Frank Capra: Finding His American Identity Through Film
Today, Frank Capra is celebrated as one of the most influential and important directors of the last century. What makes Frank Capra so enigmatic in American culture is his impact in film that has crossed boundaries and infiltrated various aspects of society, such as politics, family values, and patriotism. Capra’s vision for America was the belief that community was one of the most important aspects of life and it was the duty for the common man to defend the rights of those incapable. His films, many of which have stood the test of time, have been held as institutions in our culture and are staples in numerous Top Film lists. However, his popular status has wavered throughout his career, spanning from being one of the most popular filmmakers in the country to all near losing his relevance as an artist. Criticized for the themes featured in his films, Capra was a diehard patriot. Capra’s version of the American Dream is likely one not rooted in his heritage, for he was consistently adamant on remaining as “non-ethnic” as possible in many of his films.
Coming to America
Frank Capra came from modest beginnings; his original birth name being Francescao Rosario Capra. He was born on May 18, 1897 in a small village near Palermo, in Sicily, Italy to parents Salvatore and Sarah. The youngest of seven, young Francesco was raised Roman Catholic and immigrated to America with his family in 1903 when he was five. His religious upbringing helped shape and mold the ideals he held with esteem throughout his career.
Among his first impressions of America, in his biography The Name Above The Title,Capra describes traveling from Italy for thirteen days on the steerage section of a boat. He stated that the journey was “one of the worst experiences of his life.” His family partook in this method of travel because it was the cheapest voyage. The Capras settled in East LA, now considered Chinatown. Capra again notes on his childhood, describing his neighborhood as an “Italian ghetto”. Capra quickly learned that the American Dream he was first introduced to, was one that consisted of long hours of factory labor.
His family name itself, “Capra” means closeness to land and is literally translated as “goat”. The word “capricious” neatly describes two aspects of Capra, his emotionalism and his obstinacy. Shortly after earning his Bachelors of Science degree in Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, he decided to enter the US Army to join the World War I efforts.
Capra had an interesting start in the film business. Through intelligence and hard work, he was able to break into the movie industry, first beginning as a technician in a developing house. From there, he began working on silent films and “fillers” which were short intermission comedies. By literally working his way from the ground floor up, he was able to rise higher in rank and eventually become a commodity for Columbia Pictures. With the rise of the “talkies” or the sound picture, Capra happened to hit the industry at just the right time, becoming the premiere director for this new technology.
There a number of themes and motifs that make up a quintessential “Capra” film. From the start of his career, the director made an effort to rid himself of that “Italian” persona he was born with and tried furiously to better integrate into American culture. A true embodiment of the “rags to riches” story, he had risen from discriminated immigrant worker to one of the most popular film figures of the early twentieth century. Film historian Ian Freer is noted as describing Capra as “the American dream personified”. What version of the dream he may mean is the idea of rising from nothing to achieve social success and fame. This concept was first thought of being applied to Abraham Lincoln’s small town roots and how he pulled himself up with hard work from living in a log cabin to eventually living in the White House. The notion of this “right to rise” is one that continues to resonate in American culture, even today, but most particularly in the early twentieth century where the US was seen as “the land of opportunity”.
Being Italian during the 1930s came with a variety of connotations. The New York Yankees signed Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra was just beginning his career, and gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were convicted and running rampant on the streets. These were the faces American people associated with Italians – exciting, charming, and dangerous personas. Frequently, Capra’s personal life was associated with that of knife wielding gangster or others of the like. Rather, Capra lived much of his life attempting to shake this close correlation to his homeland. He felt that the best way to better assimilate in American culture was to not identify himself with this certain heritage. Many of his most famous works feature “non-ethnic” families.
During the mid 1930s, Capra reached the height of his fame. He made history with his 1934 film It Happened One Night by sweeping the Academy Awards and winning in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay; a first time ever this feat was completed. His films were noted as being entertaining and delightful distractions from the looming Depression happening throughout the US. Considered the second most famous director in the film industry during the 30s, second only to Cecil B. DeMille, Capra is a great example of being in the right place at the right time. It Happened One Night was a prototypical comedy and the film’s light nature likely lead to its extreme popularity during the year of its release. Capra had a knack for intertwining compelling drama and comedy plots to really captivate his audiences.
However, one of the most notable “Capresque” films would probably be Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Most of the general public admires Capra for his work on It’s A Wonderful Life but it is here with Mr. Smith that Capra’s visions for America really come to fruition. Perhaps his most controversial work, he poured incredible amounts of research into creating the film. His own description of the film’s purpose was that “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 reception was more than favorable and left audiences with an enthusiasm for democracy. One extremely enthusiastic viewer wrote “[The film] should be shown to every member of the Senate and Congress, and if the outcome of this exhibition were a law making it compulsory for every citizen of the US to see it, then I should be satisfied.” Between this film, and his next Meet John Doe (1941), a similar theme was rising. Capra favored narratives about the “common” man. This idea of an everyday American appealed greatly to the assimilated citizen. It has been suggested that this film, Meet John Doe was semi-autobiographical for Capra.
Elaborating on the themes expressed in Capra’s most famous works, two of the most reoccurring subjects is selflessness and a familial sense of community. Although most of the families represented in his films are “non-ethnic” they share similar qualities with quintessential Italian-American families. Large gatherings and a strong paternal figure both lend to the Catholic social vision. Capra was raised a Catholic, so despite his best efforts, subconscious links to his childhood and roots found their way in some of his greatest films. The concept of a selfless, sacrificing man caring for the needs of not only his family, but of the common people is prevalent in Mr. Smith. Catholic ideology involves the idea that caring for others comes before caring for one’s own self. Also, the Catholic idea of communion is predominant in Capra’s works as well. Coming together in family oriented scenes was a common motif he used. Many of Capra’s films center on an idealistic hero rising up to fight the good honest fight. This theme has frequently been criticized by film reviewers as being overly simplistic and the term “Capra-corn” is coined. The term refers to the “corny” and too idealistic notions presented in his work during the late 30s and early 40s, just before the decline in his career.
