By Brian Smith
There are not many directors who have had their films more widely viewed than Frank Capra. For many years, Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” played at least a dozen times in every television market in the country. These days, even though it’s run only a few times during the season, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until you’ve watched it at least once. Although Frank Capra might not be the first name you think about when you think of the great directors of the 20th Century, keep in mind that he helmed two Best Picture winners, directed several documentaries during WWII, and was one of the few cinematic directors to successfully transition into television (directing three TV movies in the 1950’s).
One of the criticisms often heard regarding Capra is that he’s too “sentimental.” While It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated for Best Picture, it was not a film that was well received critically when it was released in 1946. One of the reasons for the poor reviews was that it was perceived to be an overly sentimental film. Coming out as it did in the immediate Post-War atmosphere, sentimentality was not something people were necessarily looking for. In fact, the reason that It’s a Wonderful Life was constantly shown on TV for so many years was that the networks could get it cheaply. The studio that owned the rights to “Wonderful Life” couldn’t get people into the theaters to see it. It was one of those films that found its greatness a generation or two after its release.
It was in the mid to late 1930’s however, where Capra was at his peak. Between 1933 and 1941, Capra released eight films. Only two of them (Broadway Bill & Meet John Doe) were not nominated for Best Picture, with two of the films (It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take it With You) taking home Oscar’s top prize. When you add It’s a Wonderful Life to the list, a Frank Capra film was nominated for Best Picture an astounding seven times!
Capra was also an extremely well-rounded director, and could direct many styles of films. He probably invented the Romantic Comedy as we know it today. Comedy was really his wheelhouse, but he was also ahead of his time in handling Fantasy (Lost Horizon), political drama (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and straight drama (It’s a Wonderful Life). He was a director who could get the most out of his actors, working with some of the greatest actors of the period like Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Claude Raines, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Myrna Loy. Most importantly, Capra was a director who could entertain you with ease, make you laugh or cry with equal aplomb, and could deliver subtle and not-so-subtle messages in his films that made them resonate to this day.
Here are my Top 6 films directed by Frank Capra:
6. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
A Halloween romp that has Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovering that his kindly old aunts are poisoning down-on-their-luck men and burying them in their basement. The fact that they’re doing it with only the best of intentions in mind is no relief to Mortimer., He sets out to obscure the crimes by having his brother “Teddy” institutionalized providing his aunts with cover. All this takes place while planning to escape on his honeymoon with his neighbor Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) whom he had just married the same morning (Halloween day). The real high jinks begin when Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up with his cohort Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) with another corpse in tow, but with much darker intentions.
5. Meet John Doe (1941)
This dramedy takes a hard look at the power of the press, as well as its power to not only reflect popular opinion, but to create it as well. When Anne Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired from her newspaper job, she angrily writes a fake suicide note from John Doe threatening to jump off a building on Christmas Eve. Covering the story allows Anne to get her job back, but she needs to hire a fake John Doe to make the story stick. Enter Gary Cooper and his melancholic real-life philosophy that makes Ann rethink her life and what’s important within it.
4. You Can’t Take it With You (1938)
Frank Capra’s second Best Picture winner reflected the challenges of the Great Depression, namely the differences in class and social standing. It’s a Romantic Comedy about Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the son of a wealthy industrialist, who falls in love with Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), his father’s stenographer, and the daughter of the kindly, yet eccentric Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Things get complicated when we learn that Vanderhof owns the last parcel of land that Kirby’s father needs in order to own an entire city block that would be the location of a bullet manufacturing factory. This film is loaded with heart and big laughs, but it has a serious message about what’s really important in life, and where our priorities as individuals, as well as a nation should be.
3. It Happened One Night (1934)
It Happened One Night was Frank Capra’s first Best Picture winner and perhaps the first great Romantic Comedy. The film paired Clark Gable as the grizzled newspaper reporter Peter Warner and Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews, the betrothed daughter of a wealthy New York business man. This comically paired odd couple tries to make their way from Miami to New York with Ellie, who has lived in a gilded cage her whole life and is incapable of taking care of herself, agreeing to sell her story to Peter, who is in need of a big story to keep his job. They had no idea that they’d fall in love with each other on the way, and the mad-capped hijinks they go through to get from point-A to point-B are some of the greatest and most influential jokes ever to grace the silver screen.
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Frank Capra paired James Stewart with Jean Arthur one more time in this dramatic and powerful film about government corruption at the highest levels. What starts out as a sentimental civics class turns into a dramatic David and Goliath story that shows one man doing whatever he can to take on the Washington machine while that machine is doing everything it can to destroy him. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this film foreshadowed what James Stewart would become when he returned from World War II a few years later, and that is one of the most talented actors of his generation. His performance as Jefferson Smith is one for the ages, especially when Smith goes on a one-man filibuster to expose the corruption that has sullied his name. It is as powerful an acting performance as you will ever see as this once idyllic freshman senator is forced to confront the cynical forces acting against him without falling into that cynicism himself. If you’ve never seen this film, please, please, please, see it as soon as you get the chance.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I’m sure that this is as surprising as the sun rising in the east, but It’s a Wonderful Life really is an amazing piece of cinema. Perhaps because so many people have seen it so many times, it can be easy to take for granted just how much of a masterpiece this film is. However, when you look at it through the lens of breaking down a film and really critiquing it, It’s a Wonderful Life checks off all the boxes. It’s a dramatic film that has enough comedy to keep it from becoming overly heavy. It has a main character in George Bailey (Stewart) who is deeply likable, but also deeply flawed in that he can’t see how wonderful the life is that he has in front of him while becoming bitter over what he believes his life should have been. It has an amazing supporting cast of characters who compliment the hero very well, and it has a villain in Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who is one of the great villains in cinematic history. The next time you watch this film, try and look at it with a more critical eye. Forget about it being a holiday classic. Start to look at this as what it really is, and that’s one of the greatest films of all time.
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.