They’re Capra-Crazy (1941) 🇺🇸

Frank Capra with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable |

December 17, 2021

To Hollywood, Frank Capra represents the ultimate in directorial achievement, and there isn’t a player out there who wouldn’t be happy to work under his guiding genius. This is the story of the man.

by Whitney Williams

Not content merely to direct a film, Capra works on every story he produces, collaborating with the writer until the desired excellence is effected.

Hollywood has gone completely Capra-conscious, just as yesteryear Herr Lubitsch and Cecil DeMille, before him, occupied the center of the directorial stage.

The name of Frank Capra now is as familiar along the Boulevard, and nearly so in the outlands, as the most glamorous star.

To the film capital, he represents the ultimate in directorial achievement.

To theater managers, a craftsman whose pictures assure big returns at the box office.

And to audiences, his name attached to a production signifies exceptional entertainment. He is responsible for such hits as Broadway BillIt Happened One Night, and “Lady for a Day.”

Such honor immediately elevates Mrs. Capra’s boy Frank to a position of importance in the world of amusement, and makes him, at thirty-seven, a personage of high rank in Hollywood.

Were Horatio Alger still alive to tell the tale, this young Italian, native of Palermo and immigrant lad at the age of six, would be immortalized in one of his volumes. The title of “From Rags to Riches” already graces the cover of Alger’s most popular book. It would, of necessity, have to be used again, in describing his rise to eminence, for Capra’s life story reads like a success novel.

Born in Sicily, the youngest son of a vineyardist and one of seven children, when Frank was six his father decided to emigrate with his large family.

Destination — Los Angeles. They traveled third class, of course, and after passing through Ellis Island, entrained for the West Coast, carrying as much food as their accommodations would permit.

Once settled in their new home, the Capra children were placed in school. Frank particularly thirsted for knowledge. And despite his handicap of not knowing the English language, soon outstripped all his classmates, skipping grades and establishing a record for brilliancy.

But the Capra funds ran low, money had to be earned, so Frank and Tony, his elder brother, sold papers on the street.

Even at so early an age, his dramatic instincts evinced themselves, talents that later were to win him fame and fortune. When nightfall came and there remained many papers yet unsold, he worked out a plan whereby Tony would seem to be beating him.

Passers-by would stop to learn why the larger boy was picking on the smaller one, and Frank would weep that it was because he hadn’t sold all his papers. Whereupon, sympathetic listeners would relieve him of his bundle and Frank and Tony would run home hand in hand to show the family how much they had taken in that day.

During this period, Frank was looking ahead to the day he would need money to continue his education. Consequently, he saved every penny that did not go for family support.

In high school, he managed a paper route and devoted long hours to study. He wanted to be an engineer and at sixteen, when he was graduated, he applied for admission to the California Institute of Technology, popularly known as Cal-Tech. He couldn’t matriculate until eighteen, however, so spent the next two years with a pipe company making money to help pay his college expenses.

A brilliant student, Frank won a five-hundred-dollar scholarship at the end of his first year. He waited on tables and also became editor of the school paper, a paving position that netted him eighty dollars a month.

With the advent of the United States in the War, he left school in his senior year and enlisted. He felt he owed much to his adopted country. When the War was over, he returned home to find the family state of affairs in a tragic condition and he himself without funds.

So that he might complete his education, he took a position as tutor to a son of wealth. In this way, he saved enough to return to Cal-Tech and graduate with honors.

Unable to find an engineering job, he became interested in motion pictures, as a logical outlet for the stories he wrote. He enrolled in a scenario school, picked up what little information he could there, and so that he wouldn’t starve, sang for his suppers in cafes about town and pruned trees, at twenty cents each, for ranchers in the San Fernando Valley. All his friends in the Italian colony who hadn’t gone to school were earning comfortable livings, but there seemed no market for his talents.

Seriously, then, he applied himself to pictures, and in a laboratory job learned a great deal about films. Taking another job with a producing company, he won the friendship of a director who taught him many things and gave him the encouragement for which he was hungering.

He met an actor named Montague who was considering a production based upon a poem. Frank convinced him that he was the man he needed and became writer, director, technical crew, actor, and cutter. The one-reel picture, made in two days at a cost of seventeen hundred dollars, proved extraordinary. Pathe purchased it, the film ran two weeks on Broadway and received good notices.

