Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film History Paper #1... Frank Capra by Michelle Imbordino

Every semester I pick three outstanding final papers from my Film History class at the College of DuPage.  I will be posting these throughout the week.

First up... Michelle Imbordino's take on FRANK CAPRA.


by Michelle Imbordino

            Throughout the history of film, there have been many wonderful directors whose work have, and will continue to transcend time. One of these directors is Frank Capra. Frank Capra had an exciting life and a directing career that was so magnificent and stylistically his own that he can be called an auteur director.

             Much like characters in Frank Capra movies, Capra lived an interesting life that was full of ups and downs. Frank Capra was born as Francesco Rosario Capra on May 18th, 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily. He was the youngest of seven, and his family was Roman Catholic. When Capra was five, his family decided to chase the American Dream and come to the US. They settled in an Italian ghetto in Los Angeles. Later on, Frank Capra graduated high school, and then went to college and graduated in chemical engineering. After graduating, and during World War I, Capra decided to enlist in the army (Wikipedia). While in the army he taught math to artillerymen at Fort Scott, San Francisco. A year later, his father died, and then Capra caught the Spanish flu and was medically discharged. In 1920, he became a US citizen and took the name Frank Russell Capra.

After finally recovering, Frank Capra decided to travel around the western US for a couple of years and worked odd jobs along the way. Then, one day Capra read a newspaper article about a new movie studio opening, called them, and then was able to land a job with them. Capra didn't really have any experience, but none the less the studio founder was still impressed and offered him money to direct a one-reel silent film (Wikipedia). Afterward, Capra began to look for more similar jobs in the film industry. He took a position with a minor studio, and then was offered, and received and job to work at Harry Cohn's new studio at the time. Later on, Capra became a gag writer for Hal Roach's Our Gang series, and then wrote for slapstick comedy director, Mack Sennett, where he wrote scripts for the comedian Harry Langdon. Harry Langdon and Frank Capra formed a bond, and so when Langdon left, and moved to First National Studios, he took Capra along too as his personal writer and director. Between 1926 and 1927, they made 3 feature films together, which were all successes with the critics and the public (Wikipedia). But then, Capra and Langdon had a falling out and Capra was fired. In 1928, Capra went back to Harry Cohn's studio, which was now named Columbia Pictures. During this time, sound was making its way into film. Because of Capra's engineering background, it wasn't difficult for him to adapt to the change.

In 1934, Frank Capra's movie It Happened One Night was released. This was the movie that put not only Capra on the map, but also Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and Columbia Pictures. It was also the first film to win all five top Oscars (Wikipedia).

His next film was Broadway Bill. Broadway Bill was a turning point in his career. It was with this movie that his style and themes came about. Capra continued on to make more successful movies through the 30's. In 1936, he made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and won his second best director Oscar for it. In 1938, You Can’t Take It with You was released, which Capra received his third director Oscar for. Then, in 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released, and the following year Meet John Doe came out ("Biography").

In December 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, which led Frank Capra to enlist as a major in the United States Army. During that time, he was asked to direct and produce documentaries that explained to the public the reasons for the US entry into World War II (Wikipedia). His series of documentaries was called Why We Fight. They were a mix of documentary footage, animation from Walt Disney, and staged sequences shot in Hollywood (Dixon). After the war ended, Frank Capra got together with William Wyle and George Steven and founded their own studio called Liberty Films. Liberty Films one and only film was It's a Wonderful Life. It's a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, and failed at the box office. Regardless, it was still nominated for five academy awards. In 1948, Capra chose to work with MGM Pictures to make the movie State of the Union. This was the only time he worked with MGM Pictures (Wikipedia).

As the 40's started coming to a close, it was evident that Capra's themes and ideas were out of synch with the rest of nation, which had been socially transformed by the war. Not only that, but the film industry was also changing (Dixon). During the Korean War, in 1950, Capra tried to re-enlist in the Army, but was turned down. He was dejected. By 1952, Capra had mostly retired from Hollywood, and went on to produce educational films on science topics for Caltech. Capra's last film was Rendezvous in Space, and it was released in 1964 (Wikipedia). By 1967, Capra was officially retired from Hollywood.

