A Million Small Miracles: The Enduring Legacy of It’s a Wonderful Life and Frank Capra’s Vision for America

The most fascinating fact about It’s a Wonderful Life is the fact that it was ever made at all. Capra rose to prominence in the 1930s with the pre-Hays Code film, It Happened One Night starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. Following his success, Capra directed a string of films that he called, “fantasies of goodwill”, centered around common people fighting for justice against evil and bettering the fabric of society. For Capra, it was a subject he was all too well aware of.

Born in a small village near Sicily, Frank Capra immigrated to the United States in the steerage compartment of a steamship with his seven brothers and sisters in 1903. Capra was only five years old. He worked as a newsie in the slums of Los Angeles for 10 years before supporting himself through college at the California Institute of Technology where he studied chemical engineering. While studying, he took on odd jobs, including that of a banjo player at nightclubs throughout the Southland.

Following a stint in World War I where he served as a second lieutenant in the Army teaching artillerymen mathematics, Capra contracted the Spanish Flu. Global deaths for Spanish Flu were at 50 million. That Capra could have been part of the 3% dead is an astonishing thing to comprehend.

But Capra survived and he was discharged. In his early 20s, he moved back into his parents’ house. Of his seven brothers and sisters, Capra was the only one with a college education, and yet, he faced chronic unemployment despite his degree. That he found Hollywood was sheer, dumb luck, a beautiful serendipity.

How did Capra break into Hollywood? He lied on his résumé. When asked by studio founder Walter Montague if he had any film experience, Capra aped and said he had. Montague believed him and gave him $75 to make a silent film. This jettisoned him into a career with Hal Roach, writing scripts for his beloved series The Little Rascals in its earliest incarnation. He teamed up with comedian Harry Langdon and director Mack Sennett for a series of films that led to Harry Langdon rising to Chaplin levels of fame.

But alas, the silent film era was reaching its decline, however Capra’s engineering degree gave him an edge over the competition. He was able to move Hollywood into an extraordinary era with talking pictures, helping pave the way for the future of cinema as we know it. This led to him working with Harry Cohn over at Columbia Pictures. Columbia Pictures was part of “poverty row” as it was commonly called in Hollywood backlots due to its lack of big budget features and ragtag bunch of filmmakers at the advent of their careers.

Capra and Cohn teamed together with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert for the smash hit, It Happened One Night, but that project almost didn’t happen due to Gable and Colbert’s desultory and mercurial feelings towards the script. At the 11th hour, Capra and Cohn enlisted the help of screenwriter Robert Riskin to help polish things up a bit. The film was a surprise hit and swept the Oscars. In 1938, Capra won his third Oscar for directing.

At this point, Capra very well could have turned away from his past misfortunes and ignored them. He very well could have let it all go to his head. Money and fame change people. But Capra was approached by a friend who reminded him of his platform and how valuable it could be.

He began a new era celebrating the everyman with 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, a part-time greeting card writer from the fictional small town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont who stumbles upon an inheritance from an estranged, wealthy uncle from Manhattan. The film, which was released during the worst years of the depression era, was both escapism from the constant dread that suffocated the air, but it also contained an important lesson. In the end, Deeds doesn’t choose a life of wealth and status, but instead he chooses a simpler life, giving away large sums of his money to friends who need it and pursuing his greeting card ambitions in earnest.

Next to It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra is most famously known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)which launched the career of James (then “Jimmy”) Stewart. Prior to its legendary status in film history, Mr. Smith was almost not released at all. Capra and Cohn feared that the film, which depicts a senator going up against corrupt politicians, would lower the morale of men enlisting in the army who might feel dissuaded against fighting for the country. Harry Cohn even persuaded the studio not to screen it in Europe. The U.S. was still deep in its isolationism phase while Europe was being ravaged by World War II.

On the heels of a press conference with FDR, Capra was beginning to have doubts.

“And panic hit me. Japan was slicing up the colossus of China piece by piece. Nazi panzers had rolled into Austria and Czechoslovakia; their thunder echoed over Europe. England and France shuddered. The Russian bear growled ominously in the Kremlin. The black cloud of war hung over the chancelleries of the world. Official Washington from the President down, was in the process of making hard, torturing decisions. “And here was I, in the process of making a satire about government officials; … Wasn’t this the most untimely time for me to make a film about Washington.” –Frank Capra

Ultimately, however, Capra decided his film was in good taste and urged Cohn and the studio to go through with it. His reason?

“The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure.”

Capra and Cohn released the film to a deluge of criticism. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would go on to win 11 Academy Awards.

Following the attack at Pearl Harbor, Capra was commissioned to serve in the Army as a major in the United States Army. He created the successful Why We Fight film series to boost morale. Meanwhile, his former leading man James Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Airforce, fighting in the European Theater. For Stewart, serving in the army was in his roots, both of his grandfathers had served in the Civil War (on the Union side). Both men came out of the war unscathed, but with 416,800 U.S. soldiers dead, even with the Allied Victory, the loss was immense.

That Capra had already experienced extreme levels of poverty, chronic unemployment, two world wars, contracting and surviving the Spanish Flu, and still lived to tell the tale was nothing short of a miracle. Capra was a lifelong Roman Catholic, but very humble in regards to his religion. Passionate about his work, Capra used his medium to inspire messages of kindness, of compassion, of love for all mankind. His message was not barred by any affidavits or asterisks, but more so for emboldening “the little way”, or as its most commonly known, “the golden rule”.

Capra would reach a high point in his career with his next film, the zenith of the Capra era, but oddly enough it wouldn’t become famous in its own lifetime.

Following the Allied Victory over the Axis of Evil in 1946, Capra and fellow directors, William Wyler and George Stevens co-founded Liberty Films. The purpose of Liberty Films was for Capra, Stevens, and Wyler to create the films they wanted without studio heads interfering. They released two films, State of the Union (1948) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). It’s a Wonderful Life dealt with budgeting problems and almost killed its own studio.

The former was a hit, but the latter was not warmly received amongst audiences, it was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives that became a sensational post-war hit while It’s a Wonderful Life slipped into obscurity.

In 1974, amidst the chaos of the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War, It’s a Wonderful Life entered public domain. TV stations everywhere began to air it and this time, it actually took. Regarding its second life, Capra told the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen… The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, It’s a Wonderful Life became the Christmas classic that it is today. In 1993, the film was so popular that its status as public domain was challenged. Republic Pictures bought back the film’s rights and the film continued its meteoric ascent into Christmas history.

Capra’s own life story and his commitment to making films that embodied and inspired grace under pressure is amplified for me this year. 2020 has been like The Spanish Flu, The Nixon Administration (or worse), and The Great Depression all rolled into one. We’ve witnessed scourges against humanity on behalf of one wealthy ruling class trying to obstruct the lives of its citizens. But as Capra’s pictures remind us: we must continue to fight the good fight. We must unite instead of divide. And above all, we must relish every moment we’re alive because life is an adventure to be lived. Capra saw the hero in every person because the hero is the one who carries love and the fight for justice in their heart. For that, Capra’s legacy and the legacy of Capra’s vision of the United States of America will always prevail.

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