Yesterday’s post examined Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL).
It contains a few items that even frequent viewers of the film might not know — including Capra’s original ending, which involved Potter.
Today’s entry looks more at Frank Capra’s life. Don’t think for a minute that Capra was a saccharine film maker. His own experience and faith no doubt informed IAWL.
Before I get to Capra, however, let’s look at what happened when IAWL was released in December 1946.
What the critics thought — not such great ‘BO’
IAWL opened to mixed reviews and a loss at the box office, what Variety has referred to for years as ‘BO’.
On a personal note, I never actually saw IAWL until I moved to the UK. Amazing, considering that I lived in the United States at a time when the film was shown up to six times a day every day in any given metropolitan area during December. This was because its copyright hadn’t been renewed. What a blessing for television stations looking for free programming. Anyway, my mother said of IAWL, ‘Oh, that. I wouldn’t bother.’ I doubt she ever saw it, possibly because of what she read or heard back in the postwar 1940s.
The following quotes come from IAWL‘s Wikipedia page. Although Time‘s critic was impressed:
It has only one formidable rival (Goldwyn’s The Best Years of Our Lives) as Hollywood’s best picture of the year. Director Capra’s inventiveness, humor and affection for human beings keep it glowing with life and excitement.
The New York Times‘s verdict was more representative — and typical of the paper:
the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.
The FBI didn’t like it, either (emphases mine):
With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.
It’s pretty clear that the heartless Potter character also reflects the WASP bias of the time of not trusting anyone whose ‘name ends in a vowel’. He calls the Italian customers of the Bailey Savings and Loan ‘garlic eaters’. Was Capra trying to say something here?
Interesting Ideas sums the film up for 21st century viewers:
Far from being the feel-good movie of 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life is in fact one of Capra’s most relentlessly depressing works.
Rotten Tomatoes concurs:
it was perceived as a fairly downbeat view of small-town life.
Hindsight says that had the film been released a year later, it probably would have picked up an Oscar for Best Picture. Competition would have been less intense with Miracle on 34th Street being its nearest rival. As it was, The Best Years of Our Lives was the motion picture of the year, winning four out of six major Oscars. Its theme dealt with Second World War soldiers settling back into civilian life, more relevant to the American mindset at that time.
IAWL, however, did win an Oscar for Technical Achievement, which was the snow in Bedford Falls. Wikipedia explains:
Before It’s a Wonderful Life, fake movie snow was mostly made from cornflakes painted white. And it was so loud when stepped on that any snow filled scenes with dialogue had to be re-dubbed afterwards. RKO studio’s head of special effects, Russell Sherman, developed a new compound, utilizing water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar.
However, Capra did win Best Director in the Golden Globe Awards.
As for box office takings,
The film, which went into general release on January 7, 1947, placed 26th ($3.3 million) in box office revenues for 1947 (out of more than 400 features released) …
The film recorded a loss of $525,000 at the box office for RKO.
Film buffs speculate that Capra — whose films won over audiences of the Depression — was losing his grip with regard to the postwar zeitgeist. He was still creating films around the ‘poor little guy’ theme, when the American mindset had moved on to coping with a new reality.
From Sicily via steerage
Frank Capra was born the year my paternal grandmother was — 1897. Philip Van Doren Stern, the author of the story which inspired IAWL was born in 1900. Walt Disney was born in 1901. They all, Grandma included, had a certain way of looking at life with optimism in the face of adversity.
Capra was born in a village outside of Palermo, Sicily. He was christened Francesco Rosario but, years later, when he became a naturalised American citizen in 1920, he took the names Frank Russell.
Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride explains that the family name came from the word for ‘she-goat’. It expresses several of that animal’s characteristics which could also apply to the director himself: capriciousness, skittishness, emotionalism and obstinacy.
Capra’s father Salvatore was a fruit grower. He and his wife Sarah had seven children; Frank was the youngest. They decided to emigrate to the United States in 1903 when Frank was six.
