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Frank Capra, byname of Francesco Rosario Capra, (born May 18, 1897, near Palermo, Sicily, Italy—died September 3, 1991, La Quinta, California, U.S.), American motion-picture director who was the most prominent filmmaker of the 1930s, during which he won three Academy Awards as best director. His most-beloved films, many of which were made during the Great Depression, were patriotic sentimental celebrations of virtuous everymen who selflessly speak truth to power in pursuit of the common good.
Early life and work
Capra’s family immigrated to Los Angeles from Bisacquino, a Sicilian village, when he was six. After graduating in 1918 from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in chemical engineering, Capra received a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commission and spent the last year of World War I teaching mathematics in the U.S. Army. For the next two years he traveled, doing odd jobs and working as a book salesman. Despite lacking any filmmaking experience, in 1922 he persuaded a San Francisco stage actor who wanted to make a movie based on poetry to hire him to direct the one-reel film, The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House. Capra then took a job with a San Francisco film studio and began learning about filmmaking from the ground up, working as film cutter, camera assistant, property man, writer, and assistant director. A stint as a gag writer for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” film comedy series followed in 1924. Moving on to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company, Capra directed Harry Langdon in some of the silent comedian’s most successful films—including The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927)—but when the two had a falling-out, Capra was fired.
In 1928, after directing Claudette Colbert in her unremarkable debut for the studio First National, For the Love of Mike (1927), Capra began his long association with Columbia Pictures and its head, Harry Cohn, as well as with cinematographer Joseph Walker. One of the so-called Poverty Row studios, Columbia lacked the financial wherewithal, big-name contract actors, and prestige of major studios such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, and Warner Brothers. During his first year at Columbia, Capra directed seven silent features, mostly on B-film budgets: the melodrama That Certain Thing; So This Is Love?, a boxing-themed comedy; The Matinee Idol, a romantic comedy whose tension between big-city and small-town values anticipated some of Capra’s signature later works; The Way of the Strong, a crime melodrama; Say It with Sables, a melodrama that starred Francis X. Bushman; Submarine, a big-budget (for Columbia) action film; and The Power of the Press, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as a justice-seeking reporter.
As the studio moved into the sound era, Capra became Cohn’s most trusted director. The Younger Generation (1929) was a part-sound drama about a man who leaves his family on New York’s Lower East Side to seek the good life on Park Avenue. Capra’s first all-talkie was the comedic murder mystery The Donovan Affair (1929). Flight (also released in 1929) was notable for Capra’s insistence on staging and filming all of its aerial action without tricks or special effects.
The early 1930s
Ladies of Leisure (1930) was the first of Capra’s films to star Barbara Stanwyck. In it she played a gold digger reformed by her love for a sensitive painter. When Capra adapted the 1928 Broadway hit Rain or Shine for film in 1930, he retained comedian Joe Cook in the role of the saviour of a circus, but he dropped the stage show’s music. Capra’s next film was the ambitious Dirigible (1931), an expensive aerial adventure set at the South Pole. Stanwyck then starred again in The Miracle Woman (1931), a thinly disguised meditation on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
Playwright Robert Riskin, who would become Capra’s most essential collaborator, was one of the writers of Platinum Blonde (1931). Jean Harlow and Loretta Young starred in this comedy of manners, which owed much to Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931) and foreshadowed the romances between female journalists and regular guys that would be at the centre the later Capra-Riskin efforts Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe. Forbidden (1932) found Stanwyck again a victim of cruel fate; this time, as a woman in love with a married man, she is forced to become a murderer. In American Madness (1932) a compassionate bank president (played by Walter Huston) tries to stem the tide of Depression-panicked customers making a run on his beleaguered institution. Written by Riskin, the story would be recycled more than a decade later by Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life. Its “little people versus heartless big business” theme would become a hallmark of Capra’s best-known works.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) was Capra’s most erotic work. Stanwyck starred as a missionary in civil-war-torn Shanghai; she becomes the unwilling guest of a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), who falls hopelessly in love with her. Joseph Walker’s lush, intoxicating cinematography in Bitter Tea was atypical for a Capra film, recalling instead the work of director Josef von Sternberg.
Whereas Bitter Tea was not a commercial success, Capra’s next film, the sentimental Lady for a Day (1933), was. Capra both produced and directed Riskin’s adaptation of Damon Runyon’s short story “Madame La Gimp.” It concerned a decrepit peddler, Apple Annie (May Robson), who enlists a sympathetic gangster (Warren William) to transform her into a society matron so that her estranged daughter (Jean Parker) will not be embarrassed by her lowly station when she visits from Europe with her fiancé and prospective in-laws. A charming comedy with a touching payoff, Lady for a Day was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. Capra, who was also nominated as best director, would refashion the material less successfully in 1961 as Pocketful of Miracles.