin co-founded Frank Capra Productons and ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941) was the first movie under the new banner. It was the tale of a lean, hungry hobo who is used, to defraud people by unscrupulous society men.
While doing the script, Capra was stumped because he could not find a proper ending so he worked out five endings and shot all the five! And it was released in USA with four different endings and later after two weeks run, all prints were recalled and the fifth ending was spliced. Gary Cooper played the hobo and it is considered a brilliant literary milestone of the screen.
When Capra returned to bat after serving in the Second World War (where he made documentaries), he found Hollywood had changed, the stars dominated and the poor director had become a mere cog in the giant wheel, not the atmosphere for a freedom-loving, film auteur like Capra.
A Christmas card sent to a friend by a writer caught Capra’s fancy. In the Yuletide message, there was a story. A small town man helps others and never thinks of himself. Life passes him and he has had nothing for himself. He wishes he were never born. An angel grants his wish, He sees the without himself, world through the eyes of the angel and changes his mind for he feels the world needs him, This simple tale was moulded into the perennial favorite ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946) starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. To a world weary of a war, the film about the goodness of man came as manna with Life magazine calling the film “a masterful edifice of comedy and sentiment.”
After films like ‘Riding High’ (’50) ‘Here Comes the Groom’ (’51), ‘Hole in the Head’ (’59) and ‘Pocket full of Miracles’ (’61), Capra bid adieu as he saw his most cherished passion, cinema, being squeezed to death. No swearing stars, no sweat-pouring script conferences, no yelling on sets, nothing, only peace and quiet – free to do what he liked.
Capra’s films are drenched with a rare sense of humor, a shrewd use of topical events and a deep sense of respect and gratitude for American sense of values. “I like to break the rules. To my mind plot is unimportant, I am interested most in characterizations,” Capra said about his credo. A fine craftsman, he was more interested in what he said than how he said it; content more than form, substance more than show. That’s why Capra’s films will live forever which is more than he ever asked for.
Capra died on 03 September 1991, aged 94.