During World War Two: Frank Capra


Frank Capra often stood alone. He was an underdog. He had no choice. He was, however, also a teacher of high ideals and human worth, and connected with his audience in ways the more cynical were always surprised at and maybe a little jealous.

Born in 1897 in the Sicilian town of Palermo, Italy, Capra came to America when he was six years old and graduated from CalTech in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering. He served in the First World War as a reserve officer, teaching math to soldiers.

A scene from Capra’s second film credit, 1922’s Fultah Fisher’s Boardinghouse. (Mubi)

Capra talked his way into the film business in 1921 and worked for a San Francisco film company, doing a little bit of everything. When it came time to start directing, he got his feet wet working on shorts.

His first feature was the 1926 film, The Strong Man. and while he directed such classics as Platinum Blonde, it wasn’t until closer to the mid-thirties or so, right around the time of It Happened One Night that we would see what we typically think of as Frank Capra movies. Until then, Hollywood regarded him as a strange little Italian guy who worked at Columbia Pictures, the studio where actors went for punishment.

Find A Grave

With a few exceptions, Capra films had their own archetype, sometimes called “Capra-corn,” and they always reflected a deep love for America, warts and all. His protagonists were mixtures of everymen and misfits, living on their own terms while being in touch with the needs of their fellow men. They surprise others with their savvy, particularly those who presume they are unintelligent country bumpkins.

One example of this can be found in a scene in Capra’s 1936 movie, Mr. Deeds Goes To Townin which the title character, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), shocks his board of directors into silence when he says he wants to start charging for the opera because free opera is a bad investment. Meanwhile, his advisor and bodyguard, Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) stands by watching the scene with jaded but satisfied interest.


“Gentlemen,” intones Cobb wryly, “You’ll find the smelling salts in the medicine chest.”

Then the protagonist generally falls on hard times, usually due to someone they’ve become close to betraying them in some way, with the latter coming to regret what they’ve done. Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) secretly writes newspaper articles about the chivalrous Longfellow Deeds, making him look ridiculous, but doesn’t expect to fall in love with him.


Jefferson Smith (James Stuart) in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington endures smears and lies from his father’s old friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) when Jeff doesn’t go along with Paine’s secret graft scheme with local busybody, James Taylor (Edward Arnold). The Sycamore family and their guests, the Kirbys in You Can’t Take It With You are hauled off to jail when the fireworks that were being made in the basement go off, scaring the jeepers out of everyone.

A Capra protagonist isn’t down and out for long, though, because just when things seem their blackest is when they find out how many friends they have and they come back better than ever. The outcome might be slightly ambiguous, such as in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but we still know everything will be all right.

Capra’s last film before entering the Army was Arsenic and Old Lace, a crazy black comedy about two maiden sisters with a grisly secret, starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair. Due to contractual obligations, however, the film wasn’t released to the public until 1944, by which time Capra was deep into the war.

When it came to Capra’s service, his mission was clear. At forty-four, he joined the Army as an officer, rising to the rank of major, just four days after Pearl Harbor and he was raring to go. America was, in many ways around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, very ill-equipped to wage a war on a global scale. Not only were the forces mostly stuck in the early twentieth century, with the Army still riding cavalry horses and wearing flat Stetsons and spats, but many of the new recruits were woefully bereft of maturity and understanding of the war’s larger picture.

General George Marshall (The Famous People)

Per Joint Chief of Staff General George Marshall’s instructions, Capra was to make a series of short films intended to educate the incoming personnel. Capra later remembered his meeting with Marshall:

{Marshall said,} ‘We’ll soon have twelve million kids in uniform, and many of them have never seen a gun. These kids…what are they going to do…when they get the terrible disease of homesickness?’ He wondered how we could put into the minds of these young kids the necessity of why they were in uniform, and he said, ‘I think it could be done with film. It should be done with film.’ He had tried it with lecturers, he had tried it with books. It wouldn’t work; they weren’t interested. The boys weren’t learning anything. He wanted something that boys knew about, and boys liked films.

