12 Screwball Facts About Frank Capra

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, Frank Capra was one of the most famous directors in Hollywood. The creator of such movies as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Capra was famous for churning out screwball comedies with heart. Though some critics derisively called the gee-whiz sincerity of his films “Capra-corn,” the director—who was born into a working class Italian family—was proud to make movies that championed the so-called “little guy.” Here are 12 screwball facts you might not know about Frank Capra, on the anniversary of his passing.

1. HE IMMIGRATED TO AMERICA AS A CHILD.

Born in Sicily in 1897, Capra was six years old when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1903, settling in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. In his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above The Title, Capra described traveling in steerage on the boat ride to America as one of the most miserable experiences of his young life, and seeing the Statue of Liberty as the boat arrived in New York as one of the most inspiring.

Once in Los Angeles, Capra’s entire family, including his young siblings, began working, struggling to make ends meet. Capra, who sold newspapers, waited tables, and worked at a laundromat, as a tutor, and at a power plant, became the only one of his six siblings to attend college, graduating from Caltech in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering.

2. HE CONNED HIS WAY INTO HIS FIRST FILM JOB.

After college, Capra drifted. Unable to find work in chemical engineering, he took a series of odd jobs, finally ending up as an unsuccessful—and almost broke—book salesman in San Francisco. He read about a new San Francisco film studio called Fireside Productions in the newspaper, and decided to try his hand at making moving pictures. He showed up at the studio, announced that he’d just arrived from Hollywood, and fast-talked his way into his first directing role.

“So what’s a little lie if you haven’t got to eat?” Capra asked in his autobiography, recalling, “I was trapped by my own chicanery. Seething with enthusiasm, yet scared stiff of exposure, I stood in a spotlight of my own lighting. Only the surge of adventure and the god-awful gall of the ignorant would lead me to think I could get away with it.”

3. HE INSISTED ON FULL CREATIVE CONTROL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

From the earliest days of his directing career, Capra refused to work on any project on which he wouldn’t have full control, modeling himself after other auteurs like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. “That simple notion of ‘one man, one film’ (a credo for important filmmakers since D.W. Griffith), conceived independently in a tiny cutting room far from Hollywood, became for me a fixation, an article of faith,” he explained in his autobiography. “I walked away from the shows I could not control completely from conception to delivery.”

4. HE SOMETIMES TORTURED HIS ACTORS.

With his background in chemical engineering, Capra was not only a great director, but a great technical innovator, who was constantly creating new devices and strategies for achieving more realistic technical effects in his movies. But, while many of his innovations were ingenious, they also took a toll on his actors. On Lost Horizon (1937), for instance, he insisted on shooting much of the film inside an industrial cold storage warehouse at below freezing temperatures, which he converted into a sound stage, in order to achieve the most realistic snow effects.

On the South Pole film Dirigible (1931), which was shot during a Los Angeles heat wave, Capra forced his actors to hold tiny cages of dry ice in their mouths as they acted, in order to make their breath appear. Frustrated with trying to speak around the tiny cage, lead actor Hobart Bosworth decided to get rid of the cage and simply held the ice in his mouth, unprotected. “True trouper that he was, he flung away the cage—and plopped the square piece of dry ice into his mouth as he would a big pill,” Capra recalled. “He fell to the salted ground groveling and screaming. We ran to him. We couldn’t open his jaws! In a panic we rushed him to the emergency hospital in Arcadia.” In the end, Bosworth lost three lower back teeth, two uppers, and part of his jawbone.

5. HE WAS HUMILIATED AT HIS FIRST OSCARS CEREMONY.

In 1934, both Frank Capra and Frank Lloyd were nominated for Best Director (Capra for Lady For a Day, Lloyd for Cavalcade). During the ceremony, host Will Rogers announced the winner of the award by yelling, “C’mon get it, Frank!” Capra, assuming he had won, leapt from his seat and made to the front of the room, before realizing Frank Lloyd was the winner. “I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm,” Capra wrote. “When I slumped into my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”

6. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT WASN'T AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it went on to win five Oscars (becoming the first film to win the so-called Big Five: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Writer, and Best Director), It Happened One Night wasn’t an immediate hit with critics. The Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert romantic comedy was dismissed as fluff by a slew of critics (“to claim any significance for the picture … would of course be a mistake,” wrote The Nation). But the moment it hit theaters, the film was embraced by audiences throughout America. “Then—it happened. Happened all over the country—not in one night, but within a month,” recalled Capra. “People found the film longer than usual and, surprise, funnier, much funnier than usual.”

