FRANK CAPRA - IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE
by Mike Thomas
When Francesco Capra was born to a peasant family one hundred years ago in the small Sicilian village of Bisaquino, Sicily, he could hardly have imagined that one day he would so profoundly impact the course of American filmmaking that he would virtually become his own genre. For one thing, the movies themselves had just come into being, and as we celebrate the first hundred hundred years of motion pictures, it is appropriate that we also celebrate the centennial of the birth of that most American of directors - Frank Capra.
Capra wanted to become an engineer but stumbled into filmmaking when he couldn’t find a job in his chosen field. Bluffing his way into directing his first film, “Fultah Fisha’s Boarding House” in 1922 he soon hit his stride as a director of silent comedies with Harry Langdon. Capra molded Langdon’s character on the idea of the holy fool, a character who instigates nothing but merely passes through incredible situations oblivious and unscathed - the original Forrest Gump. Hailed by the press and public as a rival to Chaplin, Langdon dismissed Capra and tried to direct himself, only to see his career crash and burn.
Capra then landed at a Gower Gulch “Poverty Row” studio that was derisively referred to as Columbia - “The Germ of the Ocean”. The studio head was a gruff, belligerent S.O.B. named Harry Cohn who had a gambler’s instinct and placed his bets on Capra. Together they made Hollywood history. Capra quickly proved himself the master of every genre he tackled, whether it be adventure (“Dirigible”, “Submarine”), melodrama (“Bitter Tea of General Yen”), political satire (“American Madness”) and screwball comedy (“Platinum Blonde”). It was in that field that he scored the Hollywood equivalent of the Triple Crown when his picture, “It Happened One Night” became the first film in history to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, a feat unequaled for forty years. It put Columbia Studios in the big leagues, established Clark Gable as the “King of Hollywood”and vaulted Capra into the forefront of American filmmakers. Capra’s films came to define that era to such an extent that John Cassavetes once remarked, “Maybe there were no 1930s, maybe there were just Frank Capra films”.
Capra’s gift for pacing and the vitality in his films is still a wonder to behold. But his greatest gift was with his actors, he discovered Barbara Stanwyck, helped launch the already successful careers of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable into even greater heights, and essentially created the screen persona of Jimmy Stewart. In the Thirties Capra’s touch was golden, from his first big hit, “Lady for a Day” he had a string of 11 box office hits in a row, and began a string of six Best Picture nominations (winning twice) and and seven Best Directors nominations for which Capra received the Oscar three times. He was president of the Motion Picture Academy for four years, during a period it was almost torn apart by labor struggles between the studios and the film industry artists. Because of his clout as Academy President, he was also, more than any other director, responsible for getting the studios to recognize the fledgling Screen Directors Guild, now the Directors Guild of America. After years of refusal by the studios to recognize or even meet with the Directors’ Guild, Capra threatened to resign from the Academy and shut down the Oscars for that year if the studios didn’t meet with the directors. Terrified of losing the Academy Awards, the producers agreed to recognize the Guild, and in a touch right out of one of his films, a week later Capra won Best Picture and Director Oscars for “You Can’t Take it With You”. If any man can claim to have established the director’s right to have his name above the title of a Hollywood studio film, it was Frank Capra.
It now seems clear that Capra was an American Aesop, spinning his fables for a still young republic, wish fulfillments for the national psyche battered by the Depression. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Meet John Doe” paint an incredible portrait of an America up for grabs. His 1949 “State of the Union” with its themes of media manipulation, philandering politicians and character assassination only grows more timely and visionary. Capra’s protagonists are the idealized American Everyman, the common man caught up in the forces of corruption, be they fat cat press lords, scheming politicos bankers without humanity or home grown Fascists. Capra knew that a democratic republic was constantly being tested and his films echo Benjamin Franklin’s words to a lady who asked him what kind of a government would we have. “A republic, madame, “Franklin replied, “If you can keep it”. Capra may have been an optimist but he was no Pollyanna. Suicide, despair, betrayal, economic, moral and political bankruptcy are all recurrent themes in his work. He may offer happy endings but he earned that right because, like no director before him, in films Frank Capra showed the dark night of the American soul.
To dismiss Capra as sentimental old optimist is to not only profoundly misjudge his work but is to miss his great achievements as a craftsman. His films are models of economy and speed, the actors beautifully cast from the leading characters down to the bit players, his editing skills and story lines are consistently engaging, and if the world is no longer as comfortable with happy endings as it was in his time, well, that’s to our misfortune, not his. Like Walt Whitman he was large, he contained multitudes. When I met him he was in his Eighties, yet he head the vitality and sharpness of a twenty year old. Hardly sentimental, he was feisty and swore like a sailor, yet he could coolly analyze his and other directors’ films with a rational precision of the engineer he once was.
