Men Behind the Stars — Frank Capra (1936) 🇺🇸

Frank Capra |

January 14, 2022

The spectacular and award-winning production of 1934, “It Happened One Night,” was directed by a Hollywood genius — Frank Capra.

Director of “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town”

Although Capra had won recognition as a director who could be trusted with a story he didn’t allow any momentary success to give him an inflated opinion of himself. He was going along in his quiet, unassuming way, making pictures and making them well. True, he had won encomiums for his sympathetic treatment of “The Miracle Woman” and “Forbidden,” two pictures that starred Barbara Stanwyck. And he continued to apply the human touch in his skillful direction of Lady for a Day, the picture that made May Robson a screen star.

Yet it wasn’t until he had fashioned It Happened One Night that his reputation was firmly established as one of Hollywood’s outstanding directors. It was acclaimed such a success that people were asking: “Who is this man Capra?” His knack for combining pathos and humor and making his characters lifelike was something that had escaped most of his contemporaries. Capra’s star was now shining brilliantly.

On the heels of his success came Broadway Bill which, while not having the entertainment value of the prize-winning picture, still carried out the Capra qualities. After this achievement and feeling that all work and no play might bring about a dull picture, Capra decided to take a year’s vacation away from the studio. He returned to make Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Its success proved that he was still the master of the human touch. He is now working on James Hilton’s best seller, Lost Horizon. It stars Ronald Colman. This is without question the director’s most ambitious picture as it carries a more pictorial sweep than his previous films.

Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Palermo, Sicily. His family migrated to America when he was six years old and settled in Los Angeles. His boyhood ambition was to become an engineer. He devoted long hours to study and spent his “playtime” selling newspapers to earn his tuition at California Tech, where he matriculated at the age of eighteen. It was during his freshman year that he won a scholarship prize.

When the United States entered the World War he enlisted in the army and, because, of his remarkable linguistic ability, was appointed an instructor. When Frank returned from the war he had to give up, temporarily, his college education in order to support the family — his father having died during his absence.

A position as tutor enabled him to complete his education — but it had other advantages, too. He had access to an extensive library, and spent many hours reading every type of literature in the hope that, some day, he might turn his creative mind to the writing of stories that others would want to read. He had given some thought to motion pictures, and soon realized that they would be a logical outlet for his stories. So he entered a school and learned what little he could about motion picture production.

“Before he signed a long-term contract with Columbia he made two-reelers for Christie Comedies, and Toonerville comedy shorts for the Paul Gerson Company. Eventually he landed a job as writer, director, technician, actor and cutter for Walter Montague, making a one-reel comedy. It won him wide praise and jobs as gag-man for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett.

Capra’s next adventure was with Harry Langdon, whom he persuaded to let him direct his first production, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. This was followed by “Long Pants”... then The Strong Man, which was considered one of the best pictures of 1926 — some critics even voting it the finest comedy ever made. Langdon soon decided that his director was unimportant, and Frank found himself out of a job.

While disappointed over losing out with Langdon he didn’t become discouraged. He waited the chance to do bigger things, and the opportunity came when he was given the job of directing “For the Love O’Mike,” starring Claudette Colbert, who had arrived in Hollywood with a big Broadway reputation. Capra was now on his way upward. Harry Colin, the boss of Columbia, (he likes his co-workers to be young and ambitious), was impressed by his new director’s enthusiasm... to say nothing of his pertinent ideas about motion picture direction. He asked him to direct an unimportant program film called “The Certain Thing.” Capra injected so much charm and brilliance into the picture that it was released as a special. As a result he became a full-fledged director, at last, and was given a long-term contract by Columbia.

Among the pictures he has directed are “Submarine,” “The Matinee Idol” and The Younger Generation, followed by Jack Holt’s first talking picture... “The Donovan Affair.” His next success was “Flight,” another production that made motion picture history. Also to his credit are Joe Cook’s “Rain or Shine,” Dirigible and Platinum Blonde — which groomed Jean Harlow for stardom.

Under his new contract, Capra has become one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood. With a reputation as a genius wherever pictures are made — Hollywood and elsewhere.

His recent election to the presidency of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences places him in the foremost niche of the motion picture industry. But few people know Capra outside of working hours. He rarely engages in social activities and between pictures (he averages three a year) he takes extended vacations with his wife, the former Lucille Reyburn, whom he married in 1932.

There is never any clowning or temperament displayed when Capra is at work, and he never works overtime. He doesn’t believe that it’s fair to the actors or his other co-workers. He has the habit of surrounding himself with familiar faces in a picture. You’ll notice, if you see many of his productions, that the same “bit” players always appear. His theories of direction are almost unbelievable when compared with those of his contemporaries. He is always ready to listen to suggestions from his players, and has often been known to accept ideas from an electrician or prop boy. He is extremely modest about his success. In answer to congratulations he usually replies: “Well, I think we have a swell picture.” It is always “we”... never “I.”

If you ask Capra his secret for making entertaining pictures he would tell you : “I have no formula. What I try to do is treat my characters, not as types, nor props to carry the action, but as human beings. Make them real people and they’re bound to get the sympathy of the other people watching the screen.”

While Columbia owes much to Frank Capra (it was the pictures he made for them that developed the enterprising organization into a major producing concern), the world, at large, owes him more. For your entertainment, interest and education, he has put forth his best efforts to make the best possible pictures. No one could ask more than that.

CollectionMotion Picture MagazineAugust 1936