In This Article Frank Capra

  • Introduction
  • Writings, Interviews, Screenplays, Filmography, Bibliography
  • Biographical Work on Capra and His Close Associates
  • General Critical Studies of Capra’s Filmmaking
  • Early Capra (through It Happened One Night)
  • Mr. Deeds to Meet John Doe
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Capra and Hollywood
  • Reception History

Cinema and Media Studies Frank Capra
by
James Chandler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0114

Introduction

Already in 1938—before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, the Why We Fight films, and It’s a Wonderful Life —Capra was the first director to grace the cover of Time Magazine, in part because of his vaunted claims for the role of the director as auteur. He had become president, simultaneously, of the Motion Picture Academy and of the inimical Screen Directors Guild. Before the decade had ended, his films had earned three Academy Awards for Best Picture and gained him four for Best Director. It has been said that Capra dominated Hollywood in the 1930s as his hero D. W. Griffith had done in the 1910s. But Capra’s fall from prominence after 1948 was dramatic and it affected his reputation in criticism and scholarship during the emergence of film studies as a major field in the late 20th century, although he helped his cause some with his 1971 autobiography and the interviews and campus lectures that followed it. Capra himself came to believe that the coming of television helped to seal his fate, but eventually it also led to a degree of popular redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life fell into public domain in the period of the early United States cable revolution, and by the early 1980s it would be aired on so many cable stations nationally that in several major markets it would compete against itself on several channels. This film would shape an image of pre-1948 Hollywood for viewers about to be exposed to the next technological revolution—that of video and then DVD recordings—which would give them access at their discretion to a longer history of cinema. This partly explains the extraordinary vogue for Capra in the 1990s when a series of films appeared under the widely recognizable sign of “Capraesque.” Capraesque here meant chiefly the post-1934 Capra of It’s a Wonderful Life, along with the programmatic trilogy—Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe—and perhaps Lost Horizon and You Can’t Take It With You. But these developments also aroused interest in some of the nearly twenty films Capra made before 1934. Retrospectives on the Early Capra began to be staged in various venues. The DVD revolution also made it possible for wider audiences to become acquainted with these films, and students to study them. This survey, then, of Capra materials and Capra scholarship proves a timely stocktaking of Capra’s contributions to American film and American culture more broadly. It was John Cassavetes who once quipped, “Maybe there never really was an America. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.” (The bibliography was compiled with the help of Andrew Yale, who also assisted in the preparation of the commentaries for the press.)

Writings, Interviews, Screenplays, Filmography, Bibliography

These are the fundamental building blocks for the study of Capra’s films. Wolfe 1987 provides not only a descriptive account of nearly everything published by or about Capra to that point, it also provides a detailed filmography. This filmography can be supplemented with Scherle and Levy 1992, which supplies basic information, plot summaries, and a lavish pictorial array for all of Capra’s films. Capra was voluble in his own behalf; Capra 1946 is a good sampling of his public advocacy for his brand of filmmaking. Capra 1971, his autobiography, a Book of the Month Club selection when it appeared, is by no means reliable as a factual record, but it is fascinating as a document of Capra’s late defensive sense of his life-long embattlement. Capra 1972 reveals much about Capra by way of his praise of his hero, D. W. Griffith. Another important supplement comes with the helpful collection of interviews assembled in Poague 2004, many of which took place after Capra’s reputation began to be rehabilitated in the early 1970s. It is fortunate to have paperback access to many of the major screenplays, as in Riskin 1997, Basinger 1986, and Wolfe 1989.

  • Basinger, Jeanine. The It’s a Wonderful Life Book. New York: Knopf, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    Produced in the frenzy of attention given to this film after it began to circulate freely on cable television, this volume includes a wealth of materials drawn from the Capra Archives that Basinger assembled and curated at Wesleyan University, as well as the final script as shot and the short story on which it was based.

  • Capra, Frank. “Breaking Hollywood’s Pattern of Sameness.” New York Times, 5 May 1946: 15, 57.

    E-mail Citation »

    A good example of Capra’s own journalistic intervention, this article shows how close Capra comes to the position of critics, like Horkheimer and Adorno, who just at this moment were lambasting the system they took him to emblematize.

  • Capra, Frank. The Name above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

    E-mail Citation »

    A must-read for students of Capra. Having fallen into irrelevance within an American cinema he helped to shape, he indulges himself in an account of his life that both exaggerates his importance and vents his spleen. Best thought of perhaps as Capra’s last Capraesque production—with Capra, improbably, as the “little guy”—it is nonetheless jam-packed with anecdote, opinion, and even, on occasion, insight. The original manuscript is at the Wesleyan film archives, and has a very different tone, especially at the start, where, in the unpublished version, Capra describes himself sleeping off a binge in a San Francisco garage and dealing with a sexually transmitted disease.

  • Capra, Frank. “Foreword.” In The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D. W. Griffith. Edited by James Hart, vii–xii. Louisville: Touchstone, 1972.

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    A tribute written in the same year in which his own autobiography was published, this essay spells out the terms of the high regard in which Capra held Griffith.

  • Poague, Leland, ed. Frank Capra: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though there is an interview from as early as 1931, most of the interviews usefully printed here date from the decade after the publication of Capra’s autobiography, when he reentered circulation to reassert his views about the role of the director. Includes a chronology and a filmography.

  • Riskin, Robert. Six Screenplays by Robert Riskin. Edited by Pat McGilligan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    Very useful compilation of screenplays for the major Riskin-Capra films: Platinum Blonde, American Madness, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe.

  • Scherle, Victor, and William Turner Levy. The Complete Films of Frank Capra. New York: Carol, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    This handsome book provides a lavish filmography, but it’s also a trove of photographs, hundreds of them, including many not easily available elsewhere. Valuable too are the statements about Capra, collected at the front of the book, by actors and writers and fellow directors.

  • The Frank Capra Collection. In Wesleyan University Cinema Archives. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University.

    E-mail Citation »

    The Capra archives at Wesleyan are the most important anywhere, and they include an early uncut draft of his autobiography and a scrapbook of newspaper reviews and other clippings painstakingly compiled by his wife Lucinda over several decades.

  • Wolfe, Charles. Frank Capra: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A meticulous and exhaustive descriptive bibliography of Capra’s writings and writings about Capra, including many reviews. The book includes many brief but telling references to Capra in more general works, in addition to a complete filmography.

  • Wolfe, Charles, ed. Meet John Doe: Frank Capra, Director. Rutgers Films in Print 13. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Features a continuity script, contemporary reviews, an introductory essay by Wolfe, and critical essays focusing on various aspects of Meet John Doe by Richard Glatzer, Dudley Andrew, and Nick Browne.

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