A Vision of Faith
20th c. director and filmmaker whose body of work expressed an optimist’s vision of faith and humanity.
The 20th-century director Frank Capra shaped the 1930s and 40s with his popular films, which explored a sense of community and a belonging to something greater than ourselves. Across his body of work is an optimist’s vision of faith in God and humanity, a vision which celebrates the power of one person to rally against forces of evil and support the greater good. Capra posits through his films that no one is beyond redemption and that love of God and neighbor changes the world in remarkable ways.
Francesco (Frank) Rosario Capra was born on May 18, 1897. In 1903, he and his family emigrated from Italy to the United States settling in Los Angeles, California. Immersed in the Italian-Catholic culture of early 20th-century America, Capra’s childhood was defined by a tension between spirituality and the realities of material needs. “I was born into a family that worshipped, first, the Crucifix, and second, a coffee can stuffed with cash, preferably gold,” Capra later explained. “God was our faith, but cash our security.” This struggle between valuing the community and pursuing individual interests became a theme Capra wrestled with throughout his life.
Saint Anthony Society, Women's Auxilary St. Peter's Church in Los Angeles. The Society assisted Italian immigrants in resettlement needs.
© Italian American Museum of Los Angeles
Enemy Alien Registrations in Los Angeles, 1942.
Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
Witnessing his family’s daily struggles, Capra dreamed of experiencing something different. “All the Sicilians where I lived would chitter-chatter in the same language, eat the same food, share the same traditions, the same church, the same values,” he explained. “When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to see other things.” Seeing education as a way to rise out of poverty, Capra read all the books he could, from science and history to literature and poetry. In 1918, he earned his degree in chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.
With America’s involvement in World War I, Capra enlisted in the Army and served for the duration. After the war, Capra returned home to L.A., adrift in a bleak, postwar economy. Interested in the burgeoning medium of film, which he had written about during his college studies, Capra held a variety of odd jobs in early Hollywood including work as an extra, film editor, and director of short films. In 1920, Capra landed his first major directing project.
By 1934, Capra had become a national success. Already an Academy Award-nominated director, he experienced his first blockbuster hit in the film It Happened One Night, the first film to sweep the top five Oscar awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. With this win, Capra became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors.
However, health complications plagued Capra shortly after filming. Despite his public optimism, Capra secretly feared the worst. “I thought I was gone many times,” Capra admitted later. Believing that his illness stemmed from a spiritual malaise, Capra found reassurance in the revisiting of his faith. Wrestling with sudden fame, Capra was searching for larger meaning in his life, for something more than commercial success. After his health scare, Capra decided his films needed to deliver a bigger message, and work to address the human condition.
Frank Capra, smiling.
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Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night.
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Irvine Cobb Gives Oscar to Frank Capra for It Happened One Night.
The vehicle for Capra’s message was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the first of his social comedies. The story centers on the character of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a simple-hearted man from Vermont who reluctantly inherits $20 million from a deceased relative. As a result of his inheritance, Deeds battles a series of financial opportunists from the big city hoping to capitalize on his goodwill and naiveté.
In the film, the morally unshakeable Deeds decides to spend his money on farms that employ the homeless. This gesture lands him in court, accused of insanity by unscrupulous relatives who want to use his fortune for their own selfish gains. During his courtroom defense, Deeds makes a speech defending his desire to help the downtrodden.
My films will explore the heart not with logic, but with compassion...I deal with the little man’s doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God. And I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith, and the final conviction that of himself he can and must survive and remain free.
Film critics saw the character of Deeds as an allegorical version of Franklin D. Roosevelt defending the New Deal, which many political opponents viewed as a waste of money on the poor and unemployed. But Capra’s vision was much less subtle: “It was the rebellious cry of the individual being trampled to an ort by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.” The story of a virtuous, forthright character who triumphs over the obstacles of greed, corruption, and maliciousness resonated with audiences. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town earned Capra his second Oscar for Best Director in 1937.
What was the great message of Mr. Deeds? Nothing earth-shaking. Just this: A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predator sophisticates, can, if he will, reach deep down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment.
Still from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Columbia Pictures/Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Capra felt the weight of his success keenly, burdened by what he perceived as heightened social responsibilities. As a result, he began writing a series of essays that revealed his thoughtfulness as a filmmaker, and his growing need to express more than frivolous entertainment in his work. He called on other creatives in the industry to buck the system, and “have the artistic guts to make only the pictures they want to make, or go into the business of making pictures for themselves.”
Capra, locked in business dealings with Columbia, struggled to take his own advice. However, he still managed to express his vision through movies like, You Can’t Take It with You. The 1938 film focuses on Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), a stenographer with an eccentric family who values family over money, and her fiancé Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), the vice-president of a powerful company owned by his wealthy, industrialist father (Edward Arnold). The elder Kirby, dealing in the trade of weapons, needs to buy one last house in a twelve block area—which happens to be owned by Alice's grandfather.
On its face, a story about two families from very different worlds coming together through an unlikely marriage, Capra admitted he “also saw something deeper, something greater.” He believed the story “could prove, in theatrical conflict, that Christ’s spiritual law [love] can be the most powerful force in anyone’s life.” This is illustrated in a scene where the whole neighborhood comes together to pay court fines for Alice’s grandfather when a whacky family fireworks project turns out to be illegal.
Children perform in front of James Stewart and Jean Arthur in a scene from the film You Can't Take It With You.
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Stars in scene from You Can't Take It With You.