7. POLITICIANS WEREN'T HAPPY ABOUT MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON.


Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

While audiences and critics loved Jimmy Stewart’s naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, politicians and members of the Washington press weren’t so pleased. While some politicians were simply angry with the way Capra portrayed the Senate as equal parts bumbling and corrupt (Senator Alben W. Barkley called the film a “grotesque distortion,” complaining it “showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!”), others argued the film would make America a laughing stock abroad, which on the eve of World War II, could be dangerous. Joseph P. Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London at the time, went so far as to write to Capra, requesting he withdraw the film from European distribution, saying it “would do untold harm to America’s prestige in Europe.”

But Capra disagreed. Despite its uneven portrayal of Washington’s politicians, he saw the film as a celebration of democratic ideals and freedoms—as did many people abroad. According to a 1942 article in The Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Smith was chosen by many French movie theaters as the final American film to screen before the implementation of the Nazis’ ban on American and British entertainment.

8. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE WAS HIS FAVORITE FILM.

Capra saw It’s a Wonderful Life as his ultimate triumph: a film made to inspire and delight his fans, with no concern for the critics. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made,” Capra said. “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made. It wasn't made for the oh-so-bored critics or the oh-so-jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people."

9. HE POPULARIZED THE WORD "DOODLE."

In the 1930s, the word “doodle” was generally used in reference to the act of goofing around. But in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), Capra gave the word new meaning. Though it’s unknown whether Capra reinvented the word or popularized a bit of obscure regional slang, it was with Mr. Deeds that the majority of America was introduced to the term “doodle,” in the sense of absentminded or distracted drawing. In the film, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) tells the judge that “doodler” is “a word we made up back home to describe someone who makes foolish designs on paper while they’re thinking.”

The film is also credited with the brief popularization of the word “pixilated,” not in relation to images or computers, but in reference to pixies. In Mr. Deeds, the term is used to describe people who are a little bit crazy, as if possessed by spirits.

10. JEAN ARTHUR WAS HIS FAVORITE ACTRESS.

Capra had a team of regular collaborators both on and off screen: In the 1930s, he co-wrote eight movies with the help of screenwriter Robert Riskin, worked with composer Dimitri Tiomkin for nearly a decade, and repeatedly cast (or tried to cast) Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper in many of his films. But of all the many performers he worked with over his long career, it was the talent and nervous energy of Jean Arthur that stuck with him most.

Arthur appeared in the Capra films Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. “Jean Arthur is my favorite actress. Probably because she was unique. Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of stage jitters. I’m sure she vomited before and after every scene,” Capra wrote in his autobiography. “But push that neurotic girl forcibly, but gently, in front of the camera and turn on the lights—and that whining mop would magically blossom into a warm, lovely, poised, and confident actress.”

11. HE ENLISTED IN WORLD WARS I AND II, BUT NEVER MADE IT TO COMBAT.

Frank Capra
Getty Images

Though Capra eagerly enlisted in both World Wars, his expertise—first as an engineer, and later as a filmmaker—kept him off the front lines. During World War I, Capra taught ballistic mathematics to artillery officers in San Francisco, while he spent World War II directing Why We Fight, a documentary series meant to inspire and inform American troops.

12. HE WAS PROUD OF MAKING "GEE WHIZ" FILMS.

Many of Capra’s films, though packed with wit, had an undercurrent of idealism that critics sometimes accused of being overly naive or sentimental. But Capra, who believed his comedies should “say something,” was proud of making optimistic movies. “There is a type of writing which some critics deploringly call the ‘gee whiz’ school. The authors they point out, wander about wide-eyed and breathless, seeing everything as larger than life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “If my films—and this book—smack here and there of gee whiz, well, ‘Gee whiz!’ To some of us, all that meets the eye is larger than life, including life itself. Who can match the wonder of it?”

