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10 Best Movies of Frank Capra: The Legacy Collection

10 Best Movies of Frank Capra: The Legacy Collection

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of Frank Capra

Watching the best movies of Frank Capra is more than just having a really good time. It’s also about paying tribute to one of America’s most influential directors.

He may have passed away, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, he will never be really gone. Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to witness Capra’s unique directorial style, all you have to do, is sit back, relax, and enjoy one (or more) of his greatest films.

But which Frank Capra movies should you watch?
Well, if that’s your question for the day, you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the Top 10 Films of Frank Capra.

The Best Movies of Frank Capra is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet Frank Capra, the “American Dream Personified”

Young Frank Capra, Best movies of director Frank Capra

Three-time Academy Award winner Frank Capra, whose last name means “goat” in his native Italian was the most prominent filmmaker during the Great Depression and beyond.

His wholesome, feel-good fables, nicknamed “Capra-corn” became so well-known and respected that today they are used as a yardstick by which critics and the public measure a certain type of purely American film.

But let’s go back to the beginnings.

Capra was born in Sicily as one of seven children, and he was just a kid when his family immigrated to America. There he studied electrical engineering and only began working in films as a temporary summer job, during the Silent Era.

Soon, he fell in love with the industry, so he took a full time job with a film studio and began learning about moviemaking from the ground up, working as film cutter, camera assistant, property man, writer, assistant director, and ultimately – director. The rest is history.

Capra’s personal life mirrored the course he often depicted in his films, as he rose from poverty, struggled against the odds as an unknown talent in Hollywood, and finally ascended to the pinnacle of success. Film historians often consider him the “American Dream personified”.

Behind every successful man there stands an astonished woman.

Frank Capra

During the Great Depression, director Frank Capra was actively leavening despair with his sweetly sentimental screwball comedies depicting irrepressible optimism.

His movies often centered on the plight of the common man, who tries to fight corruption in a society, ultimately triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds. The story usually carries a message about the basic goodness of human nature, showing the value of unselfishness and hard work.

I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to Frank Capra, but we are here to concentrate on his Top 10 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, a director is as good as his greatest works. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Frank Capra, is through watching his best films.

Ready? Buckle up then, cause you’re about to travel back in time all the way to the Great Depression and the 1940s!


Presenting the 10 Best Films of Frank Capra

Chronologically


The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Best Frank Capra movies
Where to Watch?   More info

Pre-Code drama war film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther and Walter Connolly.

Story: A Chinese warlord and an engaged Christian missionary fall in love. (IMDB)

Why is The Bitter Tea of General Yen among the best movies of Frank Capra?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ It was a box office failure upon its release, but after many decades the film has grown in critical opinion.


Lady for a Day (1933)

Lady for a Day (1933), May Robson, Warren William, Best films of Frank Capra
Where to Watch?   More info

American pre-Code comedy-drama film starring May Robson and Warren William.

Story: A gangster tries to make Apple Annie, the Times Square apple seller, a lady for a day. (IMDB)

Why is Lady for a Day among the best Frank Capra films?
✓ It was the first film for which Capra received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.


It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Best Frank Capra movies
Where to Watch?   More info

Pre-Code screwball comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Story: A renegade reporter trailing a young runaway heiress for a big story joins her on a bus heading from Florida to New York, and they end up stuck with each other when the bus leaves them behind at one of the stops. (IMDB)

Capturing its stars and director at their finest, It Happened One Night remains unsurpassed by the countless romantic comedies it has inspired.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Between Frames:
✪ Instead of the usual static camera set-up, Frank Capra insisted on sticking a camera onto a crane. This enabled him to do more tracking shots, which was entirely in keeping with a film in which the main characters spend most of their time on the move.

Why is It Happened One Night among the top movies of Frank Capra?
✓ Winner of Oscar’s Best Picture of the Year Academy Award.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Top films of Frank Capra
Where to Watch?   More info

Comedy-drama romance film starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur.

Story: A unassuming greeting card poet from a small town in Vermont heads to New York City upon inheriting a massive fortune and is immediately hounded by those who wish to take advantage of him. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ One way Frank Capra maintained control over his work was by refusing to shoot if any studio executives came on the set. He would call a half-hour coffee break whenever necessary and the lost time was so expensive, that the executives rarely showed their face.

Why is Mr. Deeds Goes to Town among the top Frank Capra movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and among the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
✓ One of the most popular movies of the 1930s, with a significant influence on pop culture.
✓ Winner of the Best Director Academy Award and nominated for 4 other Oscars.


