Frank Capra saw himself as a member of the “gee whiz” school of filmmaking, and made no apologies for it. Capra’s movies featured what is good in humanity, and have even had a word coined to describe their world view — capraesque. He said, “To some of us, all that meets the eye IS larger than life, including life itself. Who can match the wonder of it?”
Capra got his start in movies as a gag writer for silent film comic Harry Langdon at Mack Sennett’s studio. Langdon promoted Capra to director, but the erratic actor soon fired him. It wasn’t long before the struggling studio Columbia Pictures hired Capra, who, following a series of modestly successful small pictures, hit it big with It Happened One Night. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert sparkled, the movie won five Academy Awards (including Gable’s only Oscar), and Capra’s reputation was sealed.
Capra was declared the hottest director of the 1930s in a Time Magazine article. In addition to It Happened One Night (Best Picture, Best Director), prior to World War II Capra directed Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Best Director), Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It With You (Best Picture, Best Director), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Best Picture, Best Director), and Meet John Doe.
Following the war, Capra created what’s considered his masterpiece, though it wasn’t perceived quite so well at the time of its initial release. It’s a Wonderful Life (Great American Things, December 1, 2009) rode the wave of American post-war optimism and is the ultimate “capraesque” film. In addition to Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Capra was instrumental in the careers of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, and Jean Arthur. (Capra once called Arthur his favorite actress.)
My favorite Frank Capra quote: “I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”