Francesco Rosario Capra was born on 18 May 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy; the family immigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled in Los Angeles, California.
Capra’s family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was six. After graduating in 1918 from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he became an army engineering instructor.
From 1921 Capra was a director of motion-picture shorts, a property man, a film cutter, a writer of film titles, a gag writer for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett comedies, and a director of such popular Harry Langdon comedies as “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1926), “The Strong Man” (1926), and” Long Pants” (1927).
Capra began his long association with Columbia Pictures in 1928 and went on to direct some of the studio’s most prestigious films. His early Columbia films include “The Power of the Press” (1928) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; “Platinum Blonde” (1931), one of Jean Harlow’s first starring vehicles; and “Lady for a Day” (1933), for which Capra received his first Academy Award nomination for best director.
He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1920, adopting the name Frank Russell Capra.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army during WW1 and taught ballistics & mathematics to artillerymen, but became ill with Spanish influenza and was medically discharged with the rank of second lieutenant.
At the beginning of World War II, he joined the U.S Army as a major and worked for the Signal Corps, where he directed 11 documentary war films for the U.S. government’s “Why We Fight” series, winning an Academy Award for one and a Distinguished Service Medal when the war ended.
1.Prelude to War (1942) (51:35) (Academy award as Documentary Feature) – this examines the difference between democratic and fascist states, and covers the Japanese conquest of Manchuria and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. Capra describes it as “presenting a general picture of two worlds; the slave and the free, and the rise of totalitarian militarism from Japan’s conquest of Manchuria to Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia.”
2.The Nazis Strike (1943) (40:20) covers Nazi geopolitics and the conquest of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Capra’s description: “Hitler rises. Imposes Nazi dictatorship on Germany. Goose-steps into Rhineland and Austria. Threatens war unless given Czechoslovakia. Appeasers oblige. Hitler invades Poland. Curtain rises on the tragedy of the century—World War II.”
3.Divide and Conquer (1943) (56:00) – about the campaign in Benelux and the Fall of France. Capra’s description: “Hitler occupies Denmark and Norway, outflanks Maginot Line, drives British Army into North Sea, forces surrender of France.”
4.The Battle of Britain (1943) (51:30) – depicts Britain’s victory against the Luftwaffe. Capra’s synopsis: “Showing the gallant and victorious defense of Britain by Royal Air Force, at a time when shattered but unbeaten British were only people fighting Nazis.”
5.The Battle of Russia (1943) (76:07) – shows a history of Russian defense and Russia’s battle against Germany. Capra’s synopsis: “History of Russia; people, size, resources, wars. Death struggle against Nazi armies at gates of Moscow and Leningrad. At Stalingrad, Nazis put through meat grinder.”
6.The Battle of China (1944) (62:16) – shows Japanese aggression such as the Nanking Massacre and Chinese efforts such as the construction of the Burma Road and the Battle of Changsha. Capra’s synopsis: “Japan’s warlords commit total effort to conquest of China. Once conquered, Japan would use China’s manpower for the conquest of all Asia.”
7.War Comes to America (1945) (64:20) – shows how the pattern of Axis aggression turned the American people against isolationism. Capra’s synopsis: “Dealt with who, what, where, why, and how we came to be the U.S.A.—the oldest major democratic republic still living under its original constitution. But the heart of the film dealt with the depth and variety of emotions with which Americans reacted to the traumatic events in Europe and Asia. How our convictions slowly changed from total non-involvement to total commitment as we realized that loss of freedom anywhere increased the danger to our own freedom. This last film of the series was, and still is, one of the most graphic visual histories of the United States ever made.”
He left the service at war’s end as a colonel.
After the war ended, Capra, along with directors William Wyler and George Stevens, founded Liberty Films.
Frank Capra died in La Quinta, California, of a heart attack in his sleep on September 3rd, 1991 at the age of 94.