Frank Capra on the cover of Time, August 8, 1938. Caption reads: "Frank Capra, Director: His stories cannot match his story."
Frank Capra was born in Bisaquino, Sicily in 1897; he was the sixth of seven children. He celebrated his sixth birthday with his parents and three brothers and sisters on a ship bound for America, where his older brother Ben was already living. The family settled in Los Angeles; Capra's mother found work at an olive oil factory and his father worked in a glassmaking shop, as a seasonal ranch hand, and on a gang laying track for streetcars.

Capra worked a number of odd jobs while attending school. After graduating from Manual Arts High School, he went to Cal Tech to pursue a chemical engineering degree. Following Cal Tech, in 1918 Capra enlisted in the Army and served as a ballistic mathematics instructor on a California Army base. After the war, Capra failed to find an engineering job and suffered a long period of illness from influenza and a ruptured appendix. Subsequently Capra enrolled in various screenwriting courses; worked as an extra in several films; tutored Baldwin M. Baldwin, grandson of a millionaire; became a partner in a fly-by-night film studio in Reno; and traveled around the country selling books, photographs, and mining stock.

Eventually Capra ended up back in California and landed a job directing Fultah Fisher's Boarding House for a retired Shakespearean actor in San Francisco. Capra followed this with a stint as a prop man, film cutter, and gag writer for Bob Eddy's Toonerville Trolley. He joined the Hal Roach Studio as a writer for the Our Gang series in 1924 and subsequently worked for Mack Sennett as a gag writer. While at Sennett's studio, he helped create material for comic actor Harry Langdon; when Langdon moved to First National Pictures in 1925, Capra went with him. Shortly thereafter, Langdon fired Capra. After a brief stint in New York, Capra returned to California to work once again as a gag man for Mack Sennett.

Capra and Cohn in the '30s
Three months later, Harry Cohn hired Capra for Columbia. Capra made twenty-five films during his eleven years at Columbia and won five Academy Awards. These films, which catapulted Columbia into the arena of the major studios, are generally considered Capra's best. After leaving Columbia, Capra worked for the Army making the World War II documentary series Why We Fight, which earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor. When he returned to Hollywood he established Liberty Films, an independent studio, with three other directors. Capra and his partners sold the studio to Paramount after Capra filmed It's a Wonderful Life. He directed two pictures for Paramount and fled Hollywood to become a full-time rancher, film festival ambassador for the State Department, consultant on psychological warfare for the Army, and TV science documentary filmmaker for AT&T. He returned to Hollywood and directed two more films before retiring in the early '60s. Capra published an autobiography in 1971 which, along with a renewed interest in his films on college campuses, returned him to the spotlight during the '70s and early '80s. Capra died in 1991.

Capra's 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title is a colorful piece of self-promotion; Hal Kanter, in a tribute to Capra after its publication, toasted him as "a legend in his own book." Capra donated his personal papers to Wesleyan College in 1980, and since that time a number of revisionist biographers have attempted to address some of the gaps in Capra's own account of his life. Notable among these recent biographies is Joseph McBride's copiously researched Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success published in 1992. The New York Times review of McBride's book stated that Capra "managed to fool just about everyone" with his autobiography; McBride's work revealed him as a "closet reactionary and dogged Roosevelt hater." (1) Capra doesn't look good in McBride's book when all the skeletons come out of the closet. McBride supplied a handful of psychological and political reasons for the discrepancies in Capra's autobiography; however, I think the autobiography can best be understood as Capra's attempt to style himself in the American heroic mold. When we look at the particular elements of his past that Capra stressed, and at those he omitted, this becomes increasingly clear.