Later, Capra described the crossing in steerage as follows:
You’re all together – you have no privacy. You have a cot. Very few people have trunks or anything that takes up space. They have just what they can carry in their hands or in a bag. Nobody takes their clothes off. There’s no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They’re all miserable. It’s the most degrading place you could ever be.
Still, once they came in sight of New York and Ellis Island, where they would be processed, his father exclaimed when seeing the torch on the Statue of Liberty:
Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.
Capra did remember — for the rest of his life.
The family made their way coast-to-coast to Los Angeles. Goodness knows how long that must have taken, especially with seven children in tow.
Parallels between Frank Capra and George Bailey
Aspects of Capra’s life parallel those of George Bailey’s. One wonders whether he was resolving some inner and familial conflicts through the IAWL protagonist’s:
- Once in Los Angeles, the family lived in a poor Italian neighbourhood. Capra’s father picked fruit. Capra himself sold newspapers for a decade. His siblings also worked to help support the family. Recall IAWL‘s Italian family who purchase a house, thanks to being able to bank at the Bailey Savings and Loan in Bedford Falls. George and Mary Bailey (James Stewart and Donna Reed) personally welcome them to their new home with Italian bread and wine, symbols of life and happiness. Perhaps Capra wished that the WASP population of Los Angeles had been as gracious. Instead, they might have met with more who were like Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who called them ‘garlic eaters’.
- After Frank finished high school, he wanted to go to college. His parents, probably seeing the example of his siblings who were working, discouraged him. Consider George Bailey wanting to travel the world, attend university and become a worldbeating architect. Capra enrolled anyway. He attended the California Institute of Technology and worked after class in any job he could get. He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1918.
- Of his university experience, he later said that it:
changed his whole viewpoint on life from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person.
- Of living in an impoverished ethnic neighbourhood, he said that he:
hated being a peasant, being a scrounging new kid trapped in the Sicilian ghetto of Los Angeles … All I had was cockiness – and let me tell you that gets you a long way.
This is not dramatically different from George Bailey who says:
I just feel like if I didn’t get away, I’d bust.
Unemployment and depression
Unfortunately, a bachelor’s degree didn’t get Capra too far in the years immediately following the Great War.
The tension must have been great in his household when he, with the highest level of academic achievement in the family, could not get a job.
Things had started all right. Capra had been in ROTC in college and was stationed at Fort Scott, San Francisco, as a second lieutenant in the Army. There he taught mathematics to artillerymen.
Then, two things happened. First, his father died in an accident in 1919. Second, Capra caught Spanish flu, the strain of influenza which caused many fatalities that year; my grandmother remembered it well. Discharged from the Army, he had no choice but to return home to recuperate.
He looked on desparingly as his siblings were busy going to work every day. He became depressed, although that was not a clinical diagnosis at the time. Thank goodness, otherwise, he might have been pampered and put on psychotropes for the rest of his life. He also suffered from abdominal pain, which turned out to be a ruptured appendix. Oh, the pain — both mental and physical.
Once recovered, he left home and lived a hobo’s life along the West Coast. Once again, he took any job going. However, in leaner times, he didn’t hesitate to hop freight trains or sleep in flop houses. I bet his mother didn’t know that at the time.
Finally, when he was 25, he got a job selling books door to door.
Still scraping by, he found an advert in a San Francisco paper for job openings at a film studio there. He embellished his credentials, saying he had just moved to the area from Hollywood. As he said, all he had was the cockiness which got him a long way.
Capra’s first job at the studio, amazingly, was to direct a one-reel silent film which he did with the help of a more experienced cameraman.
Afterward, he worked at another San Francisco studio and eventually moved back to Los Angeles where he got a job with Harry Cohn’s studio — the future Columbia Pictures — and learned more about every aspect of film making.
I won’t go into a comprehensive study of Capra’s film career, however, a few aspects stood out during this time.