12 Bizarre Moments From Oscar Award Ceremonies Past

La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announces that Moonlight is the real winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar.
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announces that Moonlight is the real winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The unforgettable 2017 snafu where La La Land was erroneously awarded Moonlight's Best Picture Oscar might very well be the strangest thing to ever happen at the Academy Awards, but it’s definitely not the only one. Gear up for the 92nd Oscars, which will be handed out on February 9, by revisiting 12 other unexpected events from ceremonies past.

1. When Will Rogers didn’t specify which Frank won Best Director.

frank capra
Frank Capra photographed in the 1930s.
Columbia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1934, Oscar host Will Rogers revealed the winner of the Best Director award by casually saying “Come up and get it, Frank!” Unfortunately, two Franks had been nominated that night, and Lady for a Day director Frank Capra had nearly reached the open dance floor before he realized the spotlight had spun around to illuminate the real winner, Cavalcade director Frank Lloyd. Capra would bounce back to win Best Director the following year for It Happened One Night, but he took the loss pretty hard at the time.

“I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm,” he wrote in his autobiography. “When I slumped in my chair, I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”

2. When Hattie McDaniel became the first black Oscar winner—and needed special permission to attend the ceremony.

When Hattie McDaniel was nominated for her unforgettable performance as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick had to call in a favor to get the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub to break its "no blacks" policy and let her attend the ceremony. That favor, however, didn’t secure McDaniel a seat at the table with her fellow cast members. Instead, she sat at a tiny table in the back with her escort and agent, and to trek a fairly lengthy distance to accept her Best Supporting Actress award later that night.

3. When the Oscars ended 20 minutes early and Jerry Lewis had to kill time.

When the final award of the 1959 Oscars ceremony was given out a full 20 minutes early and producers scrambled to figure out how to fill the time, co-host Jerry Lewis was left to his own comedic devices. Standing center stage among a sea of presenters and award winners, Lewis announced that they’d be singing 300 choruses of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” before watching a Three Stooges program to “cheer up the losers.” He then politely hijacked the conductor’s baton and led the orchestra in song until NBC finally cut to a sports review show for the rest of the time.

4. When Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s award for him.

When Marlon Brando was announced as the winner of the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Godfather in 1973, Native American Sacheen Littlefeather refused the award on his behalf and explained that he was boycotting the Oscars to bring attention to the deplorable treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Her statement was met with a smattering of applause and a chorus of boos, and Brando was criticized for the stunt. It did, however, succeed in drawing attention to the cause, and the trend of politically-charged acceptance speeches has definitely only gained popularity since then.

5. When a streaker snuck onstage behind David Niven.

In 1974, conceptual artist and photographer Robert Opel snuck into the Academy Awards ceremony disguised as a journalist and jogged across the stage in his birthday suit, flashing a peace sign and interrupting co-host David Niven. Niven laughed it off, joking, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen,” before introducing presenter Elizabeth Taylor, who admitted it would be a “pretty hard act to follow.”

6. When Rob Lowe sang with Snow White.

An opening number centered around Snow White singing a rewritten version of “Proud Mary” with her “blind date” Rob Lowe seems like a recipe for confusion at best, and disaster at worst. At the 1989 Oscars, it was both. The long, painful performance baffled the audience, and certain high-profile Hollywood actors—Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, and Julie Andrews, to name a few—even signed a letter to the Academy condemning the program as “an embarrassment.” On top of that, Disney filed a lawsuit against the Academy for not officially licensing Snow White, though they backed down with a simple apology.

7. When Jack Palance’s acceptance speech included push-ups.

A genial Jack Palance ambled up to the podium in 1992 to accept his Best Supporting Actor award for City Slickers and treated the audience to a demonstration of three one-armed push-ups in the middle of his speech. The 72-year-old actor was attempting to illustrate what casting directors sometimes make younger actors go through during auditions, but the septuagenarian’s impressive athletic feat no doubt made a much bigger impression than anything he said.