The American hero comes from lowly origins and struggles to achieve success. Capra's account of his immigrant childhood fits the bill. He wrote that he sold papers every day from the age of six so he would be allowed to go to grammar school; during high school he worked as a janitor, played guitar in a bistro, and stuffed papers on Saturday nights for the Los Angeles Times to contribute to the household income. He called Manual Arts High School the dumping ground for the "culls, rejects, and bad guys" (teachers and students) from the other Los Angeles high schools; because he was not white, he had to go to Manual Arts with all the other "cholos, niggers, and Japs." Before he could go to Cal Tech, Capra claimed he worked for six months at Western Pipe and steel laying tracks. During college, Capra worked a number of jobs: he claimed, "I managed to pay my own way and contribute several hundred dollars a year to my family." After his father's sudden death his freshman year at Cal Tech, Capra was able to obtain loans so he could finish school and "send Mama ninety simoleons a month." (2)

How did he do this? In his autobiography Capra described his daily routine during the Cal Tech years, a routine which began at 3 a.m., ended at 10 p.m., and prompted one critic to compare Capra, a "Horatio Alger hero," to Ben Franklin and Jay Gatsby. Capra wrote, "What did this schedule do to my studies? Nothing. I won the Freshman Scholarship Prize...and the sincere congratulations of my proud teachers." He felt that "conquering adversities was so simple I began to think of myself as another Horatio Alger, the success kid, my own rags-to-riches hero." (3) McBride, however, located a paper Capra wrote for a college composition class in which he described his study methods as "irregular" and admitted to sleeping 9 hours a day.

Capra did work several odd jobs during grammar and high school; however, it was his brother Tony who worked at Western Pipe and Steel to raise money for Frank Capra's education. In addition, Capra's mother and sisters Ann and Luigia provided him with money to pay for Cal Tech.

Although Capra claimed, "I lived most of my early life in a...Sicilian ghetto," Capra's mixed neighborhood on the East Side of L.A. was not in the tenement district; most Italian immigrants lived in the industrial northeast section of the city in considerably graver poverty and squalor. Capra, however, maintained his status as 'ghetto survivor' until the end of his life. In 1978 he said ghettos were "all alike. And all the people in them are alike. They constantly complain. About government, about jobs, about other ghettos, about this and that. But don't feel too sorry for people in ghettos. They want to live there more than you'd think. There's comfort in the ghetto." When McBride interviewed Capra in 1985, Capra expressed resentment toward African Americans because he felt they "expected compensatory special treatment rather than lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps, as he believed he had done." (4)

Salvatore and Rosaria Capra
Capra's heroic tale of 'triumph over humble beginnings' set him apart from the rest of his family through exceptional (and largely fictional) self-reliance; he also attempted to distinguish himself through a thirst for knowledge. His autobiography began with a letter sent to the Capra family in Italy, which Capra claimed necessitated a visit from the parish priest because the Capras were all illiterate. Capra described this as the moment he realized he wanted to transcend his family's lot in life, and he realized he would have to fight for an education to do it. McBride commented, "Capra undoubtedly took literary license here to construct a powerful metaphor for the opening of his book--his education was the idea of his brother Ben, who had a vision of his two younger brothers coming to America to "learn something.""(5) Capra exaggerated his family's lack of education to make his own seem more exceptional. His mother Rosaria was, in fact, literate, and although Capra said he was the only family member to go to school after his brother Tony was expelled, his sister Ann attended elementary and high school in Los Angeles as well.

Although Capra evoked his 'peasant origins' often in his autobiography as a source of strength and moral virtue, a clear attraction to the world of wealth was also evident. He enlisted in World War I because "all bluebloods enlisted. Noblesse oblige stuff." When he returned home he "assured Mama and Ann they would never have to work again...I'd move them out of the ghetto and into a swank neighborhood." In the 1950s Capra attended a board meeting of AT&T prior to filming his science documentaries, and later offered the following wide-eyed recollection of the event: "Salvatore Capra's youngest son--that feisty, ragged, snot-nosed newskid--sat down as the guest of the president and the Board of Directors of AT&T, the world's richest corporation."(6)

