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Frank Capra

The Catastrophe of Success

Joseph McBride

Publication Year: 2011

Moviegoers often assume Frank Capra's life resembled his beloved films (such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. A man of the people faces tremendous odds and, by doing the right thing, triumphs! But as Joseph McBride reveals in this meticulously researched, definitive biography, the reality was far more complex, a true American tragedy. Using newly declassified U.S. government documents about Capra's response to being considered a possible "subversive" during the post-World War II Red Scare, McBride adds a final chapter to his unforgettable portrait of the man who gave us It Happened One Night Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , and Meet John Doe

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

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1. "I felt nothing"

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pp. 9-27

Six thousand people, virtually all the inhabitants of the Sicilian village of Bisacquino, met the old man on the highway half a mile from town. He had not seen his birthplace in almost seventy-four years, and he was stunned by the sincerity and fervor of this homecoming welcome. He remembered almost nothing...

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2. "I hated America"

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pp. 29-48

The immensity of the ocean, the boy would later say, "drove everything else out of my head." The ocean crossing was a rebirth for Francesco Capra. America would write his story afresh. It was the first and most radical of the character transformations he would undergo in his lifetime, and, he admitted, "It scared the hell out of me."...

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3. "A terrible wop"

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pp. 49-67

The idea Miss McDaniel planted in Frank Capra's brain became an obsession. He still had no idea what he would become, but he now saw clearly that education was the one thing that would keep him from spending his life on the railroad tracks or in a brickyard. He overcame his parents' reluctance to his further schooling by promising to pay his own expenses if they would let him go on to high school...

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4. "Cap"

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pp. 69-102

He changed his whole viewpoint on life, from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person." With those words, written in the third person for a 1929 self-portrait, Frank Capra summed up the experience of his college years at Throop College of Technology in Pasadena. Pasadena, it was said in those days, was where people from Los Angeles went when they died...

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5. "I'm from Hollywood"

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pp. 103-138

Still recovering from his shock at being mustered into the regular Army as a private on October 18, 1918, Capra found himself not in European combat but at the Presidio at picturesque Fort Point on San Francisco Bay, headquarters of the coast defenses. He was one of 2,500 prospective officers from eleven western states crammed into the Enlisted Specialists' Preparatory School...

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6. The Gag Man

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pp. 139-179

If there is any shortcut to fame and fortune in motion pictures, it is as a gag man," Capra wrote in 1927. "Here you may jump to the top overnight, after the short probationary period, which is long enough to show you whether you have the stuff that makes gag men." Capra did not "jump to the top overnight,"...

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7. "Marrying the harlot"

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pp. 181-217

Xapra regarded the picture he made in New York, which was released as For the Love of Mike, as the worst of his career (it is now a lost film). A comedy about three New York ethnics (a Jewish tailor, a Dutch delicatessen owner, and an Irish street cleaner) who adopt a baby and raise him together, putting him through Yale, it starred Ben Lyon as Mike, with George Sidney, Ford Sterling, and Hugh Cameron as his godfathers...

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8. "The Man in the Street"

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pp. 219-245

Capra's rise to fame and material success stemmed from America's descent into the Great Depression, as he somewhat uncomfortably assumed the role of Hollywood's champion of the "common man." He shared his peasant family's thrifty habits and their instinctual distrust of banks. While making his prudent Hollywood and Malibu land...

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9. American Madness

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pp. 248-289

The subject was a bold and timely one: a run on a bank. More than3,600 American banks had failed since the end of 1929, one fifth of all thebanks in the country, with deposits totaling more than $2.5 billion. InMarch of 1932, as Columbia put Faith into production, faith in the Amer-ican economic system was a scarce commodity indeed. The Bank Holiday...

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10. "The catastrophe of Success"

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pp. 289-325

It was just a few days before the start of shooting on Madame La Gimp. "Harry," Capra told Cohn when they met at the studio, "I want you to face the fact that you're spending three hundred thousand dollars on a picture in which the heroine is seventy years old." Cohn rose from his desk and stared out his window onto Gower Street. Then he turned back to Capra: "All I know is the thing's got a wallop. Go...

