Director, producer, writer, and editor of films in multiple genres over a prolific 50-year career. Capra was best known for his sentimental, idealistic, “little guy” films and for promoting the Allied effort during World War II through a series of patriotic films.
Born in Sicily in 1897, Capra came to the United States in May 1903 and came to love his adopted country. He served in the U.S. Army in both World War I and World War II and was awarded both the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Service Medal. He brought his patriotism to the silver screen during World War II with his Why We Fight series of U.S. Army films, in which he documented various battlefronts for audiences at home. The “Capra touch” brought optimism to the United States during troubled times.
Despite his service record and his reputation for making films about the American dream, Capra was graylisted during the McCarthy era. Because several people with whom he collaborated on films were known communists, some of his activities and charitable contributions were seen as questionable. As a result of his suspected communist ties, Capra had difficulty getting work at this time. While seeking work on the Defense Department’s top-secret Project VISTA during the Korean War, he was denied security clearance because of his disputed sympathies.
Deeply injured by accusations of disloyalty and striving to repair his reputation, Capra turned informant and gave the names of suspected communist sympathizers to the Army-Navy-Air Force Personnel Security Board and to the FBI. His guilt about informing on colleagues and acquaintances and the uncertain political climate in Hollywood at the time caused Capra to largely withdraw from movie making during the 1950s. His career never fully recovered.
Though Capra was best known for his heartwarming, sentimental films—frequently featuring the triumph of the “little guy” (referred to by his critics as “Capra-corn”)—this was not the only type of movie he made. His early efforts included the Our Gang comedies (1924), tearjerkers, whodunits, and several films about subjects that were sensitive at the time, such as anti-Semitism. Later in his career, Capra produced educational and corporate documentaries. He also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1935 to 1940.
Many of Capra’s movies were nominated for and won Oscars. It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film to sweep the top five Oscar award categories: Capra won best director, and the film was also honored with awards for best picture, best actor, best actress, and best adaptation. He was named best director again in 1936 for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and in 1938 for You Can’t Take It With You, which also won best picture. Some of Capra’s other enduring works include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Cinema and the Military; Communism; Communism and National Security; Propaganda
(1897–1991) Capra was an American feature filmmaker who successfully turned his hand to propaganda films during World War II. Born in Italy, he...
American, born in Palermo, Italy. Raised in California from the age of six, he studied chemical engineering, taught ballistics and eventually...
His best-known films include several popular sentimental comedies, notably It Happened One Night (1934), Arsenic and Old...