Capra dated several WASP-y girls during college, Isabelle Daniels most seriously. Daniels's mother traced her lineage back to the Mayflower; her father claimed to be descended from John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Later, Capra married Helen Howell, an actress from an affluent family. Capra commented, "Oh, I loved her for that. I liked classy gals." In a section of his autobiography which he later cut, Capra wrote contemptuously of Howell's rapport with his family; he intimated she was 'slumming' with her inferiors, and her attraction to a life he'd left behind irritated him. (7)

Capra's ambivalence about his immigrant heritage surfaced in his films as well. The Younger Generation, an early film for Columbia, centered around a Jewish immigrant who changes his name, becomes ashamed of his parents, and passes them off to his friends as servants. When McBride asked Capra about the film's resonance with Capra's life, Capra replied that he had no special interest in immigrants or their problems. "I was practically born in America," he assured McBride, "so those were the people I associated with." (8)

When Capra visited Italy in 1977, the Italian government arranged a press event in Bisacquino, Capra's hometown. He later remarked of the event, "I felt nothing. Who the hell cares where you were born? That town meant nothing to me. You know that colored guy, that Roots thing? He's full of shit. I hate the word 'roots.' People are so proud of their roots it's sickening." Capra didn't know the names of his maternal grandparents and shrugged, "I didn't really give a damn what their name was." Early in his career he changed his own middle name from Rosario to Russell because "it didn't smell of the ghetto."(9) Through American education, Capra adapted to American life more quickly than did his parents; like many other immigrant children in the same situation, this led to a contempt for origins and 'native' culture, albeit perhaps more rabidly voiced by Capra than by other immigrant-children-turned-American-adults.

To be fair to Capra, his immigrant status created some problems for him. When the official historian of Capra's high school class was interviewed in the 1980s, she commented, "I don't know that anybody really liked him. He was ostracized; people never invited him anywhere. Because he was a foreigner, they didn't think of including him in their parties. He was a nice boy. He was just a terrible wop." (10) In 1932 when Lucille Reyburn, his future wife, asked him about their prospects for marriage, he reminded her that her father believed "all Catholics and foreigners have leprosy." (11) A large part of McBride's analysis of Capra rested on McBride's conviction that Capra felt deeply troubled and inferior due to his experience as an immigrant. For example, McBride claimed that Capra's film The Way of the Strong was an autobiographical expression of this immigrant inferiority and unhappiness. In the movie, the hideously ugly male lead falls in love with a blind woman. When the woman discovers his disfigurement, she recoils and he kills himself. McBride claimed that in Capra's "inner mirror, he was always the ugly, ungainly, ostracized immigrant boy, who habitually disparaged his own appearance to women throughout his lifetime." (12)

Despite the problems associated with his immigrant status, and regardless of his true feelings on the subject, Capra and some of his critics clearly have recognized the utility of his immigrant origins. The critics claimed that Capra, like Chaplin, gained special insight into American life because they "looked at society as outsiders."(13) Raymond Carney argued that Capra the immigrant achieved "a creative critical perspective on the systems of power and social organization unavailable" to other Americans.(14) The usefulness of his immigrant origin was most apparent to Capra when he wrote his autobiography. It wasn't tied, as Carney and other critics have claimed, to a sense of special artistic perspective; rather, it reflected Capra's awareness that Americans responded to the heroic qualities of lowly birth and a struggle for success. Following the release of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one reviewer exclaimed, "I'd call Mr. Smith Goes to Washington just about the best American patriotic film ever made. There's only one that might equal it, if Frank could ever be persuaded to make it, and that is Mr. Capra Goes to America." When it came time to write--not film--that story, Capra's friend John Ford reminded him of the imaginative appeal of "the story of a little Dago from Sicily who scrapped, fought, bit, chewed, without compromise, from the ghetto to become the world's greatest Director--I would like to see you end your book by going back to the ghetto."(15) Thus, Capra concluded his tale as follows:

"I drove alone to the Sicilian ghetto I had left fifty years ago. There it was. Mama's three-room house...[which] had been built by courage; the courage of two middle-aged, penniless, illiterate peasants who had dared travel halfway around the world...who slaved like oxen and fought like tigers to feed and clothe their children...Like Antaeus...I had to return to my roots for a much-needed draught of peasant courage."(16)

