Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Francesco Rosario Capra on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy as the youngest of seven children of Salvatore Capra, and Rosaria "Serah" Nicolosi. His father was a fruit grower.
In 1903, he moved to the United States with his family. The family settled in an Italian community in Los Angeles, California, where his father worked as a fruit picker. Young Capra too started working at an early age to augment the family income.
His parents wanted him to find a job after high school but the boy was intent on going to college. He enrolled at the California Institute of Technology to study chemical engineering and graduated in the spring of 1918. He did odd jobs throughout his college years to fund his education.
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The World War I was going on at the time of his graduation and he was commissioned in the US Army as a second lieutenant. He became ill with Spanish flu during his military career and was medically discharged. His father had died by this time and the young man returned home to live with his mother.
He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1920, taking the name Frank Russell Capra. During this time he was unable to get any meaningful employment despite his college degree. For a few years he struggled with odd jobs before venturing into the film industry by chance.
After working with small studios making short, silent reels, Frank Capra received an offer to work with producer, Harry Cohn, at his new studio in Los Angeles. This job, where he worked as a property man, film cutter, title writer, and assistant director, proved to be a turning point in his career.
Capra left the studio to explore other opportunities but was rehired by Cohn in 1928 to help his studio—now named Columbia Pictures—to produce new, full-length feature films, to compete with the major studios.
The late 1920s was a dynamic time in Hollywood as the talkies were making an emergence, overshadowing the silent films. Capra, being technically qualified, adapted easily to the new sound technology while many others in the film industry were struggling to make the transition.
In 1929, he directed his first sound film, ‘The Younger Generation,’ a part-talkie drama film. Mostly silent, it had some talking sequences, as well as a synchronized music score and sound effects.
After making several films in his very first year with Columbia, Frank Capra began to rise in stature as a director during the 1930s. When the world was reeling under the Depression, he made comedies that provided escapist entertainment to the hard-hit audiences.
In 1934, he directed ‘It Happened One Night’ starring Claudette Colbert as a pampered socialite and Clark Gable as a roguish reporter. The film enjoyed great success and established the names of Capra, Columbia Pictures, and stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the movie industry.
After a series of highly successful films, he directed ‘Meet John Doe’ in 1941. The film, considered his most controversial, was said to have been was made to convey a "deliberate reaffirmation of American values." Released shortly before America became involved in World War II, it was a major hit.
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During the World War II, he rejoined the US Army as a major even though he was not required to enlist as he was aged 44. During the war years he made a series of propaganda films commissioned by the United States government to justify towards American soldiers their involvement in the war.
After the war, he made his most memorable film: ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ (1946). Starring James Stewart, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards and is today considered one of the most inspirational American movies of all time.
Frank Capra directed several other movies in the following years but could not recapture the success he enjoyed during the pre-war years. He directed his final film ‘Rendezvous in Space’ in 1964.
He served as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences four times and the president of the Directors Guild of America thrice.
His film ‘It Happened One Night’ was a tremendous success upon its release and won all five of the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay) for which it was nominated, becoming the first movie to do so.
Considered one of his most memorable pictures, ‘It's a Wonderful Life,’ though not a box office success upon its release, is one of the most popular American films today. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it is on No. 1 on AFI's list of the most inspirational American films of all time.
Awards & Achievements
Frank Capra was the winner of six Academy Awards, including three for the Best Director for ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’ (1936), and ‘You Can't Take It With You’ (1938).
In 1957, Capra was awarded the George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
He received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1982.
Personal Life and Legacy
Frank Capra’s first marriage was to actress, Helen Howell, in 1923. The short-lived union ended in 1929.
He married Lucille Warner in 1932 and had four children, of whom one died in infancy. They remained married till Lucille Warner’s death in 1984.
He suffered a series of strokes in 1985, at the age 88.
He died of a heart attack on September 3, 1991, at the age of 94.