Few filmmakers have impacted this country – and how we think about ourselves – more than Director Frank Capra. He was the creative force behind a number of legendary films of the 1930s and 1940s, including one of the greatest movies of all time (my all-time favorite movie) - It's a Wonderful Life (1946). His films have changed lives; his life was extraordinary – and we can only wonder why the kind of films he made are in such short supply today; life-affirming stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
He had humble beginnings. He was born in Sicily, and immigrated to the United States in 1903 with his parents, and luckily for him, his family chose to settle in Los Angeles. After a short stint in college studying engineering, he served in the U.S. Army during WW1, and by 1920, had what he considered to be one of his biggest life-changing moments: he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Then began an unlikely journey in the film business. His first job? Capra became a prop man in silent films. During the next ten years, he bounced around Hollywood, and formed alliances and partnerships with some great screenwriters and cameramen.
Then came his first big success; and I am talking BIG. His 1934 classic, It Happened One Night starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert and was a smash hit! It was the first film to win all five top Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). In 1936, Capra won his second Best Director Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In 1938 he won his third Director Oscar in five years for You Can’t Take it With You, which also won Best Picture.
Then came the next life-changing moment for Capra – and America: WWII. This big Oscar wining director was commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He directed or co-directed ten documentary propaganda films during the war, including the seven-episode U.S. government-commissioned Why We Fight series, which is widely considered a masterpiece (Capra regarded these films as his most important works). As a colonel, he received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.
Capra was a Republican who was active in the anti-Communist cause and also donated funds to the Human Life Amendment PAC. There aren’t many directors we can say that about today!
He died in La Quinta, California, of a heart attack in his sleep in 1991 at the age of 94. His work, his humor, and his grace – we will always have.
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