In his autobiography, Capra also stressed the qualities of anti-intellectualism and 'native, instinctive' intelligence required in the American hero. He wrote, "Not only was I ignorant of all things theatrical, I was also contemptuous of their phoniness. I was raised in my own "school" of naturalness...My stage was the real world, and the actors had to appear just as real."(17) The author of a 1938 Saturday Evening Post article on Capra concurred: Capra's "mind was a clean slate. If he had had a dilettante's familiarity with "visual flow, cinema rhythm, average audience appeal"...his first picture would probably have been his last."(18) Although Capra claimed he had "never seen a picture, never been in a studio...didn't know about the stage...never been backstage...didn't know that actors were expected to rehearse" before he directed Fultah Fisher's Boardinghouse, in fact, he had a fair amount of theatrical and film experience. (19) Capra was involved in the theater club all four years at Manual Arts High School, where he worked with Rob Warner, who would go on to become a Hollywood director himself; later, Capra worked as an extra in several John Ford westerns, as an actor and assistant director in Nevada, as a prop man and set builder for the Christie Film company, and as a director for Columbia's Screen Snapshots newsreel series in 1920. Capra omitted this experience in his autobiography in order to appear naturally gifted, not schooled, in film direction.

Throughout his autobiography Capra exhibited a distaste for intellectuals. When his treatment for the AT&T science documentary "Our Mr. Sun" was chosen over scripts submitted by Alduous Huxley and scientists Willey Ley, Capra noted that the AT&T scientific advisory committee felt his animated, anthropomorphic approach "was as brilliant a device as Aesop's and LaFontaine's use of talking animals to illustrate human vices, follies, and virtues."(20). As a newcomer to Columbia, Capra could easily spot New York writers "by their superior, 'slumming' attitudes--endemic to all East coast writers who came to Hollywood."(21)

Comic actor Harry Langdon
These New York writers, according to Capra, were responsible for comic actor Harry Langdon's decline: "all was going well until the genius discoverers took up Langdon. The New York literary rabble went mad over him."(22) The sentiment surfaced in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, as it did in many Capra films: Deeds tells a New York literary circle which has mocked the greeting cards he creates in his hometown, "It's easy to make fun of somebody if you don't care how much you hurt him...I guess maybe it is comical to write poems for postcards, but a lot of people think they're good." (23) Such statements can be interpreted as Capra's response to the critics who found his films simplistic and sentimental, but they also demonstrate an awareness of the anti-intellectual American heroic type.

Tied with that is the hero's fight against established, cultured, usually big-city individuals and institutions. Capra was no stranger to this scenario. Galled that his 1930 film Ladies of Leisure got no Academy Award nominations, he wrote, "the major studios had the votes. I had my freedom [an allusion to his contract with Columbia, a minor studio] but the "honors" went to those who worked for the Establishment." Later, said Capra, he was "instrumental in democratizing these silk-stockinged voting procedures."(24) When Capra was assigned to the Army Signal Corps to make documentaries during World War II, he picked up on the internal, bureaucratic conflict between the Signal Corps and the newer Morale Branch established by General Marshall. Capra asked Lyman Munson, head of Information Services, how he should maneuver between the two offices; Munson replied, "That's why we chose you...anyone that can lick the Establishment in Hollywood can lick it in the Army." Capra added, "Was it Fate that decreed that my life should be a continuous battle against the Establishment?"(25) Capra had to scramble to get the necessary personnel, supplies, and equipment to make the Why We Fight series, of which he was proud: "they [the Signal Corps] had warehouses full of unwrapped equipment and facilities to spare. But we had the brains, the talent, and the desire "to make "documentary films, the private preserves of intellectuals," films which Capra previously dismissed as "movies about polar bears sliding on their asses down mountainsides."(26)

Capra played up the David and Goliath element of his story to the point where his autobiography "read like a morality play, with Capra the heroic figure representing Art, and Cohn the venal figure representing Commerce."(27) His book is peppered with countless dramatic moments of principle. Witness Capra's description of his temptation by a bootlegger in San Francisco:

