An Analysis of the Films of Frank Capra| Essay
Updated: May 31, 2022
In Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges pokes fun at the idea of the Hollywood elite living amongst the members of the working class, and with good reason. Sturges had single-handily witnessed the, what I'll call, "sentimental pictures" spring up in recent years and decided to figuratively protest the preaching commonly found in those motion pictures. He became annoyed with the notion that the people behind these films had experienced little to no hardships in their lives, and yet those very same people were making films about the difficulties of living, henceforth the name "sentimental pictures." Almost every filmmaker in Hollywood at the time was guilty of this except for one notable individual, Frank Capra.
To understand what separates Capra from the rest of the pandering crowd, an understanding of his upbringing is vital. Born on May 18, 1897, in the small village of Bisacquino, Sicily, and one of the seven children of a fruit grower, Capra's early life was full of struggle. Capra and his family left Sicily in 1903 to emigrate to the United States in search of a better life. They arrived in New York with Capra distinctly remembering the sight of the Statue of Liberty and his father proclaiming "Ciccio, look! Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that.”Capra was one of many Italians to have emigrated to the United States during that time of the early 1900s. And with this notion, he exemplified the American dream.
Once Capra became a filmmaker, he ran with the lessons and themes he learned growing up as an Italian immigrant. Though it wasn't his directorial debut, It Happened One Night launched Capra into the spotlight and helped prove that a film can succeed in conveying a certain value/lesson. It Happened One Night, through its screwball antics, explores the themes of the division amongst the social classes. One on hand there's the male reporter searching for new material just to get by for another month or so. On the other there's a rich heiress with too much money to spend. The two eventually collide and what follows is both a battle of the sexes and of privilege. The film swept the academy awards that year, leading to many opportunities for later Capra films. Capra, continued what he did best, and made Lost Horizon (arguably his second-best film). And yet again, Capra's film embodies an almost reflective stance on the fabric of America. Capra elevates the status of film from mere entertainment to true, deep, and engrossing lessons of life.
There are two distinct works that encapsulate the fundamentals of a "Capra" film---- Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It's A Wonderful Life. The definitive Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life, is not entirely about Christmas. Indeed, it does focus on characteristics of the holiday, but Capra also uses it as a way to display post-war America. What's interesting is that Jimmy Stewart, who plays the main character in the film, used his experience with It's A Wonderful Life as therapy after serving in WW2. Through its exploration of what is essentially "The American Dream" before it was coined the term, Capra uses It's A Wonderful Life to showcase the values of post-war life and happiness. While it is certainly not his best work, it definitely helps exemplify the auteurism of Frank Capra.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a masterpiece that conveys the themes of democracy and sticking it to the man, thus it is the quintessential Capra film. It is what The Searchers was to John Ford---all of the director's talent and tropes on a masterful display. If It Happened One Night displayed the figurative battle between the social classes, Lost Horizon dissected relationships with the unknown, and It's a Wonderful Life reenacted the identity of an American life, then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was all of these combined--- a quintessential Capra film. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in itself, is near cinematic perfection, but it doubles as a reflection on the idea of a Capra film. Through its fight for the common good, push for Capra's idea of a right life, and with other motifs, the audience truly understands the fabric of Capra's artistry. And when the result of all the ideas and themes of a singular director is a materpiece, then that director is surely a master.
Time Stamp: April 2021