From the Archives: Frank Capra Dies; Directed ‘Wonderful Life’
Frank Capra, the multiple Academy Award winner whose everyman heroes symbolized the American spirit triumphing over mercenary or venal big business and big government, died Tuesday at his desert retirement home. He was 94.
Capra, a widower, died in his sleep at 9:30 a.m. at his condominium in La Quinta near Palm Springs, according to his son Tom Capra, executive producer of NBC’s “Today Show.”
The famous director, who won a life achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1982, suffered a series of minor strokes several years ago and had been under 24-hour nursing care.
Capra “died peacefully in his sleep. He was where he wanted to be—at home in La Quinta,” Tom Capra said.
Survivors include another son, Frank Jr. of Malibu, a daughter, Lucille of Findlay, Ohio, and 10 grandchildren.
Capra retired from movies in 1961 and his name was almost unknown to a generation of audiences.
But many of his films—including his Academy Award winners, “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “You Can’t Take It With You”—retained their standing as classics, often being shown on television. Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” profoundly influenced Steven Spielberg and other current filmmakers.
His films of the 1930s—such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Lady for a Day,” “Broadway Bill” and “Lost Horizon”—offered hope to America during the Depression.
“You have recognized and helped us recognize all that is wonderful about the American character,” then-President Ronald Reagan said when Capra won the American Film Institute’s prestigious award almost a decade ago.
In accepting the award, Capra said, “The art of Frank Capra is very simple: It is the love of people.”
On Tuesday, the former President said:
“Frank Capra’s films stirred the moral and political conscience of American moviegoers, and his movies will forever be revered as American classics.”
Tom Capra said Tuesday that his favorite quotation from his father’s 1982 acceptance speech was about bravery: “Don’t follow trends. Start trends. Don’t compromise. Believe in yourself because only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films, and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours and in the dark.”
James Stewart, whose role as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was one of the most memorable in his long career, issued the following statement through his publicist: “Frank Capra will always have a very special place in my heart. I think this is true for the motion picture industry and true for the millions of people who saw his pictures.”
Cartoonist Walter Lantz, whose friendship with Capra dated to 1927, when both men worked for Mack Sennett, said: “We used to kid each other about who would be the pallbearer at the other’s funeral. I guess I’m elected.”
Peter Falk, who received an Oscar nomination for his role as a bumbling hood in Capra’s last film, “Pocketful of Miracles,” said the director “represented a spirit that was part of this country that has vanished or gone out of style.
“He was a populist,” Falk said. “He really felt that people were essentially decent if you provided the proper environment.
“I probably share this with about 80 million other Americans when I say his pictures were an indelible part of growing up in America,” Falk said.
“Aside from his talent as a director, he was a most understanding and kind man,” said Frank Sinatra, who starred in Capra’s 1959 film, “A Hole in the Head,” and was a neighbor.
Angela Lansbury, who co-starred with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1948 film “State of the Union,” credited Capra with giving her her first big break in Hollywood.
“He was a loving, compassionate, funny man,” she said.
George Stevens Jr., a filmmaker and founder of the American Film Institute, literally grew up around Capra. His father, Capra’s partner, used to tell a story about Capra’s wartime demeanor, which Stevens said epitomized his “self-confidence bordering on cockiness.”
“Frank showed up at the Pentagon in his major’s uniform and he walked into a room full of generals and colonels, wearing their uniforms and medals,” Stevens said. “He said, ‘Fellas, we gonna talk about motion pictures?’ One of them said yes. So Frank said, ‘Then I sit at the head of the table.’ ”
Sheldon Leonard, who played Nick the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” called Capra the master of sentimental storytelling.
“Frank was the most skillful user of sentiment I’ve ever known in terms of entertainment,” Leonard said. “He used it the way a great chef uses garlic. “
In a Frank Capra picture, the good guy always won.
“And that, by God, is how it ought to be,” Capra said in a 1960 interview. “Movies should be a positive expression that there is hope, love, mercy, justice and charity.