The head man of a Sicilian syndicate of bootleggers from Los Angeles had tracked me down to my hotel room. Diamonds all over him. He waved 10,000 dollars in my face--if I'd design him some alcohol stills that would work..."Chico...what's a brain like you doin' in this fleabag? Alky's big, Cheech. Could be bigger if our cookers didn't stink so much they get knocked off."...I said, "No, thanks," and gave him back the roll. Then I walked him through the lobby and out to his block-long limousine..."Don't be a chump...Change your mind, Cheech, and I'll make it twenty grand"...It was my moment of truth. My decision would be irrevocable. Every practical fiber within me urged: "Go on in, fool. Grab that bootlegger's twenty thousand...Get Mama out of that olive plant, and ailing Ann out of that crummy dress shop."(28)

Capra fled the scene, hopped a streetcar, and wound up at Walter Montague's film studio. In reality, Capra's brother Tony was the bootlegger, and Tony offered Capra a job helping him to distribute his homemade liquor after Capra's convalescence from influenza, long before Capra met Walter Montague.

According to Capra, another 'moment of principle' cost him his job as Harry Langdon's director. Langdon demanded changes to his character during the filming of Long Pants, the second Langdon film directed by Capra. When Capra resisted, Langdon publicly humiliated him and stormed off the set. Capra mused, "Should I, or could I, lower my tail, become a Langon "yes man," and bootlick my way into a few more big credits?"(29). A dispute with Harry Cohn following Capra's trip to Europe in 1937 led to a year long suspension from Columbia. Capra compared himself to Sergei Eisenstein, out of favor with the Communists in Moscow, and Cohn to Josef Stalin: "Was the Kremlin's political dictatorship too much different than Hollywood's economic autocracy?"(30)

General Marshall confers the Congressional Medal of Honor on Frank Capra, 1945
Thus, Capra was able to transform a personal legal battle into a struggle to preserve democratic freedom. Capra saved the free world again in World War II. Commenting on his role in articulating U.S. foreign policy through the Why We Fight series, Capra wrote: "Thus, it can truly be said that the Why We Fight films not only stated but, in many instances, actually created and nailed down American and world pre-war policy. No, I won't say it. Yes, I will say it. I was the first "Voice of America.""(31)

Following the success of It Happened One Night in 1934, Capra complained of a mysterious illness and wouldn't leave home for several weeks. He described the period as a crisis in principle and a faltering in his self-confidence. This precipitated one of the most bizarre episodes in his book. According to Capra, his friend Max Winslow insisted that Capra get out of bed and go to his study. There, Capra said he met a mysterious "little man" who told him,

"Mr. Capra, you're a coward...you are an offense to God....That evil man [Hitler] is desperately trying to poison the world with hate. How many can he talk to?...You sir, you can talk to hundreds of millions, for two hours--and in the dark. The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired...And when you don't use the gifts God blessed you with--you are an offense to God--and to humanitiy. Good day, sir." (32)

Capra claimed he never knew who the man was and he never saw him again. He got out of bed and went back to work, convinced that his films now "had to say something...my scripts would take from six months to a year to write and rewrite; to carefully--and subtly--integrate ideals and entertainment...And regardless of the origin of a film idea, I made it mine...the heart, thought, and substance of a film were mine."(33) McBride argued that this "little man" was a fiction adapted from a short story, "The Flying Yorkshireman," which Capra later bought as a potential film project. McBride wrote,
"By taking this apparition and combining it with the urgent social message written by Robert Riskin for the farmer in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and then inserting them retroactively into his own life story, Capra not only could claim divine inspiration for his work but also could render his own life more Capraesque than it really was, thereby laying a spurious autobiographical framework for his films which would diminish the contributions of his writers."(34)

In his book, Capra barely acknowledged his most important coworkers' contributions. He named Myles Connolly and Max Winslow his "two guiding lights" for the 1930s films, but made no mention of Robert Riskin's considerable talents as a screenwriter. Cameraman Joe Walker, his collaborator on twenty pictures, got mentioned in passing. McBride attributed this to Capra's egotism and to an overcompensation for his sense of inferiority as an immigrant. While there is some merit to this explanation, we can also interpret Capra's omissions in light of the American hero's idealized self-reliance.