Lost Horizon (1937)

Lost Horizon (1937), Ronald Colman, Top Frank Capra films
Where to Watch?   More info

Adventure drama fantasy film starring Ronald Colman.

Story: When a revered diplomat’s plane is diverted and crashes in the peaks of Tibet, he and the other survivors are guided to an isolated monastery at Shangri-La, where they wrestle with the invitation to stay. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ After initial reservations about Frank Capra’s method of directing, Ronald Colman would eventually come to rely on him and the two would experiment with improvisations.

A grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played.

Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times

Why is Lost Horizon among the greatest movies of Frank Capra?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ A true classic with a significant and long lasting influence on popular culture.


You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can't Take It with You (1938), Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Greatest films of Frank Capra
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic comedy film starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart.

Story: The son of a snobbish Wall Street banker becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family, not realizing that his father is trying to force her family from their home for a real estate development. (IMDB)

It’s predictably uplifting fare from Frank Capra, perhaps the most consciously uplifting of all great American directors — but thanks to immensely appealing performances and a nimble script, You Can’t Take It With You is hard not to love.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is You Can’t Take It with You among the greatest Frank Capra movies?
✓ A critical and commercial success with a notable influence on popular culture.
✓ Received two Academy Awards from seven nominations: Best Picture and Best Director.


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Greatest Frank Capra films
Where to Watch?   More info

Political comedy-drama film starring Jean Arthur and James Stewart.

Story: A naive youth leader is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. His idealistic plans promptly collide with corruption at home and subterfuge from his hero in Washington, but he tries to forge ahead despite attacks on his character. (IMDB)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — and returns with an uplifting ode to idealism that distills the strengths of its director and leading man.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Between Frames:
✪ Frank Capra and his crew went to Washington, DC, to film background material and to study the Senate chamber, which was replicated, full scale, in precise detail on the Columbia lot.

Why is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington among the most popular movies of Frank Capra?
✓ Considered to be one of the greatest films of all time and it is included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected by the Library of Congress as one of the first 25 films for preservation in the National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ One of the most popular and most successful films of the 1930s, with a significant influence on pop culture.


Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941), Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Most popular films of Frank Capra
Where to Watch?   More info

Comedy-drama film starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

Story: A penniless drifter is recruited by an ambitious columnist to impersonate a non-existent person who said he’d be committing suicide as a protest, and a social movement begins. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ The first film Frank Capra produced independent of the Hollywood studios.
✪ Frank Capra didn’t want anyone to play John Doe except Gary Cooper, who agreed to the part (without reading a script) for two reasons: he had enjoyed working with Capra on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and he wanted to work with Barbara Stanwyck.

Why is Meet John Doe among the most popular Frank Capra movies?
✓ It became a box-office hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story.
✓ Part of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies list.


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Cary Grant, Most popular Frank Capra films
Where to Watch?   More info

Black comedy film starring Cary Grant.

Story: A Brooklyn writer of books on the futility of marriage risks his reputation when he decides to tie the knot. Things get even more complicated when he learns on his wedding day that his beloved maiden aunts are habitual murderers. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Frank Capra related to the role of Mortimer (Cary Grant), in the film, because, like that character, he also had an older brother who abused him as a child and grew to be a criminal.
✪ One of Frank Capra’s mother’s great talents was making elderberry wine, which becomes the murder weapon in this film.
✪ To add to the funny-creepy mood, Frank Capra ordered a backdrop with wispy clouds in front of a full moon and countless bags of autumn leaves blown around the exterior house and cemetery sets by three wind machines.

Why is Arsenic and Old Lace among the most famous movies of Frank Capra?
✓  Included among the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
✓ The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from audiences and critics, who praised its spirit, humor and Capra’s direction.


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), James Stewart, Donna Reed, Most famous films of Frank Capra
Where to Watch?   More info

Christmas fantasy drama film starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Story: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Director Frank Capra often said that this was his favorite of all his films.
✪ The Martinis are based on director Frank Capra’s own family, who emigrated from Sicily in 1903. In the movie, a goat accompanies them in their car. “Capra” means goat in Italian.
✪ This was the first and last time that Frank Capra produced, financed, directed and co-wrote one of his films.
✪ While freeze-frames are quite common now, Capra used them in this film before any other filmmakers. He freezes the frame when Joseph wants to make a point to Clarence, then unfreezes it and goes right on with the story

The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is It’s a Wonderful Life among the most famous Frank Capra movies?
✓ Selected by the Vatican in