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Frank Capra: it's a wonderful career.

There can be not greater tribute for a film director then to have one of his movies considered to be a classic. Now take that one step further. Imagine this one classic film that you have directed is guaranteed to be shown at least once a year, every year, all across the globe. That means for every showing, there are millions of new fans who take it to their hearts and treasure as a holiday tradition. Such is the case with the Christmas favorite "It's A Wonderful Life" directed by Italian immigrant Frank Capra.

However, it wasn't always a wonderful career for Capra. It took years of hard work and dedication for Capra to shape his cinematic vision. This vision was so clearly defined that the term "Capra-esque" now applies to any film that celebrates the triumphant of the common folk over insurmountable odds.

It was during the Great Depression that Capra hit his filmmaking stride. His feel good movies were what the nation desperately clamored for. Frank Capra's legacy is a shining tribute to what can be achieved through hard work and determination.

The Capra family of Bisacquino, Sicily welcomed young Frank on May 18, 1897. Frank was one of seven children. Older brother Benjamin had already made the move to sunny California and sent for the entire family to join him. The Capra clan made the grueling Atlantic crossing by ship and landed in New York on May 23rd, 1903. Frank recalled in his biography "The Name Above The Title" that the journey across the ocean was horrendous with most of the passengers staying sick the entire time.

The cross country train trek from New York to Los Angeles wasn't much of a relief. None of the Capras could speak English and lived on bread and bananas for most of the journey.

After learning enough English to get by, Capra began school that September. He excelled at his studies. When he was in high school, Capra's family wanted him to drop out to get a job but Frank was insistent to stay in school. He knew the only way to embrace the American Dream was through a good education.

After graduating from high school, Frank when to the Throop College of Technology to study chemical engineering. With the outbreak of WWI, Frank enlisted in the military but didn't see any action. While training, he came down with influenza just as armistice was declared. After recovering, Capra answered the open call to be a movie extra on one of director John Ford's westerns. Frank would continue to do odd jobs such as orange tree pruning and manual labor but would always find himself returning to the movie studios.

Working as a background player afforded Capra the opportunity to learn all about the movie making business from the bottom rung up. Through making contacts at the studio, Capra was eventually hired to direct a short film in 1921. Capra would go on to become a gag writer first for Hal Roach and then Mack Sennet but he always kept his eye on his dream of returning to directing. His first big break came when he was hired to direct the silent feature "For The Love of Mike" in 1927. The film went over budget and over schedule. The studio balked at paying Capra, and he had to hitchhike back to Los Angeles from New York.

Despite this set back, when Capra returned to Hollywood he didn't give up and was soon rewarded for his perseverance. In October of 1927, Capra was put under contract by Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. He was paid a thousand dollars a week to direct motion pictures. By 1928, his salary had doubled. Capra would go on to make a string of feature films and help usher in the "talking picture" era of Hollywood.

In 1935, Capra reunited with Claudette Colbert, the star of his first feature, and teamed her with Clark Gable in the screwball comedy classic "It Happened One Night." Capra followed this success the Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur starrer, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" in 1938. The following year he film the adaptation of the Broadway smash "You Can't Take It With You" staring Lionel Barrymore. In 1940, Capra cast Jimmy Stewart in one of his most famous roles in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." All four of those films earned Best Director Oscars for Capra.

At the outbreak of WWII, Frank Capra enlisted in the army and directed the patriotic film series "Why We Fight." It was Capra's love of his adopted country that made him a natural to help the war effort through these short films. One in particular, "The Negro Soldier," was considered to be a milestone is race relations.

When the war was ended, Capra joined with fellow director John Ford to form the Liberty Film Company. One of the company's first features was the perennial classic "It's A Wonderful Life." This holiday treasure was actually filmed in the middle of a California summer heat wave. If you look closely, you can see star Jimmy Stewart actually sweating during the snow storm. Upon its initial release, "It's A Wonderful Life" was considered a box office failure. It didn't even make back its original production costs. But when television came along, the film was picked up by local stations and played every Christmas. It is now considered rated as the number one most powerful and inspirational film of all time by the American Film Institute.

Frank Capra would go on to make several other films before his death of a heart attack in 1991. But "It's A Wonderful Life" was always his favorite. For aspiring directors hoping to make their mark in Hollywood, Frank Capra's brand of simple and honest storytelling in a true inspiration. To this day, his feel-good features still provoke smiles and laughter for audiences the world over. They are a true testament to Frank Capra having achieved the American dream he strove for his entire life.
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Title Annotation:THE ARTS
Author:Bitzelberger, Rick
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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