The California story needs a remake.
Get me Capra!
Frank—legendary director of films including It Happened One Night to It’s a Wonderful Life—has been dead since 1991, you say? No matter! Just this fall, Capra published a novel, a short David-and-Goliath tale about developers and locals in the eastern Sierra. So just dig up his bones at Coachella Valley Public Cemetery and reassemble them behind the camera to make another of his great stories about the little guys who won’t bow down to the big shots.
California’s story has become too much about the Musks and the Zuckerbergs, the rich and the powerful, and about all the big schemes and machines that seek to suck our attention and money. Only Capra can remind us what the Golden State was supposed to be about: the sturdy struggles and small triumphs of individual Californians.
No one knew this state better than Capra. Oh, does that surprise you? His famous films were so square that most folks think he was from the Midwest. And he’s never been celebrated as a Californian. The fact that he isn’t in the California Hall of Fame up in Sacramento (while lesser lights like Eastwood and Spielberg have been inducted) is a disgrace.
To read his autobiography and other books about him is to realize that this man loved almost every golden inch of California. He built a life ranging from Silver Lake in Mono County (where he kept a cabin and set the novel he wrote in 1966 that was rediscovered this year), to San Diego County (where he was a rancher and served on a water board) to the Bay Area (where he started his film career making slapstick comedies in San Francisco and Belmont), to the Palm Springs area (where he wrote most of his screenplays).
Capra’s life is the story we need right now. These days, this country likes to lock up child migrants in detention camps, so why not recall Capra, a celebrated child immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles from Sicily at age 6? He wrote that being from a poor illiterate immigrant family allowed him to see the country clearly enough to make pictures that still define it.
“The Almighty Himself, always partial to striving underdogs, must have ordained the castoffs would make California and world history,” he wrote in his 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title.
Capra roamed the state, but L.A. was his hometown. He grew up near downtown, sold newspapers on the street, and played guitar on Central Avenue to support his family. He was in the first class at Manual Arts High School.
The Capra family eventually moved to a small lemon grove in Sierra Madre, in the San Gabriel Valley. An outstanding student, Frank was admitted to Caltech, where he earned an engineering degree with the help of loans, scholarships, and jobs waiting tables and working early mornings at Pasadena’s utility plant. During bad patches in his Hollywood career, he would rue his decision not to become a scientist, like his friend Edwin Hubble, the astronomer.
Instead, he bummed around California (hopping freights, selling photos, playing poker), joined the Army and got posted to Fort Mason in San Francisco. There in Golden Gate Park, in the old Jewish Gymnasium, which had been converted into a primitive film studio, he found his calling.
His first film was a 10-minute interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of Fisher’s Boarding House,” shot with non-actors he found on the city’s wharves. He soon fell into comedy, and moved to Hollywood to invent gags for Mack Sennett’s movies.
As Capra himself emerged as a director—of cheap but still ambitious films at the ragtag studio Columbia—he took on dramatic topics but infused them with comedy.
His career bridged divides that plague America still. Capra was a scientist—his facility with evolving film technology helped him advance quickly in Hollywood—who also had an abiding Catholic faith. He wrote of religion and science as partners: his faith in God’s creation made the world and its people worthy of investigation.
He celebrated urban and rural communities, and lived in both. He had a bachelor pad in Malibu before building an estate in Brentwood. But he used the whole state—its rivers, mountains, deserts, and people of many origins (he cast Pala Indians he knew as Asian characters in his films)—as his canvas, his test audiences, and his inspiration.
He made a habit of escaping to hotels in “Lucky La Quinta” to write, because there in the desert “the muses were kind and mockingbirds and linnets darted in and out of smoke trees and flower bougainvillea.” He relied religiously on preview audiences in Oakland, Santa Barbara, and Riverside to guide his editing of movies. His groundbreaking film Flight used the La Mesa section of San Diego to stand in for Nicaragua. On that picture, he fell in love with his future wife Lu on a long, late drive back to Coronado Island (long before the signature bridge was built), where they had their first kiss at the Hotel del Coronado.
And when he tired of Hollywood in the early 1950s, he retreated to Fallbrook, purchasing a ranch on Red Mountain in that section of northern San Diego County. There, Don Francisco, as he dubbed himself, lived like a Californio rancher, grew avocados, and, like any patriotic Californian, got in a nasty fight with the federal government.
After being sued by the Department of Navy’s Camp Pendleton in 1951 in a dispute over water rights to the Santa Margarita River (the lawsuit went on for 67 years and was only settled in 2017), Capra fought back against the feds with a short anti-government film, The Fallbrook Story, introduced by Cecil B. DeMille himself. In 1953, Capra took an appointed seat on the board of the Fallbrook Public Utility District to continue the water fight, but soon learned of the folly of local government in this state. He quit in 1955 with the board mired in controversy around land purchases for a dam—which the film historian Joseph McBridge compared to the scandal in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
In the 1970s, with disease killing off his avocados, he gave a piece of the ranch to Caltech for a retreat, sold the rest to developers, and moved to La Quinta. There he lived first in a ranch house on the 18th fairway of La Quinta Country Club, before relocating in his final years to a small bungalow at the La Quinta Hotel.
Of course, it is not Capra’s California life but his California-made films that make him a household name. In today’s cynical and dangerous times, his sincere vision seems more relevant than ever.
Capra, a Republican, argued that since autocracy and dictatorship would always remain threats, films should promote democratic values. He made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1941 as democratic defense. “Hitler’s strong-arm success against democracy was catching,” he recalled in his autobiography. “Little ‘fuhrers’ were springing up in America, to proclaim that freedom was weak, sterile, passé. The ‘new wave’ was Blood Power! Destroy the weak, the Jews, the blacks; destroy Christian faith and its old-hat commandment ‘Love thy neighbor.’”
Capra maintained that the best way to promote democracy was by celebrating everyday people and everyday values. Happy endings, by his lights, weren’t cheap “Capra-corn:” they were perhaps California’s most important cultural export.
“Mankind needed dramatization of the truth that man is essentially good, a living atom of divinity; that compassion for others, friend or foe, is the noblest of all virtues,” he wrote. “Films must be made to say these things, to counteract the violence and the meanness, to buy time to demobilize the hatreds.”
As Capra himself admitted, he never quite lived up to his own ideals. During his Hollywood heyday, Capra lamented, he lived like the Aga Khan. He sometimes lost his nerve in conflicts over principle. And he had an ego the size of Mt. Whitney (his book’s dedication starts with nods to Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci). In sum: His life wasn’t always so wonderful.
But it’s a blessing that, at this time of year, so many of us still watch a classic movie set in upstate New York and conceived in the Southern California desert. Capra called it “a film to tell the weary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure!”
What better message for this, our current era of social isolation! May Capra the Californian never go out of style.