FRANK CAPRA AND THE AMERICAN DREAM An Analysis on Specific by MikeJenny


            By M. Elizabeth Pryor

    An Analysis on a Specific Individual

              October 28, 2005

                           Picture of Frank Capra from Reel Classics

       One cannot think of the Christmas season without George Bailey’s famous

declaration, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” This line, this

movie, and its lesson was co-written, directed, and financed by the legendary Frank

Capra. His distinct portrayal of the plight of the everyday man searching for the

“American Dream” endeared him to film audiences everywhere. Capra wrote from his

heart and his soul, both of which were forged by his childhood and reflected in his

distinctive style of cinematography.

       Frank Rosario Capra’s story begins at his birth on May 18, 1897 back in

Bisacquino, Sicily. On May 10, 1903, Capra and his parents packed their bags and set out

for America. The voyage was long and unpleasant; Capra later described the crossing in

Joseph McBride’s (2000) Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, “There's no

ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They're all miserable. It's the most degrading place you

could ever be. Oh, it was awful, awful. It seems to always be storming, raining like hell

and very windy, with these big long rolling Atlantic waves. Everybody was sick,

vomiting. God, they were sick. And the poor kids were always crying.”

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       Once they finally reached the United States, they began their journey out west to

California. They lived on bread and bananas for most of the journey since they lacked

sufficient English to ask for other food (“Early”, 2000). Once in California, they stayed

with Capra’s older brother Benjamin, who had made the voyage a few years before the

rest of the family. Capra began school on September 14, 1903, at the Castelar Elementary

School. He held many odd-jobs as a child, from a paper boy to a janitor to a member of a

performance group. It was while he attended the Manual Arts High School that Capra

became interested in theater, in particular with the backstage work such as lighting

(“Biography”, 1990).

       Although Capra was excelling in school, he was heavily pressured to drop out and

get a job. But Capra, with wisdom beyond his years, realized that to fully partake of the

American dream he would need a good education (“Early”, 2000). On January 27, 1915,

Capra graduated from high school and entered the Throop College of Technology, which

later became the California Institute of Technology, to study chemical engineering. While

there, Capra earned the highest grades in his class and won a $250 prize and a six week

trip across the United States and Canada (“Biography”, 1990). It was also through

Caltech that Capra discovered poetry. The beauty of Montaigne’s essays affected Capra

so much as to make him want to be a writer; "It was a great discovery for me. I

discovered language. I discovered poetry. I discovered poetry at Caltech, can you

imagine that? That was a big turning point in my life. I didn't know anything could be so

beautiful (McBride, 2000).” The discovery prompted Capra to pen the short story “The

Butler’s Failure”, his first work dealing with suicidal thoughts, and how life

circumstances can cause humans to commit actions they would not otherwise.

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       Despite the death of his father in 1916, Capra’s life was following a strong path.

His academics challenged and enthralled him, and he was a very popular student. Then

on April 6, 1917, President Wilson declared war on Germany, and Capra answered the

call of his civic duty by enlisting. Much to his chagrin, he found out while trying to enlist

that he was not an American citizen and promptly began the process of naturalizing

(“Early”, 2000). During this process, he graduated with a degree in Chemical

Engineering on September 1, 1918. After graduation, Capra was made a private in the

U.S. Army, and was shipped off to the Presidio in San Francisco on October 18, 1918.

While there, he fell ill to the Spanish influenza and was discharged on December 13th

(“Biography”, 1990).

       Being a civilian once again, he moved in with his brother Ben to recuperate. That

fateful decision changed his life, for while he was recuperating he answered an open

casting call for extras in John Ford’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat. He received the job as a

laborer, and immediately introduced himself to the film’s star, Harry Carey. The two

became friends, and Capra would later cast Carey in his film Mr. Smith Goes to

Washington (“Early”, 2000). Following this experience, Capra caught the Hollywood

bug. He took many odd-jobs, including a ditch digger and a tutor, to provide for himself

and his newfound love. It was during this time that he also tried his hand at short-story

writing, but he did not find success.

       Between March and August of 1920, Capra worked as an editor and director for

the CBC Film Sales Company, which later became Columbia Pictures, on a series called

Screen Snapshots. For the next few years, Capra bounced between several jobs, however

he did became acquainted with comedian Harry Langdon. Capra also met Helen Howell,

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and they married on November 25, 1923 (“Biography”, 1990). Although he continued to

bounce between jobs, he became steadily involved with various Langdon productions,

and eventually worked his way up to director. He splashed onto the movie scene with his

successful directorial debut, The Strong Man, in 1926. At this time Capra’s professional

career began to rise, but his personal life took a nosedive. In 1926 doctors discovered his

wife’s pregnancy was a life-threatening, ectopic pregnancy. The subsequent ending of the

pregnancy tore their marriage apart because Capra turned to his work to cope, while

Helen turned to alcohol. They split in April of 1927 (“Biography”, 1990).

