Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Born Today May 18: Frank Capra


One of the giants of American cinema was born Francesco Rosario Capra (who later translated his name into English as Frank Russell Capra) in the Sicilian town of Biscaquino (of course part of Italy) into a family of fruit growers; he was the youngest of 7 children.  In 1903 the entire family immigrated to the United States.  The family was stuffed into the steerage section of the boat, the cheapest way to travel in those times; the journey took 13 days to complete.  For Capra it remained a vivid lifelong memory of a terrible experience.  The family like most Europeans immigrating to the US at the time, came in to the country through New York Harbor (gasping at the size of the Statue Of Liberty on their way in), but promptly made straight for California, settling in the Los Angeles area, in what is today Chinatown.  At that time it was what Capra himself called "an Italian ghetto."  Capra sold newspapers starting at age 10 and continued to do so through high school. His parents convinced him to enroll in college after graduating, instead of going directly to work, which he did.  He also worked through college at Cal Tech and took a slew of odd jobs; AND he worked at night, in clubs playing the banjo--this was his first foray into any sort of entertainment.  In college he studied chemical engineering and graduated in 1918.  Immediately after graduation he was commissioned in the US Army as a second lieutenant (made possible by his ROTC membership in college); he taught math to artillerymen at Fort Scott in San Francisco.  This didn't long; while in the army he caught the "Spanish flu" that was going around (the pandemic would kill millions across the globe); he was discharged and sent home.  With his father having died in an accident in 1916 and he being the only college educated member of the Capra household, it fell to him to provide for the family.  Nonetheless, he was unable to get work, and seeing all of his older siblings gaining steady work, he became depressed and felt a failure; to make matters worse, he discovered that abdominal problems that he had been suffering from was actually from a ruptured appendix.  He then faced another lengthy recovery.  He did managed to become a naturalized US citizen in 1920.  He moved out the house and spent several years living in flophouses in and around San Francisco; also hoping the rails and traveling around the west picking up odd jobs of all sorts.  One of those jobs was acting as an extra in a film; he also supported himself as a poker player.  The one film from the silent era that he is credited as having acted in (there could well be more) The Outcasts of Poker Flats which is listed as having a given year of 1919--it was a Universal production.  It was an early western directed by the great silent western director John Ford--who would go on to direct some Hollywood's golden age Westerns.  Capra's directorial debut came in 1921, when at the age of 24, he directed a short documentary entitled La visita dell'incrociatore italiano Libia a San Francisco...; which documented the arrival of the Italian naval ship the Libia (Libya) in San Francisco bay.  He is also credited with personally working on the intertitles, along with a person credited as "J. J. DeMoro," whose real name was Guilio DeMoro--who was probably a friend.  He then had to take a job as a book seller, which left him nearly broke, and with a fresh sense of defeat--but the venture boldened his moxey.  While selling books, he read an advertisement in a newspaper about a new film studio opening up in San Francisco; he called the number listed and implied a great deal of experience in film and saying that he had recently moved from "Hollywood."  The studio's founder, one Walter Montague, took to Capra and offered him $75 to direct a one-reel silent film.  With the help of the Montague hired cameraman, they managed to make the film in two days, and cast it entirely with amateur actors.  The film was The Ballad of Fisher's Boarding House (1922) (note: this film is sometimes listed as a two-reeler, it's running time is 12 minutes). The film was comedic short, marking the path that his film making career would take off--though Capra could hardly have seen it at the time.  He almost didn't notice that he had actual talent in the field--he saw it more as a way to have gainful employment that didn't involve selling things. After making 3 more pictures at this studio in 1922 (some of which he wrote), he began casting about for other jobs in the industry which lead him to another job working with producer Harry Cohn.  Working for Cohn at first Capra was a jack of all trades, working his way up from property man, to a film cutter, to a title writer and finally to assistant director.  He was then employed as a gag writer by Hal Roach studios; and this is where his narrative film beginnings a comedic writer and director came into it's own.  As a gag writer, he focused particularly on the Our Gang series.  He also wrote scripts for comedian Harry Lagdon as well.  He was in Mack Sennett's world now.  It would, however, be 4 years between full directorial jobs.  When Langdon left Sennett, he took Capra with him to start his own studio/production company, Harry Langdon Corporation.  It was here that returned to directing.  In 1926 directed Langdon in The Strong Man.  It was the first full length film that he had ever worked on in any capacity. He further directed two more films in 1927.  One was with Langdon's company, the other was with First National with Robert Kane Productions, after he was fired by Langdon.  The film was For The Love Of Mike (yet another lost film); it was considered a failure as a film, but it did mark the first time that he directed Claudette Colbert.  His much storied directing career then took off, when he was put under contract with the now transformed Harry Cohn's studio, which became Columbia Pictures.  The first film he made with the historic studio was That Certain Thing.  The first film that he directed that had any type of sound in was Sunshine, which had musical score and sound effects by Western Electric Sound System.  These were only two of the eight films that he directed in 1928.  He would start 1929 off with another partial sound film, that had an alternative silent version:  The Younger Generation.  His next film, The Donovan Affair (1929), was his first full sound film, with the full mono provided by MovieTone.  He would never make a silent film again.  In all 1929 he directed a total of 3 films, all of them in some sort of sound.  For his part, he was glad to see the silent days go; later in life he was quoted as saying "I wasn't at home in silents."  Of course, he would go on to direct some of the most well known and well made early talkies. It Happened One Night (1934), starring Colbert and Clark Gable, won 5 Oscars, including Best Director.  Other films he made during the 1930's include Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1938). During the Second World War, he again enlisted in the Army.  While there, he was assigned to work directly under Chief of Staff George C. Marshall; Capra's job was to turn out a series of propaganda films that is collectively known as the Why We Fight series; with his taking time out in 1944 to direct Arsenic And Old Lace with Cary Grant.  After the war, in 1946, the first post war film that he made was It's A Wonderful Life with James Stewart.  As his themes slowly started to get out of lockstep with the ever modernizing Hollywood; he became increasingly disillusioned with the director's chair.  His last film came in 1964, with a short documentary that was ironically enough to serious look to the future.  Entitled Rendezvous in Space, made for the Martin Marietta Corporation (and produced by Capra's own company), it was about futuristic plans in the United States to build space shuttles and space stations.  It was shown at the New York State Fair in 1965.  He then retired from the movie business.  Capra, however, lived until 1991, long enough to see the shuttle program and Skylab, the first American space station. He had started his directorial career with a documentary short and ended it the same way. Capra died at the age of 94 of heart failure on 3rd September 1991, in La Quinta, CA.  For a person that had so many health problems early in adulthood, that were life-shortening any one of them by themselves, that he lived so long is a bit of a miracle in itself.  He is buried Coachella Valley Public Cemetery.

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