Frank Capra


By the time this course ends, you will have reviewed the work of five of the most compelling filmmakers of the 1930s-1970s in America’s filmmaking adolescence. Along the way, we will touch on each in brief, and consult key cultural and ethical themes, as well as the impact of war on their respective creative processes.

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To provide you an opportunity to demonstrate what you take away from this review and discussion, I want each of you to select one of the five filmmakers (your free choice), and perform a deeper analysis of their work before, during, and after the war, and make an argument for each of the following questions in a five page, double-spaced essay:

Who was this filmmaker before the war?
Who was this filmmaker after the war?
How did war influence their creative processes?
How do we see each of these on display in their bodies of work?
Where do the filmmakers stand in your opinion on the sociocultural, political, and ethical issues of their time in how they approached their work?
The goals of the paper are to:

Demonstrate knowledge of a key filmmaker to this course, including their creative focus, body of work, and approach to leveraging that creative work to support the war effort.
Perform an analysis of the work and offer your critical take on the creative perspective they adopted in each of their pieces produced during the war effort.
Perform an analysis of a different work from before and after the war from those you will conduct during the filmmaker’s week of focus to provide an understanding of how the war shaped their civilian work after the fight.
Provide an analysis of the filmmakers’ work, considering themes of race, class, culture, and professional ethics in reviewing the documentary and post-war films reviewed.
Some key elements to remember:

This is meant to be a demonstration of applied research to answer a question, not an expression of opinion alone. You may offer your own analysis of information, but it should not stop at “because.”
All external information should be treated as a cited source. See appropriate citation format below.
This is not a community exercise in writing the paper, although some key themes will be a topic of class discussion this term. As such, make sure you write this on your own.
Recall the extensive explanation of Academic Dishonesty above, and remember, that I use Turn It In on all term papers to make sure you give credit where it is due and to check against extensive copy and paste rather than writing and synthesis.

Frank Capra Info

Capra was an Italian immigrant who began with nothing and worked his way up through silent film to reach the pinnacle of directing in film in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards for Best Director from six nominations, along with three other Oscar wins from nine nominations in other categories. Among his leading films were It Happened One Night (1934), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The last of which reflecting his political perspective, which was evolving from staunch isolationism to standing against the growth of fascism in western Europe.

Capra’s belief in the war effort led him to be among the first to serve in Hollywood, and he did so in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and produced propaganda films, such as the Why We Fight series.

Capra’s career suffered after his service, as his position in Hollywood declined as his later films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), performed poorly when they were first released.[3] In ensuing decades, however, It’s a Wonderful Life and other Capra films were revisited favorably by critics. Outside of directing, Capra was active in the film industry, engaging in various political and social activities. He served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, worked alongside the Writers Guild of America, and was head of the Directors Guild of America.

When Capra returned from the war, he and many of his peers got together and formed their own independent production company, which was a break from Hollywood’s tradition of the studio systems in Liberty Pictures. Ultimately, the company folded, but they started a revolution that supported and set into motion the growth and development independent production companies and filmmaking that enabled more authentic storytelling in film.

Capra’s example really leads us to some themes you should attend to this week as you review the film(s) and supplemental material you are to review and compare:

An Immigrant’s Perspective on America and Sense of Patriotism

Capra is the first among several filmmakers you will encounter who were either first generation or second generation immigrants to the United States. In his case, he left Sicily to find better opportunities in America with his family as a boy. Building from nothing, he rose in the ranks in Hollywood, and did so at a time where being Italian bore many of the same insults and slurs any other ethnicity did in America.

Yet, when war loomed, Capra felt a deep sense of commitment and pride to his adopted nation, and he went in whole heartedly in his work for the fight. His love of country and belief in America comes through in his work before the war, and was central to his approach to in developing the propaganda that helped drive recruiting, war bond drives, and sustain public morale in America.

It’s an interesting thing to consider historically, immigrants often have a deep role in some of our biggest challenges, and Capra set aside his career at its peak to make this commitment. Part of your job this week is to identify how patriotism is articulated throughout his work, and how Capra wrestles with articulating his love of America and its ways of life.

“Get the shot” vs. “Get it Right”

This is a theme that will come back throughout our next few weeks together. Capra was among the first filmmakers to wrestle with the fight between pure authenticity vs. compelling visuals and a favorable narrative that is purely intended to drive morale.

For Capra, the need for a driving narrative was essential, and so he often erred on the side of telling a story rather than showing viewers the war and its consequences as they were. One element each of you will have to consider is how each filmmaker confronts this issue in their creative work during and after the war. You’ll see this in his work during the war.

A Person’s Value to Society

One of Capra’s deeply personal experiences was returning home to a Hollywood that barely recognized him and his career successes after 6 years away. As a means of talking about this experience, Capra penned and directed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a film about a man feeling lost and at the end of his rope who wondered what his value was to the world. Much in the same way many men came home and wondered why they gave up years of their life for this, or if what they did in civilian life mattered, he told a story about why we all matter.

At the time, the film was a box office and critical failure, and ultimately ruined Liberty Pictures. Over time, however, critics and scholars extolled the brilliance of the work and its value in expressing the struggle many of us feel in finding purpose. Sadly, this led Capra to ultimately wind down his creative work and leave the industry entirely by 1961.

In time, however, it became the annual tradition most of us indulge at Christmas time, and celebrates a man who let his personal experiences in war inform his artwork.

You’re going to see each of our filmmaker’s work after the war, and see how the war shaped their work in time. This week, you have the task of articulating how his wartime experience informed his creative development of this particular film.

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