Frank Capra was one of the greatest film directors of the 1930's. In 1971, Capra published his memoirs, "The Name Above The Title." The book became a runaway best seller and made Capra a star all over again. There was just one problem with the book: it was roughly 50% fiction. Joseph McBride's biography does an excellent job of separating Capra's myth from the truth of his life story. The irony is that Capra still comes off well as both a filmmaker and as a person.
Frank Capra was born in Sicily and moved to Los Angeles as a very small child. His family were old fashioned and very stern, which estranged the sensitive young man from them in later years. Capra was a superb student and attended Cal Tech, graduating with a degree in engineering. But he had another interest, the movies.
Capra signed on with Mack Sennett's studio as a gag writer late in the silent era. Sennett was best known for his knockabout comedies and Capra learned on the job. Capra eventually graduated to director and worked with Harry Langdon on several hit pictures.
It was not until Capra moved to Columbia Pictures that he developed his mature style working alongside studio boss/monster Harry Cohn and writer Robert Riskin. Capra down played Riskin's role in his 1930's success but McBride's version makes it clear that they were a team in the best sense of the word. They made a string of classics: "Broadway Bill," "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town," and "You Can't Take It With You." Capra won three Oscars as best director and two for best picture. Lost Horizon was the first dud for the Capra-Riskin team and it led to an estrangement.
Capra's 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was his last at Columbia and his first film in years without Riskin. The script was written by Sidney Buchman, a name that would come back to haunt Capra during the red scare.
Capra and Riskin reunited for "Meet John Doe" but it was an artistic disappointment and commercial failure. It was the last time the two worked together and they rarely spoke in subsequent years because of Capra's insistence on taking all the credit.
Capra made a series of films for the Army during World War II. He served his country well but the films do not hold up as well as his features because of their jingoistic and sporadically racist tone.
At the war's end, Capra formed a production company with fellow star directors William Wyler and George Stevens, Liberty Films. The venture produced one of Capra's best loved films, "It's A Wonderful Life." The film itself and the company were not financially successful. The partners fell out and sold the company to Paramount Pictures.
The Paramount era saw a steep decline in Capra's artistic fortunes. He made a series of mediocre, forgettable films. Capra always claimed the decline was due to studio pressure but McBride's book makes it clear that the Hollywood Red Scare was to blame. Capra spent years fighting to restore his name and get off the blacklist. His former associate Sidney Buchman was a member of the Communist Party and claimed that Capra was a "fellow traveler." Capra was, in fact, a conservative Republican whose films were mildly populist. Capra remained "gray listed" for many years and worked infrequently in films from then on.
Capra's memoirs may have been heavily embellished but they were successful and he lived out the rest of his life as a respected cinematic elder statesman, dying at the age of 94 in 1991.
Best part of story, including ending:
Detailed look at the golden age of Hollywood.
Best scene in story:
When Capra visits Sicily as an elderly man. He did not like the attention and just wanted to be left alone.
Opinion about the main character:
Capra was a great director but a rather insincere and deceptive person.