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11. "A sense of responsibility"

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pp. 327-351

Before his illness, Capra had been thinking of making a musical. Histhoughts went to the opera star Grace Moore, a surprise success in Co-lumbia's 1934 One Night of Love. After the visit from the little man,however, such a project may have seemed too fluffy for "The World'sThe first project announced for Capra when he made his abortive return...

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12. "The doghouse"

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pp. 351-375

Lost Horizon was a clossal act of hubris, a self-inflicted wound that caused lasting damage to Capra's career.The man who claimed in 1985 that he had "never gone over budget— not one penny" shot for ten months and spent $2,026,337.01 of Columbia's money ($776,337.01 in excess of the original budget...

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13. "Columbia's Gem"

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pp. 375-400

Before July 1937, when the producers agreed to hold contract talks with the Screen Directors Guild, the guild had been limping along with a membership of only ninety directors, but that month another seventy-one agreed to come aboard, including Frank Capra. Capra signed his membership application on August 8...

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14. "My ancestors couldn't; I can"

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pp. 401-424

The film Capra and Cohn chose to end their twelve years of partnership was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It began with a screen story by Lewis R. Foster called "The Gentleman from Montana," the story of the disillusionment of a wide-eyed idealist after his appointment to the United States Senate. Columbia producer William Perlberg had optioned it in 1937, but Cohn decided...

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15. "We're the front office"

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pp. 425-452

Never did Capra have it so good again. His twelve years at Columbia, which ended in October 1939, were the most productive of his life. The freedom he craved would turn out to be a subtle trap. At the time his options seemed unlimited. In his last months at Columbia, there was great competition in Hollywood for Capra's services...

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16. "That fellow Capra"

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pp. 453-502

Most you were individuals in civilian life, "Capra wrote the officers under his command in 1942. "Forget that. You are working for a common cause. Your personal egos and idiosyncrasies are unimportant. There will be no personal credit for your work, either on the screen or in the press. The only press notices we are anxious to read are those of American victories!"...

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17. Liberty

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pp. 503-534

It's frightening to go back to Hollywood after four years, wondering whether you've gone rusty or lost touch," Capra admitted to Tom Pryor of The New York Times in November 1945. "I keep telling myself how wonderful it would be just to sneak out somewhere and make a couple of quickie Westerns first—just to get the feel of things again."...

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18. "I have no cause"

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pp. 535-560

And so, here and now, I withdraw as a candidate for any office—not because I'm honest, but because I'm dishonest. I want to apologize to all the good, sincere people who put their faith in me. . . . " Those words, which were written for the film, were spoken by Spencer...

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19. "The Judas pain"

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pp. 561-611

There was more to Capra's malaise than his budget fights with Paramount. He had been running for cover politically since learning of the "innuendo campaign" against him in late 1946 or early 1947. He cryptically admitted in his book that in 1947, "I began to act strangely, to look for Villains.' " That year he lost his "courage" and his "soul stopped leaping upward." The intervening years, with HUAC, the Motion Picture...

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20. A Reputation

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pp. 611-657

Thoreau wrote of his bean field that it "attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus." Capra hoped Red Mountain Ranch would do the same for him, but his posh version of Walden Pond proved to be as frustrating as Hollywood. "When Capra quit the picture business, he was going to be The Land Owner...


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pp. 657-688

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pp. 689-698

When I began writing the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award tribute to Frank Capra with producer George Stevens, Jr., in 1981, there were troubling questions lingering in my mind, aspects of Capra's story that didn't quite add up. Particularly baffling was the question of how this great director could have so utterly self-destructed after the late 1940s, in the most precipitous decline...

Notes on Sources

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pp. 699-748


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pp. 749-762


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pp. 763-825

E-ISBN-13: 9781604738391
E-ISBN-10: 1604738391
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604738384
Print-ISBN-10: 1604738383

Page Count: 800
Publication Year: 2011