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
The conflict: devour thy neighbor versus love thy neighbor. The weapons: a bankful of money against a houseful of love. The stakes: the future happiness of two young people, a Kirby son and a Vanderhof granddaughter; and more important, the viability of a lamb when confronted by a lion.
But the most direct expression of Capra’s belief in the sanctity of communion with God comes in the climax of the film, as the elder Kirby begins to understand the grandfather’s view that he’s wasting his life by pursuing empty riches. "Maybe it'll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use,” the grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) tells Kirby. “You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends."
Hidden in You Can’t Take It with You was a golden opportunity to dramatize Love Thy Neighbor in living drama. What the world’s churches were preaching to apathetic congregations, my universal language of film might say more entertainingly to audiences.
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
You Can’t Take It with You—the first of Capra’s films to feature his name above the title—became a hit, winning him his third Best Director Oscar. More importantly, it solidified Capra’s larger message for audiences: that though the world may be filled with villains, through the support of family and community, simple human decency prevails. This theme would appear again and again in his later works.
But, you may ask, can a defenseless lamb cope with a lion armed with fangs and claws and a willingness to use them? He can. And how he does was, for me, a new dramatic format that I used in practically all my future films.
Still from You Can't Take It With You.
AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
In 1939, Capra took on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The story focused on idealistic Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), appointed to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. Smith, who Capra later equated to “a young Abe Lincoln,” has an idea to create a national camp for Boy Rangers. However, his enthusiastic work exposes unethical behavior in the political world, nearly crushing the hero’s optimism and determination.
In a climactic moment, Smith navigates the turbulent waters of the Washington political machine through a powerful filibuster that includes citations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, including 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 22:39. Smith is triumphant, rallying the support of the common man and revealing the misdeeds of the corrupt. One of Capra’s most patriotic films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reveals the director’s continuing belief that an honest man can work against the odds to triumph over evil.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these two.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Actor James Stewart portraying U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith expounds the virtue of fighting for a lost cause, citing Mark 12:31 in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Released just as countries were preparing to enter World War II, Capra had doubts about the timing of the film. Politicians and movie executives worried that the message of the movie would turn audiences against Washington at a time when they needed them to rally to the American cause. While fretting about the decision, Capra wandered to the Lincoln Memorial, where he witnessed a young boy reciting the Gettysburg Address to an old man. He determined that he had to make the film, if only to have a scene like the one he had just observed.
“The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals,” he later said of making this film. “It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.” This sentiment would serve him well as he left Hollywood in 1941, ready to answer the call of duty in World War II.
Honest men, of any color or tongue, are trusted and loved. They attracted others like magnets attract iron. An honest man carries with him his own aura, crown, army, wealth, happiness, and social standing. He carries them all in the noblest of all titles: an honest man.
James Stewart as U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
James Stewart as U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith with Bible in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images
Four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 44-year-old Capra rejoined the Army. Instead of entering direct combat, Capra was sent to Washington to work directly under Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who was concerned that millions of conscripted men, unskilled in military matters, would have little idea about why they were in uniform. Charging Capra as the head of a special division on soldier morale, the director was commissioned to create a series of short documentaries that “will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting.” Initially struggling with exactly how to portray this message to soldiers in a way that would engage and educate, Capra finally had a revelation: He would use the enemies’ own films, books, and speeches to show soldiers the principles of freedom they were fighting to protect.
I needed one basic, powerful idea, an idea that would spread like a prairie fire, an idea from which all ideas flowed, I thought of the Bible. There was one sentence in it that always gave me goose pimples: ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'
Frank Capra (right) is pictured with British counterpart in production of the film Tunisian Victory.
Anglo-American Co-operation In Full Swing: The Production Of The Film Tunisian Victory.
Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM via Getty Images
Capra’s films for the military, called Why We Fight, became a series of seven short movies initially shown only to soldiers. Each one was carefully scripted by Capra to contain a populist view, making them accessible to any who watched them. Later on, they were used as training films by the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, as well as the British, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. They were also translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese for allies worldwide, and Winston Churchill ordered them all to be shown in theaters for the British public.
That was the key idea I had been searching for—on my feet in Pentagon halls, on my back in bed, and on my knees in pews. Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause—and the justness of ours.
War Comes to America
Video clip of Why We Fight: War Comes to America, a U.S. War Department education and information film to cast American and Allied involvement in World War II as a morally just cause.
Frank Capra receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall on June 14, 1945.
U.S. Army, Photo of Frank Capra receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, 1945, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org.
Upon return to civilian life after the war, Capra created his own movie company, Liberty Films, Inc. Finally given the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, Capra directed the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. In the film, the character of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), struggling under the weight of a series of misfortunes, makes a wish on Christmas Eve to end his life. An angel (Henry Travers) is sent to earth to make George's wish come true. Through the angel’s vision, told mainly in flashback, George realizes how many lives he has positively impacted, and how the town would have been consumed by evil forces if he had never been there to defend it.
George Bailey and family in one of the final scenes from It's a Wonderful Life.
Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
Capra celebrated this film and its message of hope as his greatest creation. The filmmaker earned his last Academy Award nomination as Best Director for the film, and the movie established its legacy as a perennial Christmas classic.
Capra defined himself “as a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross.” His work created an understanding of common life for generations of Americans who watched his films. His vision of faith—as he communicates it through characters like Longfellow Deeds, Jefferson Smith, and George Bailey—is one that believes in man as a creation of God, ennobled for goodness. The virtuous and tireless faith of one individual can overcome even the most overwhelming odds, from mass corruption and greed, to crushing doubt and despair.