       In October of 1927 it seemed as though his luck was about to change because he

was hired by Henry Cohn, the President and Production Chief at Columbia Pictures. This

position catapulted Capra into being the number one director in Hollywood in the 1930s

(“Early”, 2000). Not only did he turn out fabulous films, but he also revolutionized the

way movies were shot. His technique involved shooting the same scenes three days

consecutively; where on the first day he would shoot them all in long shot. Then on the

second day he would shoot them in medium shot, and the third day was spent on close

ups. Since cameras did not have to be moved forward and backward during production,

two to three days of filming were saved (“Biography”, 1990).

       His first sound film was The Younger Generation which was released in 1929.

During that summer, Capra was introduced to a young widow by the name of Lucille

Warner Reyburn, who would become his second wife whom he lovingly referred to as

“Lu” (“Biography”, 1990). Capra was also introduced to a transplanted stage actress by

the name of Barbara Stanwyck. He was so impressed with a testing she did at Columbia

that he gave her the lead in his next film Ladies of Leisure. Capra developed his mature

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directorial style while working with Stanwyck on this film. Their collaboration here

sparked both of their careers, albeit in different directions (“Biography”, 1990).

       In 1932 Capra directed his first film that dealt with modern social conditions and

paradigms called American Madness. The film shared a lot of the same plot points and

undertones as It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance the ability of an individual to make a

difference. However, the most important thing to come out of this film was the further

maturing of Capra’s directorial style (“Biography”, 1990). It was here Capra realized the

pacing of a film had a psychological on the effect of the audience. To try and alleviate

what he saw as a problem, Capra decided to boost the film’s pace: he did away with

characters’ entrances, exits, and the dissolves between scenes. Capra also deliberately

overlapped dialogue. These simple changes dramatically affected the pace of the film,

and gave it a more natural feel and flow (“Biography”, 1990). It also served the purpose

of keeping the audience “riveted to the screen”, as later described by Capra.

       In 1933, Capra received his first Best Director nomination with his film Lady for

a Day. This film was also the first Best Picture nomination for a Columbia Pictures film

(“Biography”, 1990). He also began filming The Bitter Tea of General Yen in 1933,

which reunited Capra with leading lady Barbara Stanwyck. With this film, Capra set out

to make a film that would win an Academy Award. Although the film lost out to Frank

Lloyd’s Calvacade, this is the first Capra film to be considered a classic. This was also

the first film to reintroduce suicide as a theme in a Capra film.

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 Original Movie Posters of It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town from Reel Classics

       In 1934 Capra won his first Best Director Oscar for It Happened One Night,

starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The film was also the first to win the Oscar

“Grand Slam” of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Screenplay

(“Biography”, 1990). Then in 1935 he became President of the Academy. As president,

he removed the Academy from the labor relations area during a time where labor strikes

and the creation of talent guilds threatened to destroy it. By the 1937 ceremony, Capra

had democratized the nomination process, which in turn removed studio politics from the

ceremony. He also opened the cinematography award to foreign films, and created two

new acting awards for supporting performances as a means to win back the allegiance of

the Screen Actors Guild. With these changes he single-handedly saved the Academy of

Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Also during this time he won his second Best Director

Oscar for his film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra had one last surprise up his sleeve,

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and at the end of the ceremony announced the creation of the Irving G. Thalberg

Memorial Award that would honor, “the most consistent high level of production

achievement by an individual producer (“Biography”, 1990).” It was ironic because

Capra himself was destined to never win this award. By 1938, all strife between the

Academy and the various guilds was long gone and in 1940 Capra presided over his last

awards ceremony.

       The United States went to war in 1941, and again Capra returned to the Army.

This time though, he was a propagandist. His award winning Why We Fight series is

considered, to this day, to be the best pieces of propaganda made during the war, and they

were lauded for their craftsmanship. His film “The Negro Soldier” is considered to be a

milestone in race relations during that time. Faced with the task of convincing an

isolationist nation to enter the war, desegregate the troops, and ally with the Russians,

Capra used his childhood experiences in America to convey the pride and honor of being

an American citizen (Morris, 1998).

    Original Movie Posters of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life from Reel

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       After the war, in 1946, came the release of his most famous film, It’s a Wonderful

Life. Oddly enough though, the movie flopped and did not break even during its initial

theatrical release. The film earned Capra his sixth Best Director nomination, yet did not

win the Oscar. It was not until the rights to the film expired in 1973 and the movie began

to appear in syndication around the Christmas season that the movie found its loyal and

devoted fan base (“Biography”, 1990). Today this film is a perennial season favorite.

Capra directed ten movies after Life, but none matched the success and popularity he

previously achieved. Frank Capra died on September 3, 1991 from a heart attack in his

sleep at the age of 94. His body is interred at the Coachella Valley Cemetery, in

Coachella, California (“Biography”, 1990).

