Frank Capra is best remembered by contemporary audiences for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), perhaps the most popular film for home viewing during the holiday season. Ironically, It's a Wonderful Life was made during the tail end of Capra's career and lost money on its initial run.
Frank Capra was at the height of his popularity during the 1930s, and it was then that he attained a popularity among audiences and critics alike that has never been equaled to this day. If there was a filmmaker who owned any era, it’s hard to find a better example than Frank Capra in the 1930s and 1940s. His films of thos decades were such financial hits that they single-handedly transformed Columbia Pictures from a studio on Poverty Row into a major powerhouse. Meanwhile, his films were such critical successes that in six of the seven years between 1933 and 1939, a Capra film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. And it's no wonder — Capra’s filmography is imbued with an optimism that encapsulates the bright side of the American spirit and helped uplift audiences during the Great Depression.
Even the cynical John Ford (the only filmmaker to win more Oscars than Capra) said of his contemporary: "A great man and a great American. [He] is an inspiration to those who believe in the American Dream."
Capra’s first two Oscar-nominated films, Lady for a Day (1933) and It Happened One Night (1934), were both films with strong populist appeals. Lady for a Day (pulled from circulation by Capra in 1961 so as to not compete with his similarly themed remake of Pocketful of Miracles) told the story of a New York apple vendor trying to pass herself off as a member of high society with the help of a degenerate gambler. It Happened One Night, a landmark screwball comedy that shattered box office records and swept the Oscars that year, tells a love story between members of two different classes and provides social commentary in that respect.
While these films were primarily comedy, Capra’s turn to telling the stories of more dramatic characters cemented his reputation as a “spokesman for the poor and the little man,” as an LA Times retrospective put it.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) marked Capra’s first conscious attempt to make social statements with his work. Determined to break away from the studio machine, Capra refused to accept every film that came out of the studio's writing department. He decided to spend six months to a year on the scriptwriting process himself with collaborator Robert Riskin.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town tells the story of a man from a small town who inherits a fortune but finds city life overwhelming and corrupt when he moves there. When Deeds (Gary Cooper) decides to give his inheritance to the poor, jealous relatives and scheming lawyers try to stop him by taking him to court and calling his sanity into question. Deeds becomes an impassioned hero for the little people and fights the charges in dramatic fashion. The film did wonders for the careers of Cooper and Jean Arthur (who plays the love interest), while earning Capra his second Oscar for Best Director. As a sign of how well the film holds up for contemporary audiences, it's surprising how little was changed when Adam Sandler remade the film as Mr. Deeds (2002).
Capra sought to make a sequel and retain Gary Cooper for a film he originally titled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington. When he couldn’t get Cooper, Capra borrowed Jimmy Stewart from MGM and changed the character's name to Mr. Smith. Thus Mr. Smith became a sort of spiritual successor to Capra's conception of Mr. Deeds.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Stewart plays scout leader Jefferson Smith who is recruited to serve as a senator for the state of Washington. Like Mr. Deeds, he is dispirited by the corruption he sees and discredited by his colleagues when he first attempts to do something about it. In a state of desperation, Smith goes to the Lincoln Memorial and confesses the system is broken before regaining his composure and returning the next day to fight the charges in a 24-hour filibuster that most film scholars agree is one of the most indelible scenes in the history of film. (When deciding whether to make the film, Capra himself was reportedly inspired by a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.)
One might judge Mr. Smith’s success by a box office take second only to Gone with the Wind (1939) and an eventual inclusion on the AFI Top 100 American films of all time, but perhaps the most telling sign of Capra’s influence at the time was the ruckus it caused in Washington D.C. and the ire it induced in senators. Congressmen were so upset by the film's portrayal of them as weak and feeble that the Hollywood Production Office had concerns over whether this film could damage Hollywood's relationship with Washington. Harry Truman, then a Senator from Missouri, wrote to his wife that, "It makes asses out of all Senators who are not crooks."
That influence has continued over time. To this day, Mr. Smith shapes how we view Washington. In 2009, Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy wrote, "Everyone from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Ross Perot and Sarah Palin [has] invoked Jefferson Smith or have been compared to him. The film's stalwart central character remains the standard by which we measure any newcomer, particularly, it would seem, the one who now occupies the White House."
A master of comedy, the message picture and the populist appeal, Capra was as dominant a filmmaker in the 30s as any Hollywood filmmaker was and has been since. Through time-honored classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life, Capra has arguably shaped our current idea of classic American decency and the American Dream more than any other filmmaker in history.