12/24/2009 11:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Immigrant Who Best Captured Christmas -- And America

With each successive viewing of this perennial Christmas film, the familiar story lodges more deeply in our consciousness...

On Christmas Eve, 1946, small-town banker George Bailey (James Stewart) becomes embroiled in scandal and overwhelmed by a sense of personal failure. Stopped from leaping to his death by awkward guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), Bailey recounts his eventful life on the road to ruin, from marriage to high-school sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to his final showdown with tyrannical town banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

George also learns the value of a single life - his own - when Clarence makes his despairing wish never to have been born temporarily come true.

Initially too intense for its war-weary audience, "It's a Wonderful Life" was a box-office disappointment in 1946, but thanks largely to television has drawn an enormous cult following since. Arguably the best-known and most popular Christmas movie ever made, "Life" may provide the ultimate statement on the value of love, life, and community.

But for George, Jimmy Stewart's everyman, getting to this optimistic place involves going through areas of deep despair, sacrificing his own dreams to run the family business and keep his town of Bedford Falls safe from the greedy hands of a cold, heartless financier.

Seen through the more cynical lens of our time, "Life" can feel oppressively nostalgic and achingly sentimental in spots, but to its enduring credit, the movie never shrinks from portraying the dark flip-side of American life. At the same time, the story it tells remains universal.

Like this, perhaps his best-known film, the director Frank Capra's own story was also quintessentially American, though ironically, his storied life actually began on foreign shores.

Born in Sicily in 1897, he and his family were part of the great immigrant influx in the early part of the twentieth century. After a wretched transatlantic voyage to America in 1903, they all somehow made it across the country to Los Angeles--then a small community- where Frank's older brother had already settled and gained a modest foothold.

Capra's early days take on the aspect of a Horatio Alger tale, with hard work making anything possible in a shining land of opportunity. Frank, an energetic and resourceful boy, took on an array of menial jobs to make ends meet (including janitorial work and playing the piano at a brothel), Frank finally enrolled in school, against the wishes of his parents, who saw no future in his pursuing an education. The boy, however, had other ideas, along with the brains and drive to forge a higher path.

Against all odds, Frank actually made it to college, and after pursuing chemical engineering for a time, first discovered his lifelong love of language and writing. Then the First World War intervened, and though Capra was not yet a naturalized citizen, he was permitted to serve in the Coastal Artillery.

The war over, Frank resumed his literary work, but could sell none of his stories. By then (the early twenties), Los Angeles was already being transformed into the hub of the booming picture business, and it seemed almost inevitable that Frank would fall into it.

Yet even as he began dabbling in the industry, success was far from immediate, and Capra had to continue working in other lowly trades just to eat. He gambled, was a door-to-door salesman, and reputedly even became a hobo for a time, riding the rails.

All through this rough, uncertain period, Frank Capra was drinking in the soul and spirit of his adopted country, an osmosis that would shape his later work, both in its populist themes and keen understanding of the fundamental good and bad in American society.

Capra finally landed on his feet in 1924, securing a job as a gag writer for Hal Roach, producer of the long-running, wildly popular "Our Gang" series. Soon he moved over to arch-rival Mack Sennett's company, and began directing pictures for sad-eyed comic Harry Langdon, then a huge star.

After an extended run with Langdon, Capra signed to direct for Columbia Pictures in 1927, working for legendary, rough-hewn studio boss Harry Cohn. After some initial bumps their association would be cemented for close to fifteen years, at which point Capra would stand at the very top of his game.

1933 was another turning point. Working with writer (and future collaborator, writer Robert Riskin), Capra would receive a Best Director Oscar nod for "Lady For A Day", a Cinderella story with a twist which the director would remake nearly thirty years later, to lesser effect, as "Pocketful of Miracles". At the Academy Awards ceremony, presenter Will Rogers carelessly opened the envelope and said, "Come on up and get it, Frank." Walking to the stage, the young director realized to his horror that the winner was actually Frank Lloyd, for the movie "Cavalcade".

Capra was crushed and humiliated that night, but the following year would be different. In 1934, he directed the first film ever that literally swept the Academy Awards, winning every major category. Thus Oscar history was made, and Frank Capra really and truly launched into the Hollywood firmament.

In addition to that ever magical and eternally resonant Christmas movie I'll watch again tonight, my own must-see Capra list leads with this, the director's first major triumph, followed by four more winners made during the roughly fifteen year Capra hey-day that ensued.

(Note: these do not include the director's first-rate documentary series available on DVD, "Why We Fight", a critical morale booster done for the War Department during World War 2. This impressive effort, often shot under hazardous conditions, helped earn Capra the rank of Army Colonel.)