8. When Tom Hanks outed his former drama teacher, which inspired the 1997 film In & Out.

Tom Hanks accepted his Best Actor award for Philadelphia in 1994 by thanking (among others) his former high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and calling him one of the “finest gay Americans.” Though many people thought Hanks had accidentally outed Farnsworth, Hanks had actually gotten his permission beforehand. Still, the confusion inspired screenwriter Paul Rudnick to create In & Out, a 1997 movie about a closeted teacher (Kevin Kline) whose secret was accidentally disclosed during a former pupil’s (Matt Dillon) acceptance speech.

9. When South Park's creators dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Trey Parker, left, dressed in drag as Jennifer Lopez, and Matt Stone as Gwyneth Paltrow, center, arrive at the 72nd Annual Academy Awards, March 26, 2000 in Los Angeles, CA.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2000 Oscars.

David McNew, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 2000, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone celebrated their Best Original Song nomination (for “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) by showing up to the Oscars clad in iconic ensembles from other red carpets. Parker rocked a recreation of Jennifer Lopez’s Versace dress from the Grammys earlier that year, and Stone glowed in a low-cut, pale pink number that mirrored Gwyneth Paltrow’s from the 1999 Oscars. The pair later admitted that they took LSD right before the event, but they didn’t mention whether or not drugs were involved when they chose their outfits.

10. When John Travolta called Idina Menzel “Adele Dazeem.”

If John Travolta had just stumbled through Idina Menzel’s name during his introduction of her performance of “Let It Go” in 2014, we might have simply let it go. However, he quite clearly enunciated a completely different, fictional name, “Adele Dazeem,” which has cemented itself in the minds of anybody who watched the ceremony and many people who didn’t. Menzel exacted good-natured revenge on Travolta at the 2015 Oscars by calling him “Glom Gazingo.”

11. When the “In Memoriam” segment featured a living woman.

jan chapman in the 2017 oscars in memoriam segment
ABC

The 2017 “In Memoriam” segment should’ve been an especially somber affair. Not only did the slideshow feature both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, but it was backed by Sara Bareilles’s emotional rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” However, it also featured a photo of Australian film producer Jan Chapman—who is still alive—next to the name of costume designer Janet Patterson. Chapman, who worked with Patterson on 1992’s The Last Days of Chez Nous and 1993’s The Piano, said at the time that she was “devastated” by the mistake. “I am alive and well and an active producer,” she told Variety.

12. When La La Land won Best Picture, and then it didn’t.

The “In Memoriam” error could’ve been the wildest Oscars fail for decades to come, but it was unseated later that same night, when presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the wrong winner for Best Picture—and the mistake wasn’t corrected until after the La La Land cast and crew had waltzed onstage, accepted their awards, and delivered heartfelt speeches. Then, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz declared to a rightfully puzzled audience that Moonlight was the real winner, brandishing the correct results card and repeating “This is not a joke.” We’d later find out that Beatty had accidentally been handed a duplicate envelope for “Best Actress,” which Emma Stone had won for La La Land. (Amazingly, this was far from the first or only time the wrong winner had been announced at a major award ceremony.)

10 Facts About Alan Alda

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

America’s funniest military doctor is now America’s funniest great-grandfather—a perpetually vibrant screen presence who’s still crafting memorable performances as an octogenarian. Born Alphonso D’Abruzzo on January 28, 1936, Alan Alda has graced us with some of the best movie and television performances of all time.

Nearly a half-century before the term “prestige TV” first entered our pop culture conversations, Alda was making us laugh and cry on M*A*S*H. He was also building a bigger shelf for all the Emmys he scored (he won a total of five for the series, plus another in 2006 for The West Wing). After M*A*S*H ended, Alda continued to build a formidable career improving every role he’s been in with his trademark charm and guile.

Here are 10 facts about the man behind the second Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce.

1. Alan Alda smoked a pipe at age two for publicity.

Alan Alda’s father was a singer in burlesque shows, so the family was constantly on the road. Before performances in Toronto when Alda was a toddler, his father hit upon the idea of posing the two-year-old Alda with a pipe for a Toronto Daily Star photographer to spark a minor sensation. The headline read “CHILD OF TWO SMOKES PIPE; ONCE BROKE MOTHER’S NOSE."

2. Alan Alda had a stage name waiting for him.

A lot of actors change their names, but Alda’s stage name was already in the family. His father, Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Robert D’Abruzzo, acted under the name Robert Alda—“Alda” being a portmanteau made from the first two letters of his first and last names.

