Frank Capra

Informação Pessoal

  • Nome completo: Francesco Rosario Capra
  • Altura: 5' 5½" (1.66 m)

Biografia

One of seven children, Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily. On May 10, 1903, his family left for America aboard the ship Germania, arriving in New York on May 23rd. “There’s no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They’re all miserable. It’s the most degrading place you could ever be,” Capra said about his Atlantic passage. “Oh, it was awful, awful. It seems to always be storming, raining like hell and very windy, with these big long rolling Atlantic waves. Everybody was sick, vomiting. God, they were sick. And the poor kids were always crying.” The family boarded a train for the trip to California, where Frank’s older brother Benjamin was living. On their journey, they subsisted on bread and bananas, as their lack of English made it impossible for them to ask for any other kind of foodstuffs. On June 3, the Capra family arrived at the Southern Pacific station in Los Angeles, at the time, a small city of approximately 102,000 people. The family stayed with Capra’s older brother Benjamin, and on September 14, 1903, Frank began his schooling at the Castelar Elementary school. In 1909, he entered Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School. Capra made money selling newspapers in downtown L.A. after school and on Saturdays, sometimes working with his brother Tony. When sales were slow, Tony punched Frank to attract attention, which would attract a crowd and make Frank’s papers sell quicker. Frank later became part of a two-man music combo, playing at various places in the red light district of L.A., including brothels, getting paid a dollar per night, performing the popular songs. He also worked as a janitor at the high school in the early mornings. It was at high school that he became interested in the theater, typically doing back-stage work such as lighting. Capra’s family pressured him to drop out of school and go to work, but he refused, as he wanted to partake fully of the American Dream, and for that he needed an education. Capra later reminisced that his family “thought I was a bum. My mother would slap me around; she wanted me to quit school. My teachers would urge me to keep going….I was going to school because I had a fight on my hands that I wanted to win.” Capra graduated from high school on January 27, 1915, and in September of that year, he entered the Throop College of Technology (later the California Institute of Technology) to study chemical engineering. The school’s annual tuition was $250, and Capra received occasional financial support from his family, who were resigned to the fact they had a scholar in their midst. Throop had a fine arts department, and Capra discovered poetry and the essays of Montaigne, which he fell in love with, while matriculating at the technical school. He then decided to write. “It was a great discovery for me. I discovered language. I discovered poetry. I discovered poetry at Caltech, can you imagine that? That was a big turning point in my life. I didn’t know anything could be so beautiful.” Capra penned “The Butler’s Failure,” about an English butler provoked by poverty to murder his employer, then to suicide.” Capra was singled out for a cash award of $250 for having the highest grades in the school. Part of his prize was a six-week trip across the U.S. and Canada. When Capra’s father, Turiddu, died in 1916, Capra started working at the campus laundry to make money. After the U.S. Congress declared War on Germany on April 6, 1917, Capra enlisted in the Army, and while he was not a naturalized citizen yet, he was allowed to join the military as part of the Coastal Artillery. Capra became a supply officer for the student soldiers at Throop, who have been enrolled in a Reserve Officers Training Corps program. At his enlistment, Capra discovered he was not an American citizen; he became naturalized in 1920. On September 15, 1918, Capra graduated from Throop with his bachelor’s degree, and was inducted into the U.S. Army on October 18th and shipped out to the Presidio at San Francisco. An armistice ending the fighting of World War One would be declared in less than a month. While at the Presidio, Capra became ill with the Spanish influenza that claimed 20 million lives worldwide. He was discharged from the Army on December 13th and moved to his brother Ben’s home in L.A. While recuperating, Capra answered a cattle call for extras for John Ford’s film “The The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919) (Capra, cast as a laborer in the Ford picture, introduced himself to the film’s star, Harry Carey. Two decades later, Capra, designated the #1 director in Hollywood by “Time” magazine, would cast Carey and his movie actress wife Olive in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for which Carey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination). While living at his mother’s house, Capra took on a wide variety of manual laboring jobs, including errand boy and ditch digger, even working as an orange tree pruner at 20 cents a day. He continued to be employed as an extra at movie studios and as a prop buyer at an independent studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, which later became the home of Columbia Pictures, where Capra would make his reputation as the most successful movie director of the 1930s. Most of his time was spent unemployed and idle, which gave credence to his family’s earlier opposition to him seeking higher education. Capra wrote short stories but was unable to get them published. He eventually got work as a live-in tutor for the son of “Lucky” Baldwin, a rich gambler. (He later