Capra's liberally laced his story with his mantra "one man, one film." The book's title, The Name Above the Title, referred to his self-styled struggle as Hollywood's first 'auteur'. He claimed he was the first director to get his name on theater marquees; as a consequence of his fight to do this, the "one man, one film" idea "took hold, grew slowly--against stormy opposition from entrenched executives."(35) In 1945 Capra joined Samuel Briskin, David Tannenbaum, William Wyler, and George Stevens to create an independent studio, Liberty Films. Capra and his partners sold the studio not long after. Capra later identified this as a failure in principles: he "traded the elan of courage for the safety of money." Capra believed that the failure of his principles had far-reaching effects, for "the more or less continuous downward slide of Hollywood's artistic and economic fortunes that began in 1947 was triggered not by the advent of TV, not by the intransigence of foreign governments. That slide was set in motion by our sale of Liberty Films to Paramount."(36)

If Capra's autobiography is a morality play, it ends with the central character's failure. Following the sale of Liberty, Capra was under contract at Paramount; he found that filmmaking there was not particularly condusive to his "one man, one film" ideal. He wrote that he felt "no joy" when his obligation to Paramount ended: "When they released the "one man, one film" apostle, they turned loose a brainwashed prisoner whose values had been branded with dollar signs."(37) The cluster headaches Capra suffered in the '50s and '60s he called "the Judas pain. You welshed, compromised, sold out."(38) Capra rallied only briefly, pitting his last film, Pocketful of Miracles, against the "hedonists, homosexuals, hemophilic bleeding hearts, the God haters who cried, "Emancipate our films from morality."" Capra claimed the film answered, "No! We must never emancipate our films from morality."(39) Elsewhere in the book, however, Capra understood this film to represent the complete breakdown of his principles. To make the film, Capra had to agree that actor Glenn Ford be given equal say in all production decisions. Capra wrote, "What choice would I make...Principle or money? I opted for money. And Frank Capra became a paper tiger. For Lady Luck smiles only on the valiant. And the voices of the "little people"...cheer not for the faint of heart."(40)

The "little people" weren't cheering Pocketful of Miracles. Capra accounted for the film's popular failure through his lack of principle: "I sold out the artistic integrity that had been my trademark for forty years...[my] "thing" with the people lost its magic, and the people said, "Capra--we've had it with you!"" After admitting he was a sellout, Capra's version of his retirement seems pitiful: "I climbed down of my own persuasion, with my colors still flying. That little cockeyed "one man, one film" flag I had raised...was never lowered, never struck."(41)

Frank Capra, post-retirement
Capra's private sense of his own failure was much more acute. His first attempt at an autobiography, a ninety-two page manuscript titled Night Voices, ended with his death as he imagined it, as a forgotten alcoholic at a skid row bar in Los Angeles. Capra's friend Eugene Vale read the manuscript and later commented, "It was a masochistic outpouring of all the humiliations he had suffered in those last years...he was punishing himself, dumping on himself." Vale told Capra, "Write your true autobiography--what you did accomplish. Emphasize the positive. You're entitled to it. You're a hero."(42) The result was The Name Above the Title. In the book, however, self-celebratory, the failure experienced by the tragic hero, and often by the American hero, was not completely erased.