In Capra's personal life, he had two wives. He was married to his first wife, Helen Howell, between 1923 and 1928. Then, in 1928, he married his second wife Lucille Warner. They ended up having 3 children together, and then their children then went on to have children of their own (Wikipedia). Between 1939 and 1941, Frank Capra was the President of the Screen Directors Guild. He was also the president of the Directors Guild of America (or DGA) between 1960 and 1961. In 1982, Frank Capra received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute ("1982...”). Three years later, and at the age of 88, Frank Capra died. The following year he was awarded the Nation Medal of Arts (Wikipedia). While Frank Capra may have died, he also lived, and boy, did he live greatly.

            As one of the most beloved directors, Frank Capra's impact on the history of film is undeniable. For starters, Frank Capra put Columbia Studios, which was once one of the studios on poverty row, on the map. He also helped the careers of Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Jean Arthur (Wikipedia). Another major impact Frank Capra had on the history of film, was being one of the first creators of the film movement screwball comedy. Screwball comedies are characterized as movies where there's farcical situations, a unpredictable plot, battle of the sexes, escapist themes, plot lines involving courtship and marriage, witty dialogue, and they typically follow a couple that doesn't like each other at first but then grows to love each other by the end. Capra's first screwball comedy was It Happened One Night. Some of his other screwball comedies include Broadway Bill, You Can’t Take It with You, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ("Screwball..."). Screwball comedies blew up during the Great Depression because they were escapist films; and if there was anything Frank Capra was excellent at, it was creating escapist films. His next greatest impact on film history was just that; providing movie goers throughout time, and especially during the Great Depression, with the hope and joy they needed to continue on, because with the absence of hope, there is no life.

            Stylistically and thematically Frank Capra's films were his own. Because of this, he is considered an auteur. One major characteristic of Frank Capra films is that each one is able to strike the perfect balance between light and dark. There is pain and loss, but never any deep sense of tragedy. Also, in some Capra films, the story revolves around a simple man who tries to fight corruption in a society, and then in the end he triumphs. The best example of this is probably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of a naive, idealistic man who goes to Washington to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. Things don't go as planned, and he is faced with political corruption, which he stubbornly opposes until he wins in the last minutes. Another characteristic in Frank Capra films is his use of vertical swipe transitions. One example is the movie It's a Wonderful Life, where there's many. Another aspect of many Frank Capra films is wise-cracking and sharp dialogue. This can probably be best seen in his screwball comedies. For example, the movie It Happened One Night. In said movie, there is a lot of witty banter between the two main characters. Banter that has mostly resulted because the characters had issues surrendering their feelings to each other. Another characteristic of Capra movies is his choice of actors and actress. In more than one film the following stars, star: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper. Furthermore, I don't think anyone can describe Frank Capra movies better than he did when he received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1982. He said "The art of Frank Capra is very, very simple: It's the love of people. Add two simple ideals to this love of people: the freedom of each individual and the equal importance of each individual, and you have the principle upon which I based all my films" (Frank Capra Accepts).

            Frank Capra was a remarkable, auteur director, who's work will live on in infamy, or at least so long as movies exist. He was a man who restored human spirits, with just a little bit of magic. A man who's genuine, feel-good films that in a kaleidoscope whirlwind and yin and yang fashion, mix the pain of life with the joy in perfect harmony, will always be cherished.

Works Cited

"1982 FRANK CAPRA TRIBUTE." American Film Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.             <http://www.afi.com/laa/laa82.aspx>.

"Biography." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.   <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001008/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm>.

Dixon, Wheeler W., and Gwendolyn Audrey. Foster. A Short History of Film. Vol. 2. New          Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013. Print.

Frank Capra Accepts the 10th AFI Life Achievement Award in 1982. Perf. Frank             Capra. YouTube. AFI, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.         <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t746ZVw09P4>.

"Frank Capra". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia
            Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2014     <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/94149/Frank-Capra>.

"Frank Capra." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 May 2014. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.             <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Capra>.

"Screwball Comedy Film." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2014. Web. 09 Dec.         2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screwball_comedy_film>.

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