The most honored and well-liked director of his generation, Sicilian-born Frank Capra graduated from the California Institute of Technology as a Chemical Engineering major. Down on his luck after service during World War I, he bluffed his way into the movie business and learned films from the bottom up, from the film lab to the prop department to the editing department. He settled in as a gagman during the 1920s, and soon became a director specializing in comedy. After a stint with Mack Sennett, Capra moved to Columbia Pictures, where he came into his own as a filmmaker.
Displaying a good feel for drama as well as comedy, and a common touch with which ordinary viewers could resonate, Capra quickly became the star among the tiny studio's stable of directors. His pictures, starting with American Madness in 1932, displayed themes that audiences regarded as important and uplifting during the worst days of the Great Depression, and Capra, despite the relatively modest budgets with which he had to work, became one of the most popular serious filmmakers of the '30s. After It Happened One Night, a comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable that earned an armload of Oscars and nominations, his career was made. Some critics regarded the messages of movies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- often dealing with the rights and dignity of the common man -- as corn (the phrase "Capra-corn" was an often-used derision), but the public loved them. Capra finished the '30s as one of Hollywood's most honored filmmakers, with three Best Director Oscars to his credit. With the rise of fascism, he turned more serious at the end of the decade and attempted to address this in Lost Horizon and his first independent production, Meet John Doe. He returned to pure comedy just prior to entering the army, with Arsenic and Old Lace, and, during his wartime service, directed the U.S. Army's Why We Fight series. After the war, he made the most ambitious and personal of his movies, It's a Wonderful Life, which originally didn't find its audience -- only during the '70s and early '80s, when it temporarily passed out of copyright protection (a situation since remedied by its owner), did the wide showings of this poignant comedy-fantasy turn the movie into a piece of definitive film-Americana.
Capra's subsequent movies, including State of the Union and A Hole in the Head, though successful, lacked the urgency and immediacy of his pre-war work, and he fell increasingly out of touch with the changing tastes and attitudes of both audiences and movie studios during the 1950s and early '60s. He made several industrial films during this period, but his career in feature films had effectively ended after the 1961 release of Pocketful of Miracles, a very sentimental (and big-budget widescreen) remake of his 1933 hit Lady for a Day. Capra died in 1991.