“A filmmaker has the unrestricted privilege of haranguing an audience for two-hour stretches—the chance to influence public thinking for good or for evil.
“It is, therefore, his responsibility to emphasize the positive qualities of humanity by showing the triumph of the individual over adversities.”
And this became the theme of his own life and career.
Born May 18, 1897, in Palermo, Sicily, Capra was named for his grandfather, who designed and built churches. He was the youngest of seven children and when he was 6, the family moved to California.
“I did the usual stuff—sold newspapers, picked fruit—that Southern California kids did to help out if their folks weren’t rich,” he said. “But don’t get the idea we were starving poor, either. We got along OK and I didn’t really go to work in earnest until I got out of high school.”
That was Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, and Capra graduated before his 16th birthday—which was a year too early, he discovered, to go to the college he had chosen.
“Caltech,” he said. “The California Institute of Technology, only in those days they called it Throop Polytechnic Institute. I wanted to be a chemical engineer and that seemed like the best place. But they had some rule about not taking anyone as young as me.
“So, hell, I got a job for a year, saved up some money and went right on working when they finally let me in.”
At Throop, Capra worked nights as a waiter, managed the student laundry and wiped engines at the Pasadena power plant while taking a full schedule of classes, editing the undergraduate newspaper and serving—in his senior year—as captain of the ROTC unit.
He also won a scholarship that entitled him to travel as part of his studies, and he undertook chemical research on an incendiary bomb that won a commendation from the National Research Council.
“When I graduated,” he said, “I thought it was clear sailing. Only, I guess I picked the wrong year. It was 1918 . . . and I had a reserve commission in the Army.”
Capra had dreams of getting overseas, but found himself assigned to the artillery school at Ft. Scott as a math teacher.
“And when the war was over and I got loose,” he said, “I found that the market for chemical engineers was at an all-time low. I was a complete flop at getting a regular job.”
So for the next two years, he wandered through what would one day be called the “Joad country” of California, pruning fruit trees, crawling through pipes to inspect rivets and selling the works of Elbert Hubbard, an author and publisher, from door to door.
And then he got into movies—as a director.
“I was in San Francisco,” he said, “and I heard about an actor named Walter Montague who wanted to make movies. I looked him up, told him I was from Los Angeles (I never really said I had film experience; I just let him assume that) and he hired me to make a dramatization of a poem, Kipling’s ‘Fultah Fisher’s Boardinghouse.’
“Montague gave me $1,700 as a budget, so I hired a cameraman I knew and we refused to hire professional actors, saying such a practice was ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘wrong for movies’ because we didn’t want anyone around who might spot the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing.
“Funny thing: the critics saw the film and praised it, noting that it was free from ‘stunts’ and ‘mannerisms’ and ‘trick camera angles.’ Nice! How could they know that those things were missing because I hadn’t learned them yet. . . ?”
The following year, Capra set to work to learn the craft he had already begun to enjoy.
He went to work for Paul Gerson Studios, still in San Francisco, where he functioned at various times as a property man, grip, camera assistant, film cutter, assistant director and writer.
“Then,” he said, “I went to Hollywood, said I was a director—and they laughed right in my face. I finally got a job with Mack Sennett, writing Hal Roach comedies.”
Eventually, he left Sennett to work for silent-film comedian Harry Langdon.
Some attributed Langdon’s success to Capra’s ideas. But Langdon evidently did not; he fired Capra—who later said it was a blessing.
The next job Capra had was as a director. First National Pictures assigned him to take charge of “For the Love O’ Mike” in 1927. He took the job, directed the film—and watched it die at the box office.
“Some say it was my only failure,” Capra said later. “But if it was, then every director needs a failure of that kind. I learned from it.”
How much he learned quickly became apparent the following year, when he moved to Columbia to direct “That Certain Thing,” a so-called “quickie” because of its low budget and short shooting schedule. It scored a success sufficient to lift the studio off Poverty Row.