The downfall of his career was related to his extreme patriotism and refusal to believe in the flaws of the American system. There was a clear break in Capra’s directorial style, with the year 1936 being a visible break in ideology. Films previous to this year were typically more mild-mannered fluff comedies while films later than this year take on a much more politically charged and ethical spin. His earlier films approach this schema by first satirizing a rich WASP (White Anglo-Saxton Protestant) society, while trying to match positive ethnic traits with mainstream counterparts. However, Capra also held somewhat of a political pessimism, which involved an embattled antimaterialism and consciousness of the loss of smalltown America, expressed in Capra’s belief that moral uplift rather than political change was the best hope for future generations. Rooting his belief in the “little guy”, Capra interjected his own social climb as hope for his audiences. There is a great stress on the importance of the battle between good and evil in his films as well.
Why We Fight and Blind Patriotism
During his Why We Fight film series designed to explain the purpose of World War II to American soldiers, Capra’s patriotism comes to its true height. The seven film documentary series created by the U.S. Government had Capra direct these propaganda films in hopes of garnering support during the war for America. At first the purpose was strictly to show American soldiers embarking to Europe, but were later shown throughout the US. This project was a perfect niche for Capra to express his devotion to America. The commercial and government-sponsored project exemplified key aspects of Capra’s American Dream: optimism, rural virtue over urban corruption, hopes for classless society, and patriotism. However, the films deeply ignored the flaws in society and denied any chance of virtue or value in any enemies.
His most famous and celebrated film, It’s a Wonderful Life, at first had very poor critical and public reception. It was not until the 1970s that the film become appreciated as an American classic. The story of George Bailey was Capra’s hand at an escapism film – or the idea of breaking from the perceived American dream. This theme has occurred throughout time in numerous film narratives, the most recent example being Sam Mendes’ 2000 film American Beauty. He felt that there was call to redefine what makes a happy American and express a desire for life beyond the means of the common man. What was found at the conclusion of the film was that materialistic greed would only cause misfortune and with only the company of friends and family can a man be truly happy. On embarking on this pursuit of happiness, Capra determines in the infamous line from the movie: “no man is a failure who has friends.”
Although his popularity was instrumental in the rise of Columbia Pictures, Capra’s long standing legacy is rooted in his compelling film narratives. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Capra centered on the rise of the “little man” and frequently featured strong female roles, something almost unheard of during the 30s and 40s film industry. Sometimes criticized for not touching on racial issues, Capra was a spearhead in the Italian-American film movement in Hollywood, perhaps against his best intentions. Being a simple man with modest needs, he spoke to the plethora of Americans wanting to make their own honest living after the Depression. However, with the end of the Depression and World War II, Capra’s idealistic uplifting themes lost their relevancy with the American public. As the film industry began to change and a new generation of filmmakers came forth, Capra eventually retired from making movies.
To summarize what Frank Capra would consider the American Dream, it would be one based along the vein of America being a land of opportunity. Although he differs from the ideology of Italian-American filmmakers of the generation following his time, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppolla, Capra chose to not identify himself with his Italian roots. Rather, he felt it was necessarily to fully integrate himself within American culture by remaining as ethnically neutral as possible. America is where Capra was able to truly find himself and hone his artistic talents. Perhaps it is for this specific fact that he had such a strong and unwavering devotion to American democracy. Celebrated in a number of his films, the “rags-to-riches” story that Capra identified himself with was a prevalent theme in the majority of his movies. Capra valued the work ethic of the common man and wanted to keep with the American traditions of small rural-esque towns. He believed there was corruption and sin to be found in big urbanization. Only through honest hard work and looking out for the incapable and incompetent can a man truly reach his purpose in American society. Capra valued the familial notion and putting others before one’s self. He felt that there was sin in greed or wanting more outside one’s designated means.
This version of the American dream is definitely one frequently seen during this time period of great immigration in the 1930s. However, it has its drawbacks by being incredibly unrealistic. Capra was an artist, so it is understandable that his view of America would be extremely romanticized. Regardless, this perspective is almost blindingly problematic in its refusal to address the flaws of American society. I think using his celebrity and cinematic voice to spread his aspirations for his fellow citizens was endearing, but again horribly impractical. It worked well during the Depression in terms of lifting spirits and keeping up morale, but as he progressed further into the 40s and early 50s, Capra’s relevance was lost in the film industry.
Capra holds an important role in not only cinematic history, but American history as well. He is a quintessential example of the “rags-to-riches” story so romanticized by immigrants during the early twentieth century. His artistry and pure devotion to America and sometimes blind patriotism is the true embodiment of a man so desperate to assimilate, his work may have sometimes been compromised. Regardless, Frank Capra will long remain a staple in great American cinema for the remainder of history and his legacy of “Capra-corn” feel-good films will forever be viewed and appreciated.
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 Briley, Ron, “Meet John Doe, Frank Capra, and Baseball: The Celebration and Dark Side of the American Dream.” (1997) 5.
 McBride, Joseph, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (New York: St. Martin’ Press, 1992) 295.
 de las Carreras Kuntz, María Elena, “The Catholic Vision in Hollywood: Ford, Capra, Borzage and Hitchcock” (2008) 123.
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