First, his knowledge of engineering helped him to adapt quickly to making films with sound. Cinema technology was moving quickly and sound washed many out of the industry. Some silent stars couldn’t really act other than with facial expressions. Technicians who understood how to edit silent films with dialogue frames had problems when it came to soundtracks imprinted into the film.
Second, Capra’s understanding of sound got him more directing jobs with Harry Cohn. He was forever grateful to Cohn for employing him at such a crucial time, for him and the industry.
Third, Capra was able to collaborate with the screenwriters in sharpening scripts with one-liners.
Fourth, Capra understood what was involved in directing films and could advise the cameramen on better ways or angles of shooting scenes.
Capra’s pivotal film of this period was the ‘talkie’ The Younger Generation (1929). Although Capra denied that the Jewish immigrant’s experience of America was far removed from his own, biographer Joseph McBride thinks the young director must have identified with some of the scenes:
Capra “obviously felt a strong identification with the story of a Jewish immigrant who grows up in the ghetto of New York… and feels he has to deny his ethnic origins to rise to success in America.”
… the “devastatingly painful climactic scene”, where the young social-climbing son, embarrassed when his wealthy new friends first meet his parents, passes his mother and father off as house servants. That scene, notes McBride, “echoes the shame Capra admitted feeling toward his own family as he rose in social status.”
The Depression Era and Capra’s messages
Capra hit it big with the comedy It Happened One Night (1934), starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert — a must-see road movie with the two sharing a cabin. Colbert, a young socialite, leaves home and meets a worldly reporter (Gable) along the way. Penniless, she has no choice but to depend on him for everything.
It has its provocative moments and, shortly afterward, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) began enforcing stricter codes with regard to what could be seen in mainstream cinema.
Capra must have been flabbergasted at the Academy Awards ceremony. The picture was the first to win five Oscars. That has happened only twice since with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Silence of the Lambs (1991).
After Broadway Bill, also made in 1934, Capra began thinking seriously about what he was filming and changed tack:
My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.
About Mr Deeds Goes to Town, made two years later, Alistair Cooke (yes, that one!) wrote that Capra was:
starting to make movies about themes instead of people.
Capra’s films cropped up every year for Oscar nominations in the 1930s. He won Best Director three times and Best Picture once again with You Can’t Take it with You (1938). He also hosted the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony.
In addition to Christian values, Capra was also intent on portraying the virtues of patriotism. He also wanted to show that the good could overcome the corrupt. In 1939, he made Mr Smith Goes to Washington, which starred James Stewart.
Capra stated his reasons:
The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure.
This occurred around the advent of the Second World War. Capra took in world events:
And panic hit me. Japan was slicing up the colossus of China piece by piece. Nazi panzers had rolled into Austria and Czechoslovakia; their thunder echoed over Europe. England and France shuddered. The Russian bear growled ominously in the Kremlin. The black cloud of war hung over the chancelleries of the world. Official Washington from the President down, was in the process of making hard, torturing decisions. “And here was I, in the process of making a satire about government officials; … Wasn’t this the most untimely time for me to make a film about Washington?
Joseph P Kennedy, American ambassador to Great Britain and early financier of RKO Studios, thought so. He wrote to Capra’s boss Harry Cohn at what was by then Columbia Pictures:
Please do not play this picture in Europe.
Kennedy feared that the film would portray Washington as corrupt and weaken America’s position in wartime, even if the United States was not yet directly involved.
Cohn and Capra went ahead to release the film. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but won only one — Best Original Story. It was up against The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Enough said.
It’s interesting that Mr Smith Goes to Washington was the film the French most wanted to see that year. They said it gave them hope for the future:
perseverance of democracy and the American way.
The Second World War years
Capra helped the war effort by directing and co-directing a series of films for the American forces helping them to understand what they were fighting for.
The US government and army provided the content for the films, so they were not ‘propaganda’ but salient facts.
They were so good that the government had them shown in American cinemas. They were then translated into several European and Asian languages for export. Winston Churchill was so impressed that he ordered they be shown in British cinemas.
