An Italian immigrant who never lost the common touch while rising from poverty to become one of this country’s most beloved filmmakers, Frank Capra is the screen’s foremost champion of the ordinary American.
Arriving in the United States as a child in 1903, the year of the first airplane flight and the birth of the American film industry, Capra was part of the generation of immigrants which embrace the infant film medium as its popular art form. The energy and sense of purpose in his work derive from this communal source; in the words of Graham Greene, Capra brought to his films “a kinship with his audience, a sense of common life, a morality.”
With his classics of the 1930s — IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, LOST HORIZON, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON — Capra brought laughter and hope to his audience as he expressed the deepest fears and aspirations of the country during the Great Depression. Vigorously depicting America’s flaws, he nevertheless renewed his audience’s optimism by affirming the basic decency and strength of the national character.
Responsible in the Thirties for elevating Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures from a poverty-row company into a major studio, Capra was a fighter for the artistic control of the director.
When World War II threatened the existence of the American democratic ideal, Capra interrupted his Hollywood career to make a series of government films educating the public about the nature of the conflict. Of the WHY WE FIGHT series, Winston Churchill said, “I have never seen or read any more powerful statement of our cause or of our rightful case against the Nazi tyranny.”
Capra returned from service to make one of his most memorable films, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a moving affirmation of his belief in the common man. After his retirement from filmmaking in the 1960s, he embarked on a new career as a teacher, speaking at more than 250 schools and film festivals to give inspiration to the new generation of filmmakers.
Frank Capra has ennobled his audience as he has entertained them. His work has brought the meaning of the American dream alive for generations of moviegoers past and present, and it is for this that The American Film Institute honors him with the Life Achievement Award