Military History Now

There was only one problem: Capra had never seen a documentary before, and wasn’t sure how to make one because they weren’t often done in that era. Documentaries might be light little shorts like the Passing Parade or the  Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks series or weighty, important (and usually highly fictionalized) tomes like Robert Fleming’s Moana.

Capra had to take a different tact. Above all, he was told, “Give the boys a reason to fight and don’t lie. They must believe it. If they don’t believe it, we’re dead.”

The Film Magazine

This was the impetus of Why We Fight, a seven-part series covering not only America’s reasons for being in the war, but what was at stake if we lost, who our enemies were, and who our allies were. It was unfailingly direct at laying out why the people living in Axis countries had lost their freedom, if they ever had it to begin with: Citizens were told to cede all thinking to the state, which promised to make them a great nation. According to Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler, they had been made victims by other nations and now it was payback time.

While the films didn’t agree with this assessment, they pulled no punches about one factor that had led up to the war; namely, the League of Nations ignoring warnings from various world leaders such as Ethiopian emperor Haile Salassie and the inherent danger in America’s dogged complacency. We had fallen asleep at the wheel and were now reaping the results.


It took some doing for Capra to get going, however because his budget was extremely tiny and not everyone he worked with was cooperative. A viewing of the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph Of the Wills scared him into action, however, because it showed how confident the Nazis really were and how powerful propaganda films were. He realized that the proper presentation of the Axis’s own films would do his talking for him, especially if their dangerous pomposities were shown to absurd advantage. Hitler was like a Marx brother or Charlie Chaplin. Mussolini was a blustering blowhard. It would have been funny, Capra remembered, “if so many people weren’t getting killed.”

Capra was awarded a Distinguished Service medal for the series, whose reach went far beyond the military. Why We Fight was not only shown to servicemen, but due to a private Academy screening, Capra tied with John Ford’s Battle of Midway in the Oscars’ new Best Documentary Feature category.

People Magazine

Late in the war, Capra wanted badly to be let out of the Army, but he had to finish what he started first. An eighth Why We Fight episode about Japan kept experiencing delays because no one could agree on how the Japanese would be portrayed, and the result is about as subtle as an atomic bomb, making the Japanese out as mad dogs to be exterminated. General MacArthur wouldn’t allow the episode to be shown, especially as it became available a few days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

After the war, Capra, like many of his contemporaries, came back a changed man and a stranger. He didn’t want to be under the thumb of the studios anymore, and along with William Wyler and George Stevens he founded Liberty Films in April of 1945. Its first film was It’s A Wonderful Life, which, while reflecting some common Capra tropes, presented a new, darker side of both Capra and his leading man, James Stewart, who had also been deeply affected by his wartime service.


It seems unbelievable to us nowadays, but the movie flopped upon its initial release, went into public domain, and finally became the holiday fixture we now know it as via television broadcasting. Liberty Films, unfortunately, was sold to Paramount and shut down in 1951, never having made another film. Capra’s last film was 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles, a comedy which bore a remarkable resemblance to My Fair Lady. Capra would pass away thirty years later, having been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1982..

The Why We Fight series was not the only work Capra produced during the war. He made instructional films, cartoons, and other shorts, but of anything he did, Fight went the longest in driving home America’s reasons for participating in the war. Some of the episodes were temporarily swept under the rug because of the Cold War and certain nations now being America’s allies, but seen today the series is a remarkable piece of history and a cautionary tale of how easy it is for freedom to be lost.

Capra in 1979. (YouTube)

Not everything about Capra was changed by the war. In an interview later in his life, he said, “The world is not all evil. Yes, we do have nightmares, but we also have dreams. We do have villainy, but we also have great compassion. There’s good in the world, and it’s wonderful.”

A little announcement is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, everyone…

Why We Fight (Blu-ray), Platinum Blonde (DVD) Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (DVD and Blu-ray), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (DVD and Blu-ray), You Can’t Take It With You (DVD), Arsenic and Old Lace (DVD and Blu-ray), It’s A Wonderful Life (DVD and Blu-ray), and Pocketful of Miracles (DVD) are available to own from Amazon. Why We Fight can also be seen on the United States National Archives YouTube Channel (find the playlist here).

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.


Five Came Back. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Narrated by Meryl Streep. Netflix, 2017.

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