They are still used in the present day as a teaching aid and sometimes appear on television.
Frank Capra was at this time promoted to Colonel in the US Army. His Why We Fight series won an Academy Award.
Postwar endeavours and disillusionment
After IAWL in 1946, Capra’s last important film, those which followed never had the acclaim or box office takings of his earlier work.
America was recovering spectacularly from the Second World War and a new mood of prosperity was in the air. Cinema-goers were no longer interested in the good-versus-evil themes the way Capra portrayed them.
Hollywood stars were also becoming more important than the films in which they featured. This jarred with Capra’s philosophy about film making.
Nonetheless, a few events stand out from this period.
First, Capra still had clout as a director. The US Ambassador to India asked him to attend the International Film Festival in that country in 1952. The ambassador was concerned about Marxist and Communist politics encroaching in Asia.
Capra was stunned to find many of the speeches given at the festival favoured political and government control of film. He summarised his message to 15 Indian film directors:
they must preserve freedom as artists, and that any government control would hinder that freedom. A totalitarian system – and they would become nothing but publicity men for the party in power.
… Even intellectuals have no great understanding of liberty and freedom … Democracy only a theory to them. They have no idea of service to others, of service to the poor. The poor are despised, in a sense.
The ambassador was pleased with the result and Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave Capra a commendation for his sterling efforts in persuading the Indian film industry to remain independent of political parties.
Second, the aftermath of the McCarthy hearings on un-American activities, in which many in the film industry were implicated, bothered Capra. Although Capra was not called to testify, he knew many who lost their careers as a result. His feelings were mixed.
Third, he could see that the nature of American film was changing. In 1971, he wrote, rather bluntly, in his autobiography:
The hedonists, the homosexuals, the hemophilic bleeding hearts, the God-haters, the quick-buck artists who substituted shock for talent, all cried: “Shake ‘em! Rattle ‘em! God is dead. Long live pleasure! Nudity? Yea! Wife-swapping? Yea! Liberate the world from prudery. Emancipate our films from morality!”…. Kill for thrill – shock! Shock! To hell with the good in man, Dredge up his evil – shock! Shock!
And so it continues today, so many decades later.
By 1952, Capra retired from making mainstream films and went back to school, in a sense, by making scientific films for Caltech, the new name for his alma mater.
He also produced four science-based specials for television, sponsored by Bell Laboratories.
Looking back, today’s viewers might wonder if Capra’s America really existed or if it was purely his vision.
His tight editing and superb pacing carry us along through morality tales involving ordinary Americans against the forces of corruption and evil.
Although the movies often have a dark period of conflict and impossible odds, in the end, everything comes right.
Capra’s techniques and outlook have influenced subsequent directors, even if they might disagree with him philosophically. Among those who have borrowed from Capra in some way include Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, David Lynch and François Truffaut.
Perhaps thanks to the frequent showings of IAWL, Capra retrospectives attract good audiences, particularly among younger film buffs.
Capra, if he were still alive — he died on September 3, 1991 — would have been delighted.
Politically, he would advise us against advocating too much government interference:
A conservative Republican, he had railed against Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his tenure as governor of New York State, and opposed his presidency during the years of the Depression. Capra stood against government intervention and assistance during the national economic crisis. A man that had come up the hard way, overcoming the disadvantages of an immigrant background, Capra saw no reason why others could not accomplish success through hard work and perseverance.
As he demonstrated in his own life and in IAWL.
And, this passage from his 1971 autobiography, The Name above the Title, indicates what he might have said about movements such as 2011′s Occupy versus the working man:
Forgotten among the hue-and criers were the hard-working stiffs that came home too tired to shout or demonstrate in streets … and prayed they’d have enough left over to keep their kids in college, despite their knowing that some were pot-smoking, parasitic parent-haters.
Thank you, Frank Capra. Who in Hollywood would say that today?
Tomorrow’s post looks at what happened to Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu in IAWL.