Sunday, May 18, 2008

Today (Sun, May 18) is the birthday of Frank Capra, born in Bisaquino, Sicily (1897). Capra lived in Sicily for the first six years of his life until his family immigrated to Los Angeles. He sold newspapers in the Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles, and he made money playing the banjo at nightclubs so he would be able to go to college. He studied chemical engineering at Cal Tech, paying his way by running the student laundry, waiting tables and wiping engines at a power plant.

In 1922, he was poor and unemployed and living in San Francisco, when he read in the newspaper that a man named Walter Montague was launching a new movie studio in an abandoned gymnasium. Capra called him up and talked his way into getting a job directing his first movie, a one-reel film based on a Rudyard Kipling poem.

For the next six years, he worked as everything from a prop man to a comedy writer. In 1928, he signed a contract with Columbia. Five years later he made his first big hit, the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1933), for which he won the first of three Academy Awards for Best Director. In the next fifteen years he made a string of successful movies, most of them about a naïve and idealistic man from small-town America who goes up against greedy politicians and lawyers and journalists. Capra said the moral of his movies was: "A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment."

His movies were so distinctive and so influential that the word "Capraesque" has made it into the dictionary. The 2000 American Heritage Dictionary defined it as "of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage."

His movies include Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), which was also about a small-town hero who battles corruption, but it was darker and more cynical than any of his earlier movies, and it didn't do very well at the box office. For some reason, Capra didn't renew its copyright in 1974, and it fell into the public domain. PBS was the first network to play it every year around Christmas. Other stations started picking it up, and now watching It's a Wonderful Life on TV is a holiday tradition for families across the country.

Capra said, "I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch®.

From The Writers Almanac

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