Can You Sum Up Frank Capra's Directing Career in One Image?

James Stewart and Frank Capra on the set of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Frank Capra is a formative Hollywood director. What image defines him? 

If you're a cinephile or just someone who loves older movies, then I am sure you are familiar with Frank Capra's work. From his constant presence at Christmas with It's a Wonderful Life, to the still politically relevant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to the social satire Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and the incredible romantic comedy It Happened One Night, it's safe to say Capra's voice helped shape what we think of modern genres and filmic storytelling today.

And those were just a handful of his hits—he had even more! 

Capra was an incredibly poor immigrant. He bounced from job to job, eventually working with cameras, directing silent films, and documentaries. Eventually, he landed at Columbia where he got the job to direct It Happened One Night. That movie became the first film to win all five top Oscars (Best PictureBest DirectorBest ActorBest Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay). 

His career was suddenly on fire, and would not slow down until the 1940s, when he left Hollywood to help the United States Government recruit soldiers and raise money for war bonds, directing a film in the Why We Fight series. His contributions are covered in the excellent documentary, Five Came Back.

Capra's career sort of slowly dissolved after that. But his work inside Hollywood will forever be respected.

When it came to directing a scene, Capra gave this advice:

"What you need is what the scene is about, who does what to whom, and who cares about whom... All I want is a master scene and I'll take care of the rest—how to shoot it, how to keep the machinery out of the way, and how to focus attention on the actors at all times."

So with all this in mind, is there a scene or an image that sums Frank Capra's illustrious career up? Would it be the end of It's a Wonderful Life? Or the bare ankle in It Happened One Night? Or Perhaps the Americana of Jimmy Stewart filibustering in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Capra's populism and humanity probably need to come into play here. But how can you choose?

Recently, Mubi posed the question, and this is what they came up with...

Meet John Doe
According to Mubi:

"It is the dramatic crux of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941): John Doe (Gary Cooper), a populist cultural icon preaching neighborliness and community, has just found out that hundreds of thousands of fans are going to be manipulated by his corporate financiers to advance their pro-business interests. He rushes to the stadium where the John Doe society is having its first national meeting, intending to confess that he’s a fraud and stop the deception. Doe is seconds away from grabbing the microphone when he’s stopped by a preacher who announces that before Doe can speak there will be a moment of silent prayer. Excruciatingly, the film grinds to a halt, and the camera cranes away from the stage, eerily gliding over the heads of hundreds of solemn, rain-lashed Doe supporters as we await their rude awakening."

So what makes this image define Capra?

Well, the populist was obsessed with the "little guy" and his relation to the world. Capra was also worried about how people perverted these narratives. Even though some of his movies come across as corny by today's standards, this was his crowning image of that. It was of a regular man who finally realized that if people actually united together, they could hold more power than their oppressors. There's hope in this image, and also fear, that a group like that could be so easily manipulated. 

Capra was a complicated guy. He made movies about the common man, but also politically seemed to rally against people like Roosevelt, who had policies that supported them. He was upset that Hollywood changed and that his career phased out. But he also left an impact that echoed in today's most filmmakers as well. 

Film historian Ian Freer noted that Capra's mark on Hollywood is still felt today, saying: 

"He had created feelgood entertainments before the phrase was invented, and his influence on culture—from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch, and from television soap operas to greeting-card sentiments—is simply too huge to calculate."

Do you agree with this image summation of Capra? Or do you have a different one in mind? 

Let us know in the comments.      

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As important to directing as Shakespeare (aka Earl of Oxford) was to playwriting.

January 19, 2022 at 2:33PM

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