It is of course, for “It’s a Wonderful Life” that Capra is now best remembered. The repeated Christmas airings have so inundated it upon the national consciousness that an objective view of it nearly impossible, in fact, it seems unfathomable to imagine Christmas without it or to even imagine a time when it did not exist. Our overfamiliarity with the seemingly ludicrous story of an incompetent angel trying to earn his wings by preventing a suicide (when Capra tried to explain it to Jimmy Stewart, he gave up in frustration and said the hell with it) should not blind us to measure of Capra’s achievement. The fact that he could take this seemingly absurd premise and turn into work so powerful that it has saved lives of people not even born when it was made is testament to its enduring impact. And Stewart’s performance of a man driven to despair and the brink of self-extinction, is a landmark in the annals of screen acting. Although he was later rightly praised for his work in the dark films of Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, it was Frank Capra, who not only gave Stewart his screen identity but then forever smashed it in when George Bailey reaches the end of his rope. It is a straight line from the suicidal despair of George Bailey to the love-starved madness of Scotty Ferguson in “Vertigo”.
After memorably serving in the Armed Services during World War II and creating documentaries that remain classic pieces of patriotic propaganda. Capra retuned to form with “It’s a Wonderful Life”, earning him his final Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and the deft political satire of “State of the Union”. But when he signed with Paramount his judgment faltered. Projects he developed like “Roman Holiday” and “Friendly Persuasion” went to other directors and he turned out a couple of films with Bing Crosby that, though mildly enjoyable, were not Capra films. He had sold out his vision and he knew it.
In the early Fifties Capra retired to his ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and grew avocados. He made some fondly remembered science documentaries for television and then in 1959 made a triumphant return to the screen with “A Hole in the Head” featuring Frank Sinatra. Two years later filmed “A Pocketful of Miracles”, a remake of his first big hit,“Lady for a Day”, but the studio refused his first choice for the lead, an intense young actor named Steve McQueen, and forced the genial blandness of Glenn Ford upon him. The picture, though competent, lacked the spark of his finest work, and though he attempted other projects, it was to be his final film. After one project (“Marooned”) was taken away from him by Columbia, the studio he put on the map, rumors circulated Capra became so despondent he attempted suicide.
Capra lived nearly thirty more years. Until a series of strokes in the late 80s felled him, he remained as sharp and energetic as he had been in his prime, always eager to discuss his life long love of films. In 1983, I was running the San Diego Film Society and invited him, along with his long-time cameraman, (and inventor of the zoom lens) Joseph Walker, to San Diego for a lecture and a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. The city where he had met his wife Lucille while shooting a picture fifty years earlier held happy memories for the still vital 86 year old and during the limousine ride through the winding mountains from his La Quinta residence he reflected on his remarkable life in this never before published interview.
What did you think of the auteur theory?
I thought it was fine when I developed it, you know. A pretty good idea - “One man, one film”. D.W. Griffith had done allright with that idea. And I was the first one in the studio system to apply that to my films. Just like one man paints a painting or writes a book. It’s to Harry Cohn’s credit that he gave me the freedom to do it that way, just as long as I kept making hits. You know those guys over at MGM made $10,000 a week and I never made $10,000 a month but I had one thing they never had under Thalberg or Mayer - freedom!
Why didn’t you become an engineer after going to Caltech? How did you become a director?
I couldn’t get a job. It was right after WWI and everything was closing down. I never saw a movie until I made one. (“Fultah Fisha’s Boarding House” - 1922) After that, I got a job for two years in a lab putting home movies together, editing them, for room and board. That was a great learning experience.
You got your big break directing Harry Langdon.
He was the sorriest case I ever met in show business. When his pictures became big and the critics began comparing him to Chaplin it went to his head. His problem was that he thought he had created his own character but since he hadn’t, he didn’t understand the concept at all. I had been reading the book, “The Good Soldier Schweik”, and I thought that kind of character, the passive man-child who loves everybody would fit Harry perfectly. With that moon face of his, he could wander through all these situations, but it was important that he not instigate any of them. He was just God’s own holy fool, protected by his own innocence. Well, when he got big, he thought he could do the thing all by himself, just like Chaplin - write, direct - but as I say, he really didn’t understand his character and it was a disaster for him. Years later, when he was down on his luck I saw him being directed by somebody who kept yelling at him, “Faster, Harry, faster!” Well, the one thing you did not say to Harry Langdon was “faster”.
