Where to Start with Frank Capra

Three-time Oscar-winning Italian-American director Frank Capra was born in 1897 in Sicily and emigrated with his family to Los Angeles as a child. With an engineer’s mind and a gift for self-promotion and collaboration from the start, it was perhaps inevitable that he ended up working in the movies.

After confidently talking his way into directing his first short film, Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House (1922), Capra’s Hollywood career saw a couple of false starts as he clashed with some of the comedians he worked with as a gag writer before he truly hit the big time upon his move to Columbia. There, he made a string of acclaimed and profitable hits over a decade from 1928 to 1939.

The war seemed to change Capra’s creative output, however. In and among making the “Why We Fight” series of documentary films (which he insisted weren’t propaganda) for the American forces, his old-fashioned moralistic feature films became out of step with the post-war American mood. His films never had the same mass appeal or guarantee of success again, and he seemed to fall out of love with the art and the business he had such a huge part to play in as stars moved to the fore and studios seemed to trust directors less. 

Capra co-founded an independent studio, Liberty Films, in 1945, which only made two features over two years before folding, one of which was the box office failure that became a Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. After Liberty, Capra only made four more films in his career, two of which were remakes of his earlier hits. He retired in the mid-1960s in joint second place for the number of Best Director Academy Award wins along with Liberty Films partner William Wyler (both were overtaken by John Ford), but kept winning awards for his contribution to American culture and society for the rest of his life.

But where do you begin with such an illustrious and far-ranging career behind the camera? Allow us to offer a recommended route in this guide: Where to Start with Frank Capra.

1. It Happened One Night (1934)

The first ever winner of the “Big 5” Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), it is no exaggeration that Capra’s witty romantic comedy made his career. He may have been politically savvy and keen to interrogate the American Dream, but when it came to love he was a desperate romantic.

Fleeing her domineering father, who is looking to stop her marrying the man she loves, rich and spoilt heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) goes on the run without much of a plan and reluctantly accepts the help of down-and-out journalist Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who has a nose for a good story.

Some of the views and turns of phrase may be old-fashioned, but there’s a reason this is still so beloved by audiences in its 90th year. When they’re not making eyes at each other, or pretending like they wouldn’t both throw it all away to be with each other, we are gifted some of the most memorable comic set pieces of all time. From the censor-pushing “The Walls of Jericho” scene to Peter and Ellie’s very different attempts to flag down a ride and all the shenanigans that take place on a cramped commuter bus. 

Gable and Colbert are the epitome of movie star cool, yet somehow they still feel attainable, on our level, and are full of amusing quirks and relatable flaws that come out as they try to figure out exactly how they feel about each other. They’re just adorable when they bicker and worth a full swoon when they finally listen to their hearts.

Frank Capra famously didn’t like flashy cinematography or editing, believing it got in the way of a good story, and this is a prime example where it pretty much all comes down to great screen chemistry. It Happened One Night is a road movie without much incident, but it gives his actors ample space to build their characters layer by layer and bounce off each other, resulting in some hilarious and warm repartee. This is the classic mismatched pairing to measure all others by, one which organically progresses from hatred, to ambivalence, to affection, and to inevitably falling head over heels with each other. Love really does conquer all – class, wealth and precarious barriers in the bedroom.  

2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The best example of Frank Capra as an intensely political and moralistic filmmaker is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which he crafts an underdog protagonist fighting a corrupt system for the ages. Understandably controversial at the time for daring to suggest that American legislature was not a bastion of morality, this was Capra very intentionally making waves, which was pretty unusual for a Conservative Republican.

When a US senator in the pocket of big business dies suddenly, naïve scout leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is nominated as his replacement, his eager idealism quickly eroded by the corrupt machinations at the Capitol. He is forced to make a stand on the biggest public stage – the Senate floor.