It Happened One Night (1934)- Ellie Andrews ( Claudette Colbert), a mixed-up heiress, hits the road incognito to escape a loveless impending marriage and a chronically over-protective father (Walter Connolly). Riding with the common folk on a bus, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who grudgingly befriends this unusual creature, who appears curiously oblivious to the ways and customs of real life. When Peter discovers her true identity, he knows he's got hold of the story of the century, but by this time, he's also started to have feelings for Ellie. What's a desperate, smitten newsman to do? It's still easy to understand why Capra's sublime romantic comedy dominated the 1935 Oscars. Few seventy year old movies hold up like this one. Colbert makes a charming, deft comedienne (check out that hitch-hiking scene!), and Gable was never more appealing, winning his only Oscar for this role.(Ironically, Clark was initially miffed when he was lent out out to "Poverty Row" studio Columbia to do the picture, as he was already fast becoming the reigning "King" of MGM.) That scene where Peter takes off his shirt and exposes his bare chest was also a first for pictures, and reportedly, sounded a death knell for the undershirt industry!

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)- Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a wealthy distant relative he doesn't even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are soon in for a rude awakening. This timeless Capra charmer is one of Cooper's most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking homespun reflection of rural America out-foxes all those smug and greedy city-slickers. Thus the movie reinforces the recurring Capra theme of solid individual integrity over the mob of established, monied interests. The husky voiced Jean Arthur delivers a note-perfect turn as Babe Bennett, a hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her surprise. One of the screen's authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its best. Beware the vastly inferior Adam Sandler re-make.

Lost Horizon (1937)- In Capra's wondrous adaptation of James Hilton's novel, five Westerners discover a haven of tranquility known as Shangri-La when their hijacked plane crashes in Tibet. Having literally landed in paradise, protagonist Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), a disillusioned diplomat stationed in war-ravaged China, ultimately must decide whether to leave this idyllic, otherworldly spot, and return home. This epic tale of a lost civilization where people lead long, peaceful lives was heady escape for Americans wanting respite from both a lingering Depression and the growing threat of Fascism abroad. Besides the dashing Colman, "Horizon" features a venerable supporting cast, including Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, Sam Jaffe, and a young Jane Wyatt (later in TV's "Father Knows Best"). Here Capra fashions a sensitive, intelligent fantasy adventure that, like its locale, never seems to age a bit. This "Lost Horizon" is one destination worth discovering, time and again.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)- Idealistic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed an interim junior Senator on the assumption that he will be too green to ruffle the cozy Washington establishment. But when one of Smith's first initiatives threatens a lucrative project championed by supposed mentor Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the embattled Smith gets a first, bitter taste of cut-throat politics. Still, Smith will not yield the fight. Jean Arthur returns to play Jefferson's handler, a cynical operator named Clarissa, who is supposed to keep Smith on a tight leash, but soon falls for his unfettered idealism. Capra's still potent morality tale remains one of Arthur's and particularly Stewart's finest moments. (Indeed, when the actor won the Oscar the following year for "The Philadelphia Story", he felt the award was delayed compensation for "Smith".) Solid support also comes from character actors Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell, the latter of whom actually appeared in five (yes, five) Oscar nominated pictures that banner year in Hollywood. This film's highlight: that concluding filibuster scene!

State of the Union (1948)- In the midst of a wobbly patch in his marriage to wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn), wealthy aviation executive Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) strays with the alluring, powerful Kay Thorndike (Angela Lansbury), who's inherited her father's string of newspapers and sees in Grant the ideal "dark horse" candidate for President. Once convinced to take the plunge however, Grant must confront all the double-dealing and dirty compromises that fuel the business of politics. Ultimately this new reality forces a re-assessment of Grant's whole life, professional and personal. Capra, the unparalleled purveyor of populist Americana, sets his sights on the smarmy, corrupt practices that get people elected to high office. Though some will focus on minor dated touches, the film's underlying message still sounds prophetic. Tracy delivers a perfectly balanced portrayal of a principled man momentarily blinded by the seduction of raw power. While Kate always seems at her best opposite her real-life partner, it's Angela who steals the film as the ruthless, ice-cold Kay. A wise-cracking Van Johnson and old veteran Adolphe Menjou round out a top-flight cast playing slick, cynical operators in Grant's camp. In all, "Union" endures as a highly relevant political parable, imbued with just the right balance of cynicism, insight and heart.

Frank Capra not only put the American Dream up on the screen; he lived it himself, rising from illiterate immigrant to one of our most brilliant directors. In a myriad of ways, he became an integral part of Hollywood. After one failed marriage, he remarried and stayed with second wife Lou over fifty years until her death in 1984. Leading a pace of life that would have shortened the years of most people, Capra himself lived to be 94.

Capra's most fitting epitaph came from fellow director John Ford, not one to hand out tributes lightly: "A great man and a great American, Frank Capra is an inspiration for those who believe in the American Dream".

Thanks to him, and despite plenty of obstacles, many of us still do.

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