The success of the novelty led to Pathe hiring Montague to make a series of twelve more one-reelers. The actor decided he’d do better by writing the poems himself, rather than filming classics, and fired Capra. As a consequence, he went broke, too stubborn to realize that Capra had been responsible for the success of the first film.

There followed, then, several years of jobs as gag man, with one thought uppermost in his mind — to direct.

Finally, Harry Langdon left Sennett to make feature-length comedies on his own. Capra sold him the idea of allowing him to direct. Among the several he made with Langdon was “The Strong Man,” regarded as one of the ten best pictures of 1926 and conceded by some critics the finest comedy ever made.

Langdon, like Montague, decided he didn’t need a director, could survive on his own merits, under his own direction. With Capra leaving him, the comedian’s career may be said to have come to an abrupt halt, never to be successfully resumed. Once again, Capra had proved his mettle.

A picture career is difficult, at best, and Capra returned to his estate of gag man, wondering when, and if, he would ever get a break. Many months passed before this opportunity arrived.

Harry Cohn of Columbia, who likes his coworkers as young and ambitious as his company, invited him over to his studio for a chat. He was so impressed by Capra’s enthusiasm, to say nothing of his pertinent ideas about pictures, that he assigned him to an unimportant program picture. The young director endowed it with so much charm and incisiveness that the picture was released as a special, and with his signing a directorial contract as a result of this film, Capra was on his way.

To-day, Capra remains as modest and unassuming as that moment, thirty-one years ago, when he gazed in awe at America’s welcoming beacon, the Statue of Liberty, in New York harbor. Rich now in laurels and experience, he is yet that simple Italian boy who looked ahead at great things to come.

He always keeps in the background, shunning publicity as others seek it. He does not care for praise. To him, the great success of his various pictures is merely work well done.

Not content merely to direct a film, he works, without credit, on every story he produces, collaborating with the writer until the desired effect is achieved. During production, every waking hour is devoted to the picture, and upon completion he refers to the feature not as my picture but as our picture. He has never been known to lose his temper on a set and always is most liberal in giving credit where credit is due.

His theories of direction are amazingly simple. So simple, in fact, that they show the man as the artist he really is.

He regards himself as an audience, the representative of all audiences everywhere. He discusses a scene with his players, listens to their interpretations of it, then rehearses them. If he reacts to the scene, he orders the cameras to start grinding.

If, however, he doesn’t believe absolutely in it, he continues rehearsals and discussions until the scene finally registers with him. He has discovered that invariably the “take” he prefers is the one audiences as a whole enjoy. The success of all Capra pictures vindicates his judgment of what the public likes.

One of the reasons why his characters always appear so human, so perfectly cast, is because he capitalizes upon the natural talents of an actor. A case in point is Clark Gable.

He saw a comedian in Gable, a lusty-humored chap capable of doing great things once the opportunity presented itself. He put the actor in “It Happened One Night” and you know the result. He turned in one of the best performances of the year.

In the same picture, he gave Claudette Colbert all the rope in the world, saw in her, too, a comedienne and directed accordingly. Like Gable, Miss Colbert contributed a fine job.

The foregoing are only two examples of what Capra accomplishes with his people. There isn’t a star in Hollywood who wouldn’t jump at the chance to work with him, for he inspires all with new courage, and determination. He never stifles the emotions or cramps the style of his players. That is one explanation why actors give such outstanding characterizations under his directorship.

As retiring in his private life as he is reserved at the studio and professionally, he seldom goes out socially. He has few intimate friends, believing that old friends are best. He lives simply with his wife and baby, and his favorite dish is the spaghetti and ravioli his mother prepares especially for him.

His one extravagance is books. He has one of the finest collections of first editions in Hollywood and constantly is on the look-out to augment it with some rare volume.

Capra’s is one of the outstanding success stories of the decade. From immigrant boy, without knowledge of our language, he has risen to foremost prominence in the nation’s fourth largest industry and the recipient of highest award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Frank Capra with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable when they were making It Happened One Night, the picture which received the Academy award.

Source: Picture Play Magazine, August 1935