With his credentials established, Capra was signed to a long-term contract at Columbia—and given authority to cast his own films.
“Which was a bit of luck for two people,” he said. “For me—and for Barbara Stanwyck. She’d had a big success on Broadway but was running into trouble in pictures. I thought she was right for ‘Ladies of Leisure’ and I had guessed right.
“After ‘Ladies’ was released, her career took off, and so did mine. . . .!”
Working again with Stanwyck, Capra made “Forbidden,” and suggested that a novel be written from his scenario—a practice unheard-of then but which has become a common practice for original screenplays.
“Platinum Blonde,” in 1931, turned Jean Harlow into an overnight film queen.
And “American Madness,” made in 1933, began yet another cycle—the film as social commentary, which would become a recurrent theme in Capra’s career and would continue to the present.
The same year, Capra made “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” and “Lady for a Day,” both of which he called his personal “favorite”—until they were superseded a decade later.
But it was the following year, with “It Happened One Night,” that Capra finally began to achieve the recognition that would finally result in his name being featured above the titles of the pictures he made.
“It Happened One Night” was the first film to capture all five major Oscars, including Capra’s first Academy Award as a director.
Two years later, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” brought him his second Oscar as a director. And in 1938, he scored another double: Academy Awards for best picture and for directing “You Can’t Take It With You.”
These films, and “Lost Horizon” (1937) and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939), encouraged Capra to make another pioneering move: He became one of the first successful independent movie producers.
Capra’s first effort as head of Frank Capra Productions was “Meet John Doe,” and it was a box office success. But it also brought forth the first strong criticism of the distinctive “Capra Touch” in films—a touch his detractors were quick to label “Capracorn.”
“In a Capra film,” a Life magazine critic wrote, “you have standard elements: a naive and idealistic hero thrown suddenly in contact with a shrewd, professional woman who first holds him up to . . . scorn . . . and then repents and attempts to help him against . . . the crooked politicians.”
Capra shrugged it off.
“Nice plot,” he said of the magazine piece. “Needs a little work, but send me an outline and we’ll talk about it.”
The 1930s, the so-called “golden era” of the movies, were ending, however; Europe was moving toward war, and Capra had time for just one more effort--turning the successful stage play “Arsenic and Old Lace” into a movie with Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre—before returning to the Army.
In 1941, he joined the 834th Signal Photographic Detachment, where he produced and directed three film series, including “Why We Fight,” which won a special award from the New York Film Critics.
In June, 1945, Capra was discharged as a colonel, ready to resume his civilian career.
“But for a moment or two,” he said, “it looked like there might not be any career to resume. For the moment, I didn’t want to go back to working for a studio—but money was hard to come by for a man who hadn’t made a civilian movie for five years.
“I was beginning to have some doubts.”
But they didn’t last long. In partnership with Samuel Briskin, Stevens and William Wyler, he formed Liberty Films Inc. and began work on the picture that would become his all-time “permanent favorite.”
It was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed and Thomas Mitchell. This was to be Stewart’s first postwar film, too.
“The first time I told the plot—about a small-town guy who never did much of anything and winds up talking to an angel—to Jimmy Stewart, he just sat there,” Capra said. “I thought I’d bombed. But then he said, ‘OK—if you want to make a crazy thing like that with a guy who hasn’t been in front of a camera for five years, I’m your man,’ and I knew we were in.”
The film quickly reestablished the credentials of Capra and Stewart, and brought Oscar nominations practically across the board. But it didn’t win the statuettes.
“This time,” Capra said, “it was the competition: ‘The Best Years of Our Lives,’ made by my friend—and partner—Bill Wyler, swept the board. Hell, I couldn’t even get mad.”
It did, however, convince Capra that he should not divide his efforts between business and his craft. By agreement with the partners, Liberty Films was sold to Paramount—and Capra went to work there in the dual capacity of producer-director.
His next film, however, was not for Paramount but for MGM. He had a prior agreement with that studio to turn the stage hit “State of the Union” into a motion picture.