used the Baldwin estate as a location for Dirigible (1931)). Smitten by the movie bug, in August of that year, Capra, former actor W. M. Plank, and financial backer Ida May Heitmann incorporated the Tri-State Motion Picture Co. in Nevada. Tri-State produced three short films in Nevada in 1920, Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), The Pulse of Life (1917), and The Scar of Love (1920), all directed by Plank, and possibly based on story treatments written by Capra. The films were failures, and Capra returned to Los Angeles when Tri-State broke up. In March 1920, Capra was employed by CBC Film Sales Co., the corporate precursor of Columbia Films, where he also worked as an editor and director on a series called “Screen Snapshots.” He quit CBC in August and moved to San Francisco, but the only jobs he could find were that of bookseller and door-to-door salesman. Once again seeming to fulfill his family’s prophecy, he turned to gambling, and also learned to ride the rails with a hobo named Frank Dwyer. There was also a rumor that he became a traveling salesman specializing in worthless securities, according to a “Time” magazine story “Columbia’s Gem” (August 8, 1938 issue, V.32, No. 6). Still based in San Francisco in 1921, producer Walter Montague hired Capra for $75 per week to help direct the short movie The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House (1922), which was based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Montague, a former actor, had the dubious idea that foggy San Francisco was destined to become the capital of movies, and that he could make a fortune making movies based on poems. Capra helped Montague produced the one-reeler, which was budgeted at $1,700 and subsequently sold to the Pathe Exchange for $3,500. Capra quit Montague when he demanded that the next movie be based upon one of his own poems. Unable to find another professional filmmaking job, Capra hired himself out as a maker of shorts for the public-at-large while working as an assistant at Walter Ball’s film lab. Finally, in October 1921, the Paul Gerson Picture Corp. hired him to help make its two-reel comedies, around the time that he began dating the actress Helen Edith Howe, who would become his first wife. Capra continued to work for both Ball and Gerson, primarily as a cutter. On November 25, 1923, Capra married Helen Howell, and the couple soon moved to Hollywood. Hal Roach hired Capra as a gag-writer for the “Our Gang” series in January, 1924. After writing the gags for five “Our Gang” comedies in seven weeks, he asked Roach to make him a director. When Roach refused (he somewhat rightly felt he had found the right man in director Bob McGowan), Capra quit. Roach’s arch rival Mack Sennett subsequently hired him as a writer, one of a six-man team that wrote for silent movie comedian Harry Langdon, the last major star of the rapidly disintegrating Mack Sennett Studios, and reigning briefly as fourth major silent comedian after Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Capra began working with the Harry Langdon production unit as a gag writer, first credited on the short Plain Clothes (1925). As Harry Langdon became more popular, his production unit at Sennett had moved from two- to three-reelers before Langdon, determined to follow the example of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, went into features. After making his first feature-length comedy, His First Flame (1927) for Sennett, Langdon signed a three-year contract with Sol Lesser’s First National Pictures to annually produce two feature-length comedies at a fixed fee per film. For a multitude of reasons Mack Sennett was never able to retain top talent. On September 15, 1925, Harry Langdon left Sennett in an egotistical rage, taking many of his key production personnel with him. Sennett promoted Capra to director but fired him after three days in his new position. In addition to the Langdon comedies, Capra had also written material for other Sennett films, eventually working on twenty-five movies. After being sacked by Sennett, Capra was hired as a gag-writer by Harry Langdon, working on Langdon’s first First National feature-length film, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). The movie was directed by Harry Edwards who had directed all of Harry Langdon’s films at Sennett. His first comedy for First National, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) did well at the box office, but it had ran over budget, which came out of Langdon’s end. Harry Edwards was sacked, and for his next picture, The Strong Man (1926), Langdon promoted Capra to director, boosting his salary to $750 per week. The movie was a hit, but trouble was brewing among members of the Harry Langdon company. Langdon was increasingly believing his own press. His marriage with Helen began to unravel when it is discovered that she had a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy that had to be terminated. In order to cope with the tragedy, Capra became a work-a-holic while Helen turned to drink. The deterioration of his marriage was mirrored by the disintegration of his professional relationship with Harry Langdonduring the making of the new feature, Long Pants (1927). The movie, which was released in March 1927, proved to be Capra’s last with Harry Langdon, as the comedian soon sacked Capra after its release. Capra later explained the principle of Langdon comedies to James Agee, “It is the principal of the brick: If there was a rule for writing Langdon material, it was this: his only ally was God. Harry Langdon might be saved by a brick falling on a cop, but it was verboten that he in any way motivated the bricks fall.” During the production