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Frank Capra and the American Dream

Published: 9/3/2012
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Frank Capra (Wikimedia Commons)

So many of the issues weighing on us in this election season – jobs, the economy, immigration – boil down to riffs on the American Dream. Each of us is striving to live that dream in our own way – and we're all hoping we elect the guy who will best lead us to it.

If there's one man who best embodied the American Dream, who both lived it himself and sold it to the public, it's got to be Frank Capra, who died Sept. 3, 1991, 21 years ago today.

Capra's life story was classically inspirational, a textbook retelling of the American Dream. He was born in Sicily, son of a fruit farmer. In 1903 when he was 6, his family made the trip that was then so common, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the Land of Opportunity. Capra later remembered what his father told him as the Statue of Liberty drew near: "Cicco, look! Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom."

It reads like a scene from one of Capra's own movies… and the plot doesn't end there. Capra pulled himself up from his earliest days as an immigrant in an Italian ghetto of Los Angeles, where he sold newspapers after school… on to college, against his parents' wishes, where he took odd jobs and played banjo in nightclubs to support himself through his engineering degree… into the Army, where he enlisted even before he received his U.S. citizenship. Capra loved his adopted home, and that love showed in the feel-good, idealist movies he would go on to direct.

Capra first pushed his way into moviemaking with a bold move, telling a San Francisco producer that he was from Hollywood (true-ish) and that he had experience with movies (not so true). They gave him a shot on a silent film and his bright-eyed vision made him a success. He built his career directing silent films… and he clinched that career by being unafraid, unlike many in the silent film industry, to see the future success of talkies.

Within just a few years of the rise of sound in movies, Capra had ascended to the greatest heights of the film world, with his screwball hit It Happened One Night winning all five of the top Oscars. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the comedy offered a bit of escapism during the belt-tightening Great Depression years, and critics saw the story, unsurprisingly, as a variation on the American Dream.

As Capra grew as a director, he honed his vision of the American Dream, leading critic Alistair Cooke to note that he was "starting to make movies about themes instead of people." Those themes spoke to his audience, who packed theaters to see movies about good people doing the decent thing… good people like Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Capra returned to the Army, voluntarily, when World War II broke out. It was his deep belief in and respect for America that led him back to service, and though he didn't fight this time around, he served his country by making the Why We Fight series of films, intended to boost morale among the troops by making clear the principles that led the U.S. to involvement in WWII. The films were hugely successful, appearing in theaters nationwide as well as being shown to troops. Prelude to War even won an Oscar for best documentary feature.

After the war, Capra made the movie that is perhaps his greatest legacy today, though when it was released, it didn't see the success of movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's a Wonderful Life won no Oscars, was dismissed by most critics, even fizzled at the box office… despite the fact that it, like Capra's earlier films, displayed the goodness of people and showed regular folks living the classic American Dream. Or maybe it was because of that fact. Times had changed in postwar America, and Capra's aspirational feel-good flicks were no longer what the public wanted to see. It's a Wonderful Life was the beginning of the decline of Capra's career, as other genres and styles took prominence in Hollywood. But over the years, the movie has grown to become one of the best-loved stories of all time… and it especially speaks to us in years like this one, when we're all just trying to find a way to live our dreams.

Written by Linnea Crowther

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