Capra's relationship to the common man, another requirement of the American heroic type, was enthusiastically stated in his autobiography but infinitely more problematic in his real life. Capra repeatedly reminded readers of his movie mission, in breathy passages like the following:

During my year of banishment [his suspension from Columbia in 1937] I had had time to think, to get back to my roots. Remember those little Joes that helped push you over steep hills? Remember the day you started up that glory road?...[My films] would be my way of saying, "Thanks, America"...[films about] working stiffs, short changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted...I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world."(43)

Following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1937, Capra said he was disgusted by the art treasures in the Hermitage, paid for "with tax money wrung from illiterate "dark people" to give a Romanov recluse something nice to look at" and by "fantastic jewels," evidence of "a sacrilegious waste of wealth that would evoke atheistic thoughts in the most pious. Being peasant born, I could sense the drive, the will, the necessity for the stricken peasant colossus to lift itself out of the depths by its own bootstraps, not necessarily by the democratic methods I revered, but perhaps by harsher means more seasonable to its bleakness of circumstances."(44)

Back at home, Capra tried to present himself as 'the common man' in the popular press. A 1938 Time magazine profile of Capra included the comment, "In Hollywood, long since ashamed of egoparading outside working hours, it is now fashionable [thanks to Capra and his wife] to have a private telephone number, small car, cottage on the beach, and one wife at a time."(45) In an effort to appear 'poor', Capra maintained through the end of his life that he received no percentage of the profits from the films he made for Columbia from 1933 to 1939, even though he earned in excess of $800,000 on the films. At the peak of his holdings, Capra and his wife were worth five million dollars, although he told the Washington Post "I wasn't really wise financially--I'm the poorest director you ever saw."(46) Capra's financial interests sometimes brought him into direct conflict with the "little Joes" he honored in film. In 1952 Capra and other owners of large ranches in the Fallbrook community banded together to build a dam and thus gain control of area water rights. Capra and a number of other big landowners served on FPUD, Fallbrook's utility and water commission. This board had the responsibility of overseeing the dam project, which included condemning the land of several smaller landowners in the community. When the small landowners complained, the federal government brought suit against FPUD to stop the dam. Capra felt compelled to shoot a film on the subject, The Fallbrook Story, in which he asked, "Are non-elective usurpers of power in Washington to prevail over the American people? Is Liberty to die? Is freedom to become but a memory?"(47) The name of the small landowners' opposition group, the Willow Glen Water Users Protective Association, failed to remind Capra of the Willet Creek dam project opposed by Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Eventually FPUD was investigated by a Grand Jury, and although the commission was cleared of any deliberate, illegal wrongdoing, the Jury chastised FPUD for its lack of regard for small landowners in the community. Capra, however, had by that time resigned from the commission and made his escape back to Hollywood.

Before his Hollywood career began in the 1920s, Capra spent several years as a "tin-horn gambler and petty financial pirate." He traveled door-to-door selling coupons for photographic portraits to housewives, phony mining stock to farmers, and Elbert Hubbard's fourteen volume set, Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, to doctors and other professionals. When selling the Hubbard books, Capra employed the following scheme: "The idea was to be so completely ignorant of the world, to be so naive, a shy, scared little guy...When the guy called you into his office, you'd look around and marvel and the things he had in his superb office" and deliver a pitch which began, "When I was seven years old, my mother and father died in an accident." Capra proceeded by explaining how Elbert Hubbard took him in when he was a young orphan and taught him how to make books. Capra finished, "I don't know how to sell things. I don't know how to tell you about them, but that's what I'm trying to do. I've never been out of the factory before. I want to get back there as soon as I can because I get kind of lost in the city, and I don't know what I'm saying."(48) Capra skipped over these years in his autobiography. When asked about it later, Capra said his travels gave him "a real sense of small towns...a real sense of America. I found out a lot about Americans. I loved them...It was a great experience. I met a lot of Gary Coopers."(49)

These experiences as a door-to-door salesman must have given Capra reason to question the average man's acuity. Capra's film The Miracle Woman describes how a cynical evangelist's daughter is able to manipulate her parishoners to achieve nearly heroic status before she repents. McBride commented, "Here was a conflict [Capra] had sensed but had only vaguely understood in himself, between his slick con man's ability to make a buck by manipulating mass emotion and his nagging sense that he ought to be devoting his talent to a higher purpose."(50)