James Stewart as Jefferson Smith is as American as Apple Pie. Though he couldn’t have been more different in looks and personality from his star, Capra found the ideal screen stand-in for how he felt about the world in this, just their second collaboration. There have been some great movies about people blissfully ignorant of the dirty game that is politics being manipulated by those in power, but Mr Smith is the straightest of arrows that stands out in a world of murky grey. As his mentor-turned agitator Senator Payne (Claude Rains, benignly despicable) puts it, “This boy’s honest, not stupid”.

Smith may well have gone along with politicians being bought and paid for if his own dream wasn’t shattered by the interests of big business, namely his chosen location for a boys’ summer outreach camp being the same as the land secretly put aside for the building of a dam that will make the fat cats’ wallets fatter; the kind of guy who arrives in Washington D.C. for the first time and takes off to see all the landmarks like a wide-eyed schoolboy before getting started, but will also fight against anything he sees as wrong to within an inch of his life.

Because it was bold enough in 1939 to not only explain how it all works but also to talk about what can happen if the American legislature is abused by those with money and without scruples, Mr Smith somehow doesn’t come off as jingoistic. It’s idealistic, sure; a dream of being able to make the system work the way it’s supposed to simply through an act of resilience and holding the moral high ground, by refusing to play dirty like your opponents. It also helps to fill every available space with memorable supporting players, from Jean Arthur’s sharp, cynical Saunders to Edward Arnold’s repulsive power player Taylor and Harry Carey’s wry President of the Senate, all of whom orbit the luminous star that is Stewart who makes Smith’s filibusterer grandstanding the best show in town.

3. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Frank Capra was also incredibly accomplished at orchestrating complex, absurdist comedy farces, and this may be his best example of such. It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You might have both had one foot in the screwball comedy sub-genre, but this was free-wheeling and funny in earnest. Capra’s batting average when it comes to comedy was astounding – even his more serious efforts always have a wry wit to them – but he could do silly very well too.

Based on Joseph Kesselring’s smash hit Broadway play, we follow writer Mortimer Brewster and his new wife Elaine (Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane) as they return to their home town to pack for their honeymoon only to find a tangled web of multiple-murdering old biddies, a man who thinks he’s a historical president, and a man who looks an awful lot like a horror icon.

Just trying to describe the basic plot beats of this one can put you in a muddle, and that’s the point – the series of events are so bizarre and unpredictable that you’re probably best just going with the craziness and enjoying seeing how everyone responds to everything spiralling out of control. The gallows humour / dark comic tone (which verges on horror) feels very like the kinds of films Ealing Studios would become famous for producing a few years later.

Just some of the highlights: bodies are found crammed into furniture, Mortimer’s aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) are responsible for most of the violence before and during the film, his brother Teddy (John Alexander) thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and shouts “Charge!” every time he climbs the stairs, his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) is a career criminal and since receiving plastic surgery from Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre) now looks just like Boris Karloff.

In and among all of this you have a couple just trying to complete a really simple task so they can leave and get on with their lives. Watching Cary Grant begin as his usual smooth and charming self, and get increasingly exasperated and hysterically panicked at the actions of his eccentric (read: mad) family is a joy. He is a really gifted physical comedian and fits right in to this ensemble of larger-than-life characters (one of the only times where Peter Lorre is one of the more subtle players) carrying out their macabre designs. Capra took a hit with audiences from the stage and made it his own crowd-pleaser, perhaps his last great movie. And he didn’t even need the real Boris Karloff to do it.

Recommended for you: Where to Start with Cary Grant

Frank Capra directed 36 films and many more documentaries over four decades, and there really aren’t many duds among them. He may have lost his passion and his inspiration later in his career, but what prolific filmmaker doesn’t? He was one of the few directors whose name above the title would bring audiences in for well over a decade, and he was behind so many iconic moments, memorable one-liners and some of the strongest work from film stars of the 1930s and 1940s; he really could do anything and you really could start anywhere. If you enjoy some or all of the films above, seek out some more of Frank Capra’s singular work like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or Meet John Doe. Or you could just watch It’s a Wonderful Life again this Christmas.

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