Born Francesco Rosario Capra in Sicily, Italy, Frank Capra moved to L.A. while still a youngster, and that's where he made his name—we mean, that's where he became the Frank Capra. Known for the all-time holiday fave It's a Wonderful Life (1946) as well as for classics like Oscar-winner You Can't Take It With You (1938) and It Happened One Night, Capra's one of the most accomplished and acclaimed directors in Hollywood history.
Capra directed ten—count 'em, ten—actors in Oscar-winning performances, and he earned three Best Director Oscars of his own. He also served as President of the Academy in the 1930s. And there are lots more honors where those came from. Check out this list (scroll down to "Trivia") for more on Capra's achievements.
Robert Riskin won an Oscar for It Happened One Night's screenplay, which was adapted from a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams. That's nothing to sneeze at, and Riskin was quite an accomplished guy. But he never quite got out from under the shadow of his collaborator, director Frank Capra. Poor guy—even his biography is called In Capra's Shadow.
Riskin worked together with Capra on several hit films, and the two men even co-founded their own production company. But they fought over politics (Riskin was liberal; Capra was conservative) and over all the credit that Capra was getting for their collaborations. Because of these disputes, the two men eventually went their separate ways, ending their joint production venture.
That was in the 1940s, though—several years after the making of It Happened One Night. When this, Capra's career-defining directorial feat, was being filmed, the two guys enjoyed a healthy working relationship. In fact, Riskin co-wrote It Happened One Night with Capra, who went uncredited as writer—but certainly not as director.
Columbia Pictures was still an underdog studio when It Happened One Night hit it big. In fact, the studio had to rely on help from other studios just to get the film made: Clark Gable, for example, performed "on loan" from MGM. But It Happened One Night helped Columbia make its name and gain access to the big leagues. After the splash that this movie made on the red carpet, it left its loaner days behind, and Columbia remains an industry powerhouse today.
It Happened One Night is sometimes called the first screwball comedy. It's credited with starting a trend that lasted throughout Hollywood's 1930s and1940s, and it gave rise to classics like Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve.
Screwball comedies were characterized by rapid dialogue, convoluted love stories, and all kinds of absurd antics. All of these qualities can be seen in Capra's films, as can screwball's tendency to touch on serious themes, mixing darkness with light and social commentary with slapstick.
See our "Trivia" section for more on the significance of the screwball label and It Happened One Night's place in this hilarious Hollywood tradition.
With music by Howard Jackson and Louis Silvers, It Happened One Night features the soaring score you'd expect in a love story of its era.
As the winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and recipient of countless other Hollywood honors, Frank Capra holds his own among cinema's brightest directorial stars. In fact, Capra's whole body of work makes him, in one scholar's summing-up, "America's best-known and most beloved filmmaker."
It's only fitting, then, that Capra's life and work have been the subject of so many tributes, from the star-studded Hollywood affair that was the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award presentation to this recent graphic novel.
But let's get real. Capra's reception isn't all about the kind of love and hugs and kisses shown in his films. He's had his fair share of detractors, and his films have prompted critics like this one to see him as a manufacturer of false and pacifying images—pictures of social harmony meant to appease audiences at a time when U.S. society was (as it still is) both unequal and unjust.
"Maybe there wasn't really an America, maybe there was only Frank Capra," director John Cassavetes mused. It's as if, Cassavetes says, Capra offered reassuring images—"fantasies and fables of American possibility and unity"—to distract Americans, to make them forget that the nation was theirs to make, or remake, into something more just and equal.
"His films," Leonard Quart writes, "carried messages like, 'No man is a failure' and 'Each man's life touches so many other lives,' sentiments he artfully and movingly weaved into the body of his work. These sentiments provided consolation and comfort for his audience—a sense that good neighborliness and Christian charity would suffice to purge injustice and inequity from American society" (source).
But of course sentiments—and sentimental films—don't really bring about this kind of social change. They weren't enough in Capra's day, and they aren't enough now. And this is what makes critics like Quart so upset about the fanfare that still greets Capra's work wherever it is screened. Just as the director himself lived a version of the American dream, his films—these critics say—still peddle a false, even a dangerous, version of this dream to the masses.
So, you see, it hasn't quite been all accolades for Capra; he's also created some controversy. But even the heated debates are proof—just like all those achievement awards—of his films' lasting power.