Doubts about the people's capacities led also to Capra's distrust of mass movements, particularly labor unions. King Vidor and twelve other directors founded the Screen Directors Guild in 1935 to combat the pervasive power of producers; when questioned about the Guild, Capra claimed, "I was with them from the very start."(51) However, in 1935 Capra was the newly elected president of the Motion Picture Academy, an organization the directors and others in Hollywood identified as a tool of the producers. SDG and the Screenwriters Guild planned to boycott the Academy Awards, much to Capra's chagrin. In his autobiography, he names the 'heroic' directors, writers, and actors who 'broke the picket line' to come to the awards banquet. Capra didn't join the Guild for another year and a half. Capra's 1930 film Rain or Shine pointedly questioned the benefit of trade unions. In the film, a struggling circus falls prey to an unscrupulous ringmaster. The ringmaster stirs up a performers' strike so the circus will fold and he is able to buy it for himself. As the performers walk out, the circus owner pleads with them to stay. Before he has a chance to be heard, the ringmaster provokes an audience riot. McBride commented that the public "is portrayed as a fickle, easily manipulated, and easily stampeded herd...Rain or Shine rebukes the working man as disorganized and untrustworthy."(52)

Through his autobiography, Capra transformed himself into the quintessential American hero: one from humble origins who works hard, struggles against intellectual, established, and often corrupt individuals and institutions, employs native intelligence and values in the fight to preserve American ideals, lives a plain life, knows some failure and hardship, and never loses sympathy for the common people. This required considerable simplification on Capra's part, but it was a simplification all American "representative men" required in some degree. Like Emerson, it was the hero's relationship to the common man which proved ultimately to be the sticking point. Two of Capra's films--Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe--bear this out. In these films, Capra examines American heroic qualities more critically than in his autobiography: the hero's ability to meet increasingly complicated national and international challenges, and particularly the hero's relationship with the people, are the central preoccupations of these films.


Notes

	1  Barry Gewen, "It Wasn't Such a Wonderful Life," _New York Times
Book Review_, May 3 1992, 3.
	
	2  Frank Capra, _The Name Above the Title_, 6,7,9.

	3  Charles Maland, _Frank Capra_, 22.

	4  Joseph McBride, _Frank Capra:  The Catastrophe of Success_, 35,
36.
	5  McBride 25.

	6  Capra 10, 440.

	7  McBride 135.

	8  McBride 202.

	9  McBride 11, 16, 45.

	10  qtd. in McBride 54.

	11  qtd. in Capra 134.

	12  McBride 195.

	13  Morris Dickstein, "It's a Wonderful Life, but..." _American Film_,
May 1980, 16.

	14  Raymond Carney, _American Vision:  The Films of Frank Capra_,
39.

	15  qtd. in McBride 653.
	
	16  Capra 495.

	17  Capra 100.

	18  Alva Johnston, "Capra Shoots as He Pleases," _Saturday Evening
Post_, May 14, 1938, 67.

	19  McBride 60.

	20  Capra 441.

	21  Capra 113.

	22  Johnston 71.

	23  qtd. in McBride 349.

	24  Capra 116.

	25  Capra 322.

	26  Capra 340, McBride 481.

	27  McBride 273.

	28  Capra 17.

	29  Capra 69.

	30  Capra 220.

	31  Capra 337.

	32  qtd. in Capra 175.

	33  Capra 185.

	34  McBride 323.

	35  Capra 186.

	36  Capra 395, 400.

	37  Capra  423.

	38  McBride 610.
		
	39  Capra 481.

	40  Capra 471.

	41  Capra 486, 493.

	42  qtd. in McBride 645, 646.

	43  Capra 237.

	44  Capra 212.

	45  "Columbia's Gem," _Time_, August 8, 1938, 37.

	46  qtd. in McBride 637.

	47  qtd. in McBride 622.

	48  qtd. in McBride 122.

	49  McBride 120.

	50  McBride 226.

	51  McBride 288.

	52  McBride 221.