Frank Russell Capra was born Francesco Rosario Capra on May 18, 1897, in a village near Palermo named Bisacquino, Sicily. His father, Salvatore Capra, was a fruit grower; his mother was Rosaria “Serah” Nicolosi Capra. His Roman Catholic family consisted of his parents and six older siblings.
“The name `Capra,’ notes Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride, represents his family’s closeness to the land, and means `goat’. He notes that the English word `capricious’ derives from it, `evoking the animal’s skittish temperament’, adding that `the name neatly expresses two aspects of Frank Capra’s personality: emotionalism and obstinacy.”
The Capra family immigrated to the United States in 1903 when young Frank was five years old; they traveled in the cheapest way by purchasing passage in the steerage section of the boat. The journey took 13 days. Frank considered the journey to be “one of his worst experiences.” His reasons included: (1) no privacy, (2) one’s space is a cot, (3) no one changed clothes, causing a terrible smell, (4) no ventilation, and (5) very degrading place.
When the ship arrived in New York Harbor, Capra saw `a statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a torch above the land we were about to enter.” His father exclaimed, “Ciccio, look! Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.”
The family’s first American home was in Los Angeles’s East Side (or Chinatown as it is known today). Capra described it as an Italian “ghetto” in his autobiography. With his father working as a fruit picker, Frank used his after-school hours to sell newspapers; he continued selling newspapers until he graduated from high school. He enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and worked his way through college playing banjo at nightclubs and taking odd jobs such as working at the campus laundry, waiter, and cleaning engines. He graduated from college in 1918 with a chemical engineering degree. He explained that his college experience had “changed his whole viewpoint on life from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person.”
Capra was “short, stocky, and vigorous”; he “enjoyed outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, and mountain climbing.” His hobbies included writing short stories and sons, playing guitar, collecting fine and rare books (1930-1940s). “His `Distinguished Library’ was sold at auction in New York in 1949, realizing over $68,000.”
In 1923, Capra married actress Helen Howell; they divorced in 1928 and he married Lucille Warner in the same year. Capra had four children with his second wife with one of them dying in infancy. One of his sons is Frank Capra, Jr. who was the president of EUE Screen Gems Studios located in Wilmington, North Carolina, until he passed away on December 19, 2007. Frank Capra III, a grandson, is a Hollywood director who was an assistant director in “The American President” (1995); his grandfather was referred to in the film’s dialogue.
Capra became an influential director in the 1930s and won three Oscars as Best Director. His leading films included: (1) “It Happened One Night” (1934), (2) “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938), and (3) “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). “It Happened One Night” was “the first film to win all five top Oscars, including Best Picture.”
World War II brought a change into Capra’s life. He served in the US Army Signal Corps and made films for propaganda, including the “Why We Fight” series. The change continued when the war ended as “his later films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were critically derided as being `simplistic’ or `overly idealistic’. Succeeding generations liked his films.
Capra did not limit his influence to films but was active in various political and social issues. He was President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences four times, worked alongside the Screenwriters Guild, and led the Directors Guild of America three times.
A conservative Republican, Capra “promoted and celebrated the spirit of American individualism” in his films. He was against Franklin Delano Roosevelt while he was governor of New York State and as President of the United States during the Great Depression. He was “against government intervention during the national economic crisis.”
Capra had a series of strokes beginning in 1985 at age 88. He died at age 94 on September 3, 1991, in La Quinta, California, of a heart attack in his sleep. He was interred in the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery in Coachella, California. Some film historians consider Capra to be the “American dream personified” because of his rags-to-riches story.
Capra “left part of his 1,100-acre ranch in Fallbrook, California, to Caltech as a retreat center. [His] personal papers and some film related materials are contained in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, which allows scholars and media experts full access.”
In March 2015, John Marini of the University of Nevada at Reno, spoke at Hillsdale College during a conference on the films of Frank Capra; his speech was entitled “Frank Capra’s America and Ours.” He began with “Filmmaker Frank Capra was not an American by birth or blood. Consequently he did not understand America, as many Americans do today, in terms of personal categories of identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. He understood America in terms of its political principles – the moral principles of America that can be shared by all who understand them and are willing to live up to them.”
Much later in the speech Marini said, “Capra’s last great movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, was made in 1946. Shortly before making it, he said, `There are just two things that are important. One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.’ This movie, he wrote, summed up his philosophy of filmmaking: `First, to exalt the worth of the individual; to champion man – plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit or divinity.’ Capra understood that Hollywood would be changing, because the culture and society had begun to change. The historical and personal categories of class and race had become political, and self-expression and self-indulgence had replaced those civic virtues that require self-restraint. In his 1971 autobiography --imagine what he would think today – he wrote that `practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the “patronage” of deviates.' “
Marini spoke of his father’s directive to remember Freedom. “Capra remembered. In his speech to the Hollywood elite so many years later, he revealed his formula for moviemaking. 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.’ …
“For Capra, the real America was to be understood in terms of its virtues, which are derived from its principles. In his view, his art was dedicated to keeping those virtues alive – by making those principles live again in the speeches and deeds of that most uncommon phenomenon of human history, the American common man. It was the simple, unsophisticated, small-town common American that Capra celebrated in his films….”