“It was a switch on the ‘Good Guy Always Wins’ theme,” Capra said. “In this one, the Good Guy turns into a Bad Guy, and loses, and turns back into a Good Guy.”
The next years saw Capra steadily at work on such pictures as “Riding High,” “Here Comes the Groom” and “A Hole in the Head.” But the creative engine that had always operated at full throttle was beginning to wind down, and the next film, “Pocketful of Miracles,” a remake of his 1933 success “Lady for a Day,” was Capra’s last theatrical effort.
He retired with honors. In addition to his Oscars, there were the presidencies of the Directors Guild of America from 1936 to 1940, and of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1935 to 1939, plus numerous governmental and critical awards.
With his wife, the former Lucille Rayburn Warner, whom he married in 1932, he settled on a 14-acre ranch in Fallbrook, which he later donated to Caltech.
“But I didn’t just sit there,” Capra said. “I had to be doing something.”
It was quite a bit:
He was a director of the Fallbrook Public Utility District, sponsor of a filmmaking program at Caltech, where he was also a member of the visiting committee of the Humanities and Social Sciences, lecturer at more than 150 colleges and universities—and author of a best-selling autobiography “The Name Over the Title.”
Over the years, he never ceased to expound on his favorite theme:
“The good guy has always got to win. Credibility is important. Optimism is important. The fundamental goodness of the common man is important.
“If they’re not, you might as well give up.
“It was worth saying half a century ago, when I started making pictures; it’s still worth saying. And I’ll go right on saying it until I die—or until it’s not true anymore, and the world ends.”
Times staff writer Dennis McDougal contributed to this story.
Here are Frank Capra’s film and television credits. All are directing credits unless otherwise noted.
“Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House,” short, 1922.
“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” co-screenwriter, 1926.
“The Strong Man,” 1926.
“His First Flame,” 1927, co-screenwriter.
“Long Pants,” 1927.
“For the Love of Mike,” 1927.
“That Certain Thing,” 1928.
“So This Is Love,” 1928.
“The Matinee Idol,” 1928.
“The Way of the Strong,” 1928.
“Say It With Sables,” 1928.
“The Power of the Press,” 1928.
“The Younger Generation,” 1929.
“The Donovan Affair,” 1929.
“Ladies of Leisure,” 1930.
“Rain or Shine,” 1930.
“The Miracle Woman,” 1931.
“Platinum Blonde,” 1931.
“American Madness,” 1932.
“The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” 1933.
“Lady for a Day,” 1933.
“It Happened One Night,” 1934. Won Academy Award for best picture, best director.
“Broadway Bill,” 1934.
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” also producer, 1936. Won Academy Award for best director.
“Lost Horizon,” also producer, 1937.
“You Can’t Take It With You,” also producer, 1938. Won Academy Award for best picture and best director.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” also producer, 1939.
“Meet John Doe,” also producer, 1941.
“Prelude to War,” documentary, co-director, 1942.
“The Nazis Strike,” documentary, co-director, 1943.
“Divide and Conquer,” documentary, co-director, 1943.
“Battle of Britain,” documentary, co-director, 1943.
“Battle of Russia,” documentary, producer, 1943.
“Battle of China,” documentary, co-director, 1944.
“The Negro Soldier,” documentary, producer, 1944.
“Tunisian Victory,” documentary, co-director, 1944.
“Arsenic and Old Lace,” 1944.
“War Comes to America,” producer, 1945.
“Know Your Enemy: Japan,” documentary, co-director, 1945.
“Two Down and One to Go,” documentary, 1945.
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” also producer, co-screenwriter, 1946.
“State of the Union,” also co-producer, 1948.
“Riding High,” also producer, 1950.
“Here Comes the Groom,” also producer, 1951.
“Our Mr. Sun,” TV science special, 1956.
“Hemo the Magnificent,” TV science special, 1957.
“A Hole in the Head,” also producer, 1959.
“Pocketful of Miracles,” also producer, 1961.
Source: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times
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