       While Capra had a lengthy and distinguished career, his personal demons held

him back from achieving true greatness. It was during periods where Capra received

constant praise that he seemed to suffer the most; after his Academy Award win for It

Happened One Night his breakdown was so severe as to require a lengthy hospitalization

(Morris, 1998). Capra felt guilty for all of his financial and commercial success while he

felt the rest of society was suffering. During World War II his demons were kept at bay

by his feelings of gratitude toward America for all she had provided.

       Capra grew up and lived his life on the West Coast. This geological fact played an

important role in how he viewed the “Eastern intellectual establishment”. He was

skeptical of their beliefs and ways of life because he equated them more with traditional

European thoughts than those of true Americans. He feared the way their thinking would

affect the country during the country’s darkest hours (Levine, 1999). However, it was his

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optimism that gave his films made during the Depression a sense of “dynamic vigor” and

that lead to the development of his large and eager fan base.

          Frank Capra’s life was a great influence on his cinematic style. For one, Capra is

known for the way that he portrayed the heart and soul of small-town America. However,

after looking at an abridged biography, it is clear he never experienced the “small-town

America” way of life personally. Capra also strongly believed in the ability of one person

to make a difference in the lives of others, and he carried this belief as a cinematic theme

throughout his films. Capra once proclaimed, “The individual is divine, he's worthy, he's

unique and he's the most important thing there is (Levine, 1999).” His films identified

with the individuals in his audience like no other director’s films could. In Capra’s

famous crowd scenes he was able to affectively portray the crowd as a large entity made

up of unique and distinct individuals. In Capra’s mind, there were no “bit” parts, no “bit”


          This idea of solidarity is one Capra continued in the film making process, his

motto was, “One man, one film.” When questioned about his idiosyncrasy he replied, “I

believed one man should make the film, and I believed the director should be that man, I

just couldn’t accept art as a committee, I can only accept art as an extension of the

individual (Levine, 1999).”

          Capra’s cinematic style not only focused on the individual and the values of

small-town America, but he also focused on the primary means of communication: the

spoken word. The tough, urban, cynical characters are the antithesis of the hero, in both

values and approach, and they communicate via the written word. In most of Capra’s

movies, it is what the hero says, or more specifically the lack thereof, which makes the

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difference. In three of his films, the hero’s muteness is what represents the hero’s ordeal

(Levine, 1999).    Examples of this include: how Longfellow Deeds is so sad and

depressed that he is unable to speak on his own behalf at his sanity trial, as in Mr. Deeds

Goes to Town, and how John Doe attempts to speak to his constituents through a dead

microphone, as in Meet John Doe.

                   Original Movie Poster of Meet John Doe from Reel Classics

       Another aspect of Capra’s cinematic style is theological in nature. In each of

Capra’s films, there is a moment that bears a remarkable resemblance to a “crucifixion

scene”, where the hero comes to the realization his personal ideals no longer work in

modern society. In that moment, it appears the hero is willing to forfeit his own life under

the pretense of accepting fate. This symbolism is most prevalent in Meet John Doe; the

hero plans on throwing himself off of City Hall on Christmas Eve and the newspaper

editor comments, “Well boys you can chalk up another one to the Pontious Pilates

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(Levine, 1999).” Another strong biblical reference can be seen in Mr. Deeds Goes to

Town when Longfellow Deeds informs the audience of his parents’ names: Joseph and

Mary. But through all of Capra’s films, he does not allow the hero to actually go through

with the crucifixion. This observation has been noted by Dwight McDonald as he tied

this symbolism back to Capra’s central theme of American values when he said, “There

is something very American in the idea of an uncrucified Christ (Levine 1999).”

       Frank Rosario Capra enormously influenced American cinema; the term

Capraesque was created to describe his “feel good” films (“Biography”, 1990). On the

surface they may have seemed so simple in nature with a hero fighting against the

“monster”, but they were actually so much more complex than that. They dealt with

serious issues, such as suicide. They put the values, ideals, hopes, and dreams of small-

town America front and center by playing them out on the big screen. His films pulled at

the heartstrings of Americans and emanated the American spirit onto the world. He

defined an era in filmmaking, as well as in history, and his impact on the industry can

still be seen today in how the awards ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts

and Sciences. Frank Capra’s legacy is also carried on by his sons Tom and Frank Junior,

and by his daughter Lulu.

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“Biography for Frank Capra”. (1990). Retrieved October 2, 2005, from

”Early Life of Frank Capra”. (2000). Retrieved October 2, 2005, from

“Frank Capra”. (1997). Retrieved October 2, 2005, from

Levine, L. (1999). Frank Capra’s America. The Journal for MultiMedia History. Volume

       2. Retrieved October 2, 2004, from

McBride, J. (2000). Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: St. Martin’s


Morris, G. (1998). Frank Capra’s American dream. Bright Lights Film Journal. Issue 23.

       Retrieved October 2, 2005, from

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