Speaking of Chaplin, was he an influence on your work?
Chaplin? (Snorts) He was a bastard.
I mean, he was a great filmmaker and all, but the way he treated people...I’ll never forget when Doug Fairbanks, Sr. died, the Academy wanted to award him a special posthumous Oscar, because he had been the first president of the Academy. Well, he and Chaplin had been best of friends, so Mary Pickford and Doug, Jr. had wanted Chaplin to present the special award. Since I was president of the Academy at the time, they wanted me to go over to Catalina and ask him to present the memorial Oscar. So I go down to Long Beach and get in a boat and sail over to Catalina where Chaplin had his yacht moored. Well, we pulled up to Chaplin’s yacht and I met this big goon of his and I said, “I’m here to see Mr. Chaplin.’ The lug disappears and then after awhile returns and says, “Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed’. Well, I blew up. ‘’You go and tell Mr. Chaplin that Mr. Frank Capra, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has just traveled for three hours to come to see him!’’ The guy disappears again and then returned, saying, “Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed.’’ So I go back to Long Beach, furious. He probably was too busy with some teenage girl. Anyway, I’m sailing back, thinking, what am I going to tell Doug, Jr. and Mary? Well, I went to see them and told them the story and how bad I felt about it and Mary said, ‘‘Don’t worry about it, Frank. We always knew Charlie was a little prick.’’ We got Doug, Jr. to present the award.
You were very involved with the Academy during some critical times.
It was being used by the studio heads to try and destroy the guilds. And they were going to destroy the Academy to do it. Well, I didn’t want to see that happen, I knew the Academy Awards are the best advertising in the world for the film industry. So we decided to try and unite the industry by honoring the man who started it all - D.W. Griffith. Except nobody knew where he was. Finally, I found him in a bar in Kentucky, dead drunk. Well, we got him sobered up and brought him back to Hollywood and presented him with a special Oscar and it worked, it helped to re-unite the industry and save the Academy.
What does it take to be a director?
The ability to make quick decisions. Everybody’s asking you questions, “Where do I put this?, “How do I play this scene?” Problems have to be solved and you have to be able to solve them immediately. If I take a penny and toss it, I’ll be right in predicting it 50% of the time. In show business, if you’re right 50% of the time, you’re ahead of the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re not right all the time but you’ve got to make those snap decisions, fast! It’s got to be intuitive.
I understand that you concerned yourself primarily with the actors and left Joe Walker to work with the crew.
Well, that’s what they’re there for, to help the cameramen get the picture. It’s the director’s job to get the best out of the actors. But I knew every lens Joe was using on every camera, I knew sound because of my engineering, I knew about everything that was going on. You’ve got to be able to inspire your crew. Everyone’s concerned with their own thing - the actors with the scene, the cameraman with the lighting, the soundman with the sound - and you’re the only one who knows where it’s all going because it’s shot out of sequence and you have to remember where it’ll all fit. In your mind you have to be able to picture the whole.
I hear it was always a happy crew.
You’ve got to treat your crews with respect. You’re not God. They’re human beings and artists and if they think you know what you’re doing they’ll follow you anywhere. I never bawled out anyone on the set. Except once, on this picture, (“Mr. Smith”) there was this English actor (Claude Rains) who I knew would be perfect for the part. I met him and he said to me, ‘‘I hear you like to improvise, I’ll have none of that. I must have all my lines 10 days in advance.’’ I really wanted him so I said sure thing and he took the part. Now, one day we’re shooting this scene with Rains and Jimmy Stewart in a train, it’s going OK but it needs to be drawn out a little, it’s going too fast. So I sat down and typed out some dialogue for them. When I handed the pages to Rains he looks at it and says, “What’s this? It’s in my contract that I be given 10 days to learn my lines”.
Well, I exploded, “What the fuck are you, an actor or an accountant? If you’re going to be counting the minutes on this picture I want you off my set.” Now, we weren’t too far along in the shooting but I didn’t think he’d leave, I hoped not because I really wanted him. Well, he took the dialogue and learned it and the scene went fine. Anyway, we go through the picture and he was fine until the last day of shooting when he came up and put his arm around me. “I want to thank you,” he said. “For years I’ve had a mental block about having to learn my lines in advance because I was afraid I couldn’t learn them fast enough and you broke me of that.” That was the only time I ever had any trouble on one of my sets.
You co-wrote most of your scripts why didn’t you sign them?
Why? I already had the name above the title. Besides, what’s a script? Words on paper. People don’t go to a movie to see words on paper. They go to see people up there on the screen. How you turn those words into life - that’s a director’s job.
Which director’s work did you like?
