If Kanye West was at the Academy Awards in 1946, he probably would've stormed the stage as William Wyler won for The Best Years of Our Lives and said, "William, you're a good director, and I'm gonna let you finish. But Frank Capra just made one of the best movies of all time!" And people would've booed him because The Best Years of Our Lives is actually an extremely moving and powerful movie, and it totally deserved to win.
But, in a different year, Frank Capra probably would've taken the Oscar, though it's not like he was short on Oscar gold. He already had three of 'em on his mantelpiece (or wherever he kept them), having six Best Director noms and three wins, more than anyone else in the history of movies up to that time. Well, OK, he was tied with John Ford (though Ford beat him out a little later).
Rags to Riches
Capra had a classic rags-to-riches story. He was born Francesco Rosario Capra in Sicily in 1897. The family immigrated to the United States when he was a young boy. Capra recalls his first sight of his new home:
Thirteen days of misery. And then the ship stopped, and my father grabbed me and carried me up the steep iron stairs to the deck. And then he shouted, "Chico, look at that!" At first, all I saw was a deck full of people on their knees crying and rejoicing. My father cried, "That's the greatest light since the Star of Bethlehem." I looked up and there was the statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a lamp over the land we were about to enter. And my father said, "It's the light of freedom, Chico. Remember that. Freedom." … For America, just for living here, I kiss the ground. (Source)
He fell instantly in love with his new country.
His parents eventually moved the family to L.A., center of the new movie industry. Capra's dad sold fruit for a living, and Capra worked his way through high school, eventually going to Caltech (the West Coast's answer to MIT, then called Throop Polytechnic Institute) and getting a degree in chemical engineering.
While in college, in between holding down a slew of jobs to pay his way, he helped with some films at the college observatory. After graduation, he joined the Army and served briefly during WWI. (Source)
Those were the days when it was somehow possible to have an engineering degree from Caltech and end up unemployed. When Capra came home from the war, he couldn't find work. He spent a few lost years traveling the West, taking odd jobs here and there. Capra felt this experience introduced him to small-town America and its people, the folks who would eventually populate his films.
When he was 24, he got some directing experience with a silent short documentary film with Italian title cards about the visit of an Italian ship to San Francisco. While working as a book salesman, he saw an ad for a San Francisco movie studio and, claiming some Hollywood experience (not), talked his way into a job. He edited dailies and some small film projects, and he was asked to direct a couple of short films based on famous poems. (Source)
Capra said he got infected by the "disease" of cinema. (Source) Addicted to the movies, he moved back to Los Angeles and started working as a writer for legendary producer Hal Roach (the creator of the "Our Gang" series) and slapstick comedy king Mack Sennett. He eventually went to work for Harry Cohn, who founded Columbia Pictures, and that's when his career really took off.
Capra helped Cohn and Columbia Pictures transition to "talkies"—sound movies. Here's where his engineering background really helped him; not many directors could understand the new technology, but Capra could. His collaborators thought that his scientific background helped him stay organized and objective on the set in the face of the technical problems that often arose with this tricky new sound stuff. (Source)
Capra's first major hit for Columbia—It Happened One Night—was nominated for five Oscars and won all five, including Best Picture and Best Director. He went on to direct a string of movie classics in the '30s that made stars of Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow and catapulted Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart into superstardom.
Sticking Up for the Little Guy
Capra believed in the power of the decent individual. The heartwarming, optimistic "ordinary everyman makes good" films that made Capra's career in the 1930s were the perfect antidote to the Depression-era struggles of those ordinary guys. Capra's movies never treat this struggle ironically—nice guys don't finish last. They look like they're going to finish last, sometimes, but, in the end, they prevail. This is true for It's a Wonderful Life but also for the Capra classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and others.
The last line of Capra's Meet John Doe (does a title get any more everyman than that?) is our downtrodden hero saying to the villain: "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!" That's pure Capra philosophy—evidence of his passionate, lifelong love affair with his adopted country and the American people. (Source)
Capra enlisted in the Army again in 1942. He produced a series of films for soldiers and sailors promoting the war effort and explaining what they were fighting for. Why We Fight had a theatrical release to the general public to drum up support for the war.
Capra had watched Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film that he thought was a powerful piece of psychological warfare. Why We Fight was his answer to Hitler. Using newsreel footage of Axis atrocities, he contrasted the justness of the American cause and American values with the evil Axis powers. He left the Army in 1945 with a Distinguished Service Medal. (Source)
It's a Wonderful Life celebrates the most basic of American values—friends, family, faith, hard work, etc. But, in the paranoid days of the witch hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was convinced that Hollywood was seriously infiltrated by Communists, some saw lurking in the "little guy" story the seeds of socialism and proletarianism. The movie was so successful at portraying the greed and evil of ruthless banker Henry Potter that the FBI suspected it of being Communist propaganda. (Source)
This happened even though Capra was a conservative Republican who said he made the movie "to combat a modern trend toward atheism." Still, the FBI considered the depiction of Potter an attack on the American capitalist system. (You can read the redacted FBI memo here.)
It's a Wonderful Life was Capra's favorite film. He wrote in his autobiography that "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody had ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people. A film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned ... that no man is a failure!" (Source)
It's enough to make you stand up and cheer.