Frank Capra, the American dream of an Italian immigrant

Frank Capra, once upon a time in America

In the group photos of his youth, he is always at the edge of the frame, almost out of the way. This accident of the archives, underlined by this malicious documentary broadcast on the Arte site, says a lot about the social rank occupied by Frank Capra (1897-1991) during his studies. Life is not yet good for the future king of American comedy. Italian immigrant who arrived in California in 1903 in the luggage of his parents, poor and illiterate Sicilians, Francesco Rosario Capra, who became Frank Russel Capra in 1920, will never cease to prove his love for the United States in order to finally be at the center. of the picture.

Providence smiles on him, like the heroes of his films. In his autobiography as well as in the interviews, of which tasty extracts punctuate this subtle portrait of the filmmaker, he recounts having been recruited as a director by presenting himself as “ Frank Capra from Hollywood “. It doesn’t matter if he rose through the ranks by doing odd jobs on the sets, adds documentary maker Dimitri Kourtchine, who takes care to disentangle myth from reality.

From its first realization, The incomplete athlete (1926), the ingredients of the Capraesque recipe are there: a naive hero, a quiet little American town, the victory of kindness over greed. All wrapped up in a lot of humor. Because, as explained by the filmmaker who started out as a gagman, you have to make the audience laugh to arouse their sympathy and their adhesion to the story that is being told.

The triumph of the individual

To capture viewers’ attention even more, Capra injects speed into his staging. In New York – Miami (1933, five Oscars the following year), one of the first screwball comedies (crazy comedies), the dialogues are delivered to the rhythm of a machine gun. The female characters also shine there by their freedom and their strong personalities.

His following films, political fables, The Extravagant Mr. Deeds (1936), Mr. Smith in the Senate (1939) and Man in the street (1941), celebrate the triumph of the individual over his environment. Often referred to as “Rooseveltian”, these social works are not odes to the New Deal, believes Dimitri Kourtchine.

From Frank Capra to Mario Monicelli, social comedy as a remedy for the crisis

Capra, who voted Republican all his life, is suspicious of the state, whose representatives are often helpless bureaucrats or corrupt elected officials. In a striking sequence of the documentary, Ronald Reagan takes over, in a speech of 1981, the final tirade of Mr. Deeds on the first of roped parties and private initiative.

Petri dish of contradictions

However, the documentary passes a little quickly on the praise of brotherhood and sharing that permeates the filmography of the director of Life is Beautiful (1946). According to Dimitri Kourtchine, the only collective drive which finds favor in Capra’s eyes is patriotism. The one who incites the idealist Mr. Smith to go on a crusade against corruption. The one who pushes the filmmaker himself to make seven propaganda feature films during World War II, then to become a secret FBI informant during McCarthyism …

Gripped with doubts, Frank Capra is steeped in contradictions, lambasting the lust for power and money in his films while being Hollywood’s highest paid filmmaker, willingly pulling the cover to himself. By imposing his name at the top of the poster above the title, he nevertheless strengthens the status of the filmmaker-author.

He no longer enjoys post-war success. same Life is Beautiful is shunned when it comes out! As its copyright was not renewed in time, the film entered the public domain in the 1970s, allowing television channels to broadcast it inexpensively each year at Christmas. It is today his most famous film. Providence again …


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