Frank Russell Capra was born Francesco Rosario Capra on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy. Capra moved to the United States with his family and six siblings in 1903. The family settled in an Italian community in Los Angeles, California. Capra worked his way through high school and college at the California Institute of Technology, where he studied chemical engineering.
Capra enlisted in the United States Army during World War I. His father died shortly thereafter. After contracting the Spanish flu, Capra returned home to L.A. and attained his American citizenship under the name Frank Russell Capra. He spent the next few years without direction or regular employment, before finding his way into the film industry. Capra, who had no directing experience, talked his way into directing several comedies put out by San Francisco studios. He got in on the ground floor of Columbia Pictures, helping to establish the studio and move it out of the silent film era.
The 1930s saw Capra’s first national success. He became one of the country’s most influential directors with films such as It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Many of Capra’s films told rags-to-riches stories, often with a moral message and a patriotic bent. He continued his streak of hit films in the ’40s, directing movies like Arsenic and Old Lace and It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also directed a series of informational films entitled Why We Fight for enlisted men during World War II.
Capra’s career declined after WWII, as public tastes and the mechanics of the film industry changed. He retired from Hollywood filmmaking in 1952. Returning to the subject of science, he directed and produced educational films under the auspices of his alma mater, Caltech. Capra briefly returned to Hollywood in the late ’50s, directing his final three movies between 1959 and 1964. He died in La Quinta, California, on September 3, 1991.
Despite falling out of fashion during the director’s lifetime, the films of Frank Capra have been deeply influential over the past several decades. Many are considered classics and are frequently screened in theaters and on television.
Capra was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three. His 1939 film, It Happened One Night, was the first to win all five of the highest Academy Award honors—best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay and best picture.