3. Alan Alda served in Korea.

American actor, director and writer Alan Alda in the driving seat of a jeep, surrounded by Loretta Swit and other cast members of the hit television show M.A.S.H, in costume as members of a US Army medical corp.
Keystone/Getty Images

Before acting in the fictional 4077th medical unit stationed in Korea during the war, Alda served a six-month tour in Korea in charge of a mess tent as part of the Army Reserve. “They had designs of making me into an officer, but, uh, it didn’t go so well,” Alda later said during a Q&A at Southern Connecticut State University.

4. Alan Alda's first major nomination was for a Tony Award.

We think of Alda as a TV and film star, but he began his career doing live theater, first at the Cleveland Play House and then on Broadway. He starred in The Owl and the Pussycat on Broadway in 1964 and scored a Tony nomination in 1966 for The Apple Tree. He’s won Emmys and Golden Globes, but he’s also been nominated for an Oscar and several Tonys, putting him at times within arm’s reach of an EGOT.

5. Alan Alda was the only M*A*S*H cast member who knew what would happen to Colonel Blake.

For three seasons, McLean Stevenson played the affable, laid-back Lt. Colonel Blake, whose ultimate fate was a shock to fans. It was also a shock to cast members who filmed the finale but weren't given the last page of the script. As a writer, director, and main star on the show, Alda knew that producers were planning to kill Blake off-camera.

“After three years of showing faceless bit players and extras portraying dying or dead servicemen, here was an opportunity to have a character die that our audience knew and loved, one whose death would mean something to them,” producer Larry Gelbart said.

6. Before Alan Alda was on The West Wing, he was almost on The West Wing.

Actor Alan Alda circa 1999
Newsmakers/Getty Images

Alda joined the The West Wing in its sixth season after showrunner John Wells asked the actor if he wanted to “run for President as the Republican nominee.” He played Senator Arnold Vinick until the series finale, where he spent most of his time on the series trying to become President. But he almost got the job when the show began. Before Martin Sheen signed on to play President Josiah Bartlet, Alda was in the running to play the POTUS, but turned the part down because he didn’t want to be tied down to a regular series.

7. Alan Alda is the only person to win acting, directing, and writing Emmys for the same program.

An astonishing feat (technically rarer than the EGOT), Alda’s dedication to 11 seasons of M*A*S*H resulted in five Emmys—three for acting, one for writing the episode “Inga,” and one for directing the iconic episode “Dear Sigmund” (which he also wrote). More than mere trophies, Alda also had a hand in writing the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” which was viewed by more than 121 million viewers, making it the most-watched finale of a TV show ever.

8. Alan Alda helped the BBC report on the Large Hadron Collider.

As a sincere science enthusiast, Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for PBS for years. So when CERN launched the Large Hadron Collider, the BBC called on Alda to offer his perspective alongside Britain’s most famous public intellectual, Professor Brian Cox. Alda also got to visit the Collider a few years later. His favorite part? “Standing on that platform, looking at that giant device, and this frightening millisecond I had when I heard that after the collision the particles are flying through the air to get to the detector,” Alda said. “They would have been going through me."

9. The Boston Globe dubbed Alan Alda an "honorary woman."

Actor Alan Alda speaks during 'Bridge Of Spies' Q&A on Day 5 of the 23rd Annual Hamptons International Film Festival on October 12, 2015 in East Hampton, New York
Matthew Eisman, Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

Alda is a staunch feminist who spent years campaigning aggressively for the Equal Rights Amendment and co-chaired the Equal Rights Amendment Countdown with First Lady Betty Ford. He also served on the National Commission for the Observance of International Women’s Year in 1976 after an appointment from President Ford, and his involvement as an early, highly public ally led one Boston Globe writer to name him “the quintessential Honorary Woman: a feminist icon.”

10. Alan Alda hosts a podcast.

Alda is 84 years old—and he hosts a podcast. Clear + Vivid is focused on how we communicate with each other and how we can all do better. The actor has spoken with guests as diverse as violinist Itzhak Perlman, Judge Judy, and novelist Ann Patchett to learn how they listen and communicate. Alda may have to make room on that shelf for a few podcasting awards.

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