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Essays: Sharing from Friends


F rank Capra, Director of the American Dream

by Butch Rigby

It was 24 years ago that I knew that I would spend my life working in, about and around movies. Election day, 1976-my junior year. Instead of classes that day, we attended a triple feature of 16mm films.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men, John Ford's classic Spencer Tracy film, The Last Hurrah and perhaps one of the best films ever made about American Politics, Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. All great American political dramas, but most memorable to me was Jimmy Stewart looking out a window staring at the capital dome with the wonder, naiveté and enthusiasm that youth provides. A man fighting for the lost causes with optimism and hope. I would learn that these were the hallmarks of the director throughout his career.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra moved to this country as a child immigrant. He grew up in Los Angeles, working his way through college earning a degree in chemical engineering. In 1922, out of college and out of work, he answered an ad looking for a film director. Without experience, he claimed knowledge and got the job. Fultah Fisher's Boarding House led Frank Capra on his "Magic Carpet Ride", as he would describe a career in film. He went to work as an editor to learn his craft. In 1925 he was hired by Mack Sennett as a gag writer for comedian Harry Langdon. He directed two Langdon comedies, then a 1927 flop, For the Love of Mike, starring Claudette Colbert, (and sending her directly back to the stage in New York), before he returned to meager wages writing gags for Mack Sennett once again.

It Happened One Night

The day he walked into Harry Cohn's office at the poverty row studio, Columbia Pictures, was the day he reached a turning point in his career. Harry Cohn was an abrasive and abusive studio boss, leading the then small Columbia Pictures. The decade long association between these two men would lead Columbia into the status of a major studio, and Frank Capra into legend. He was honing his craft, earning recognition throughout the industry, yet the acclaim of the new Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was never quite within his grasp. That came to a quick end in 1934 when Capra was assigned to direct a "quickie" with Claudette Colbert (who was none too anxious to repeat the disaster of her first film with Capra, For the Love of Mike,) and a drunken Clark Gable who was being punished by M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer for misbehavior, by being loaned to the poverty row studio. Capra had 23 days to shoot the picture because Claudette Colbert was leaving for Christmas holiday on December 23rd, film finished or not. From that circumstance came Academy Awards for the director Capra, Gable, Colbert, writer Robert Riskin, and for the picture itself, It Happened One Night.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

This was the first of three Best Director Oscars for Capra. The others were for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take it With You. (Sorry fans, no Oscar for It's a Wonderful Life.) This was also the film that defined one of the themes that made Frank Capra an American Icon - a basic faith in the essential goodness of the common man and the inevitable triumph of honesty and justice over (usually bureaucracy-driven) selfishness and deceit. During the depression, this bode well with filmgoers looking for optimism. A stable of leading players, used repeatedly, such as Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, accompanied by Robert Riskin's pen and Joseph Walker's eye, helped Capra define his film and his form.

World War II brought Capra, the patriot, to the forefront. As a member of the Army Signal Corp, he returned the fire of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, with his Why We Fight series, using the very film footage shot by the Germans to spread their propaganda. The installment, Prelude to War, won the best documentary Oscar in 1942. After the War, Capra formed his own company, Liberty Films, to release he and other partner filmmaker's product with some clout. One of the first projects the new company embraced was a movie based upon a short story- The Greatest Gift. Capra used all his best tools. A seasoned cast, writers and his own skill honed to a sharp point, handling veteran actors as well as newcomers, to create what would become his favorite film, It's a Wonderful Life. While it has been widely written that post-war audiences were no longer impressed with a youthful optimism, and critics were quick to call Capra slow to adapt to a new time, the picture captured a nomination for Best Picture of 1946.

Capra only made five more feature films after It's a Wonderful Life. In the 1970's Capra let the copyright on It's a Wonderful Life expire. It quickly became a staple on television, and ironically, brought Frank Capra a new celebrity with a whole new generation. He began to lecture on the college circuit (I met him at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1981) and his story became part of the fabric of the 20th Century. While Frank Capra likely lost untold thousands of dollars by letting the copyright on It's a Wonderful Life expire, he gave that film to my generation. That in effect became his "greatest gift", and I will always be affected by his optimism and belief in the goodness of person next door. Thank you, Frank Capra, for making my life a wonderful one, and I will pass my optimism onto others. For a complete read on Frank Capra, I strongly recommend his autobiography, The Name Above the Title.

by Butch Rigby
President of the Film Society of Greater Kansas City
Chairman of FilmFest Kansas City
Co-Chairman of Thank You Walt Disney, Inc

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