There were a lot of directors whose work I liked - John Ford, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Hitchcock - now, there was a fellow who liked to eat. He would drive for miles if he’d heard that some place was good. It showed. He sure knew how to make movies, though. I know a lot of people think that “Citizen Kane” is the greatest thing since the Second Coming, but nobody asked me about it.
The father of us all was D.W. Griffith. In his films you can see something you can’t see anywhere else - the birth of an art form. Everybody learned from him, and what happened to him, to be forgotten by the industry he created was a real black mark on Hollywood. Another director I liked was Eisenstein. I became friends with him when he came over to Hollywood and I saw him in Russia when I was visiting over there. He was a broken man because he had displeased Stalin. “Fronk”, he would say in that accent of his, “I am in zee doghouse.” He made some powerful films but I always thought they could have been better if, instead of the grand sweep of historical events, he could have concentrated on people. Individuals instead of the masses. People talk to me about my political films and I stop them. I never made political films. I made films about people. That’s what people go to the movies to see, movies about people.
You got some great performances from your actors. Was there a special method you had?
There was no one way in getting a good performance. Some, like Sinatra or Stanwyck, you couldn’t rehearse because they would leave their best work in rehearsals. With others you had to act as a morale booster. Jean Arthur used to burst into tears because she thought she was terrible. Gary Cooper was always insecure about his acting, so you had to give him confidence in himself, because he was a better actor than he realized. Then you get someone like Jimmy Stewart, who’s a director’s dream. You don’t really direct an actor like Jimmy Stewart, you just stand back and watch him do his thing. Generally speaking though, women make the best actors, and Stanwyck was the best I ever worked with.
What about Gable? He won his only Oscar with you.
That’s a funny story, because he didn’t want to do the picture. (“It Happened One Night”) Louis B. Mayer wanted to punish him for asking for a raise by sending him over to little old Columbia Studios on Poverty Row. So, he shows up drunk one afternoon and comes into my office and says, “So this is what Siberia looks like.” I asked him, “Mr. Gable, would you like to take a look at the script?” And he said, “Buddy, I don’t give a fuck what you want to do with it” and then left. And that was my first meeting with Clark Gable. But he was good in the picture.
Is there such a thing as a grammar of film?
Where’d you hear such a thing? You just say what you want to say and find the best of way of saying it.
You’ve met some of the most important people of the 20th Century - Roosevelt, Churchill, - it must have been something for a kid from East L.A.
Oh, yeah. Churchill was the greatest man of the century, no doubt about it, he saved Western Civilization. Roosevelt was a real charmer, he’d focus in on you like you were the most important person in the world and say something like, “Oh, yes, I know just what you mean, the same thing’s happened to me a million times!” That’s probably why he kept getting elected. But Gen. Marshall was someone I admired enormously. He was the finest man I ever knew.
He got you involved with the “Why We Fight” series.
Well, I was a stranger to documentaries, but I did know drama, I knew what worked dramatically. So, I approached it the way I would a film. But it was Gen. Marshall’s idea. We were taking these young kids off the streets, off the farms, and they didn’t know why in the world they were going to war. He knew most of those boys were going to die and felt they had a right to know why. I wanted to let the audience know what we were up against. We got some of the German propaganda films made by that gal Refinstahl and used it against them. We took those shots of the mass rallies and goosesteppers and changed the music on the soundtrack. Where they had ethereal, Wagnerian symphonic backing, we would dub in militaristic marching music that gave it just what we wanted - a terrifying feeling that these people wanted to enslave the world.
Did you ever go back to Sicily?
Uh huh. I went back a few years ago and felt nothing. Nooooothing! That guy Haley goes back to Africa and discovers he has black roots. I go back to the place I was born and didn’t feel a damn thing. East L.A. is my roots.
I’ve always been surprised at the “Capracorn” charge leveled at your films. They’re actually quite dark.
They are dark! This film we’re showing, “Mr. Smith”, deals with corruption and betrayal, he’s ready to say ‘the hell with America’, and throw it all away; “Meet John Doe” is about fascist manipulation of the common man, “It’s a Wonderful Life” deals with suicide. But you’ve got to offer the audience some hope. We originally had “Meet John Doe” end with his jump off the bell tower on Christmas Eve, but the preview audiences just wouldn’t accept it.
The continued appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” must be very gratifying.
Everything I had to say - that no man was born to be a failure - was in that picture. It’s amazing how often I still get letters from people, thanking me for that movie and how it literally saved their life. I tell you, there’s something in it that I didn’t put there. It has a life of its own.
You earned your wings with that one.
(Chuckles) That’s right! I earned my wings.