of Long Pants (1926), Capra had a falling out with Langdon. Screenwriter Arthur Ripley’s dark sensibility did not mesh well with that of the more optimistic Capra, and Harry Langdon usually sided with Ripley. The picture fell behind schedule and went over budget, and since Langdon was paid a fixed fee for each film, this represented a financial loss to his own Harry Langdon Corp. Stung by the financial set-back, and desiring to further emulate the great Chaplin, Harry Langdon made a fateful decision: He fired Capra and decided to direct himself. (Langdon’s next three movies for First National were dismal failures, the two surviving films being very dark and grim black comedies, one of which, The Chaser (1928), touched on the subject of suicide. It was the late years of the Jazz Age, a time of unprecedented prosperity and boundless bonhomie, and the critics, and more critically, the ticket-buying public, rejected Harry. In 1928, First National did not pick up his contract. The Harry Langdon Corp. soon went bankrupt, and his career as the “fourth major silent comedian” was through, just as sound was coming in.) In April of 1927, Capra and his wife Helen split up, and Capra went off to New York to direct For the Love of Mike (1927) for First National, his first picture with Claudette Colbert. The director and his star did not get along, and the film went over budget. Subsequently, First National refused to pay Capra, and he had to hitchhike back to Hollywood. The film proved to be Capra’s only genuine flop. By September 1927, he was back working as a writer for Mack Sennett, but in October, he was hired as a director by Columbia Pictures President and Production Chief Harry Cohn for $1,000. The event was momentous for both of them, for at Columbia Capra would soon become the #1 director in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the success of Capra’s films would propel the Poverty Row studio into the major leagues. But at first, Cohn was displeased with him. When viewing the first three days of rushes of his first Columbia film, That Certain Thing (1928), Cohn wanted to fire him as everything on the first day had been shot in long shot, on the second day in medium shot, and on the third day in close-ups. “I did it that way for time,” Capra later recalled. “It was so easy to be better than the other directors, because they were all dopes. They would shoot a long shot, then they would have to change the setup to shoot a medium shot, then they would take their close-ups. Then they would come back and start over again. You lose time, you see, moving the cameras and the big goddamn lights. I said, ‘I’ll get all the long shots on that first set first, then all the medium shots, and then the close-ups.’ I wouldn’t shoot the whole scene each way unless it was necessary. If I knew that part of it was going to play in long shot, I wouldn’t shoot that part in close-up. But the trick was not to move nine times, just to move three times. This saved a day, maybe two days.” Cohn decided to stick with Capra (he was ultimately delighted at the picture and gave Capra a $1,500 bonus and upped his per-picture salary), and in 1928, Cohn raised his salary again, now to to $3,000 per picture after he made several successful pictures, including Submarine (1928). The Younger Generation (1929), the first of a series of films with higher budgets to be directed by Capra, would prove to be his first sound film, when scenes were reshot for dialogue. In the summer of that year, he was introduced to a young widow, Lucille Warner Reyburn (who became Capra’s second wife Lou Capra). He also met a transplanted stage actress, Barbara Stanwyck, who had been recruited for the talkie but had been in three successive unsuccessful films and wanted to return to the New York stage. Harry Cohn wanted Stanwyck to appear in Capra’s planned film, Ladies of Leisure (1930), but the interview with Capra did not go well, and Capra refused to use her. Stanwyck went home crying after being dismissed by Capra, and her husband, a furious Frank Fay, called Capra up. In his defense, Capra said that Stanwyck didn’t seem to want the part. According to Capra’s 1961 autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Fay said, “Frank, she’s young, and shy, and she’s been kicked around out here. Let me show you a test she made at Warner’s.” After viewing her Warners’ test for The Noose (1928), Capra became enthusiastic and urged Cohn to sign her. In January of 1930, Capra began shooting Ladies of Leisure (1930) with Stanwyck in the lead. The movies the two made together in the early ’30s established them both on their separate journeys towards becoming movieland legends. Though Capra would admit to falling in love with his leading lady, it was Lucille Warner Reyburn who became the second Mrs. Capra. “You’re wondering why I was at that party. That’s my racket. I’m a party girl. Do you know what that is?” Stanwyck played a working-class “party girl” hired as a model by the painter Jerry, who hails from a wealthy family. Capra had written the first draft of the movie before screenwriter Jo Swerling took over. Swerling thought the treatment was dreadful. According to Capra, Swerling told Harry Cohn, when he initially had approached about adapting the play “Ladies of the Evening” into Capra’s next proposed film, “I don’t like Hollywood, I don’t like you, and I certainly don’t like this putrid piece of gorgonzola somebody gave me to read. It stunk when Belasco produced it as Ladies of Leisure (1930), and it will stink as Ladies of Leisure, even if your little tin Jesus does direct it. The script is inane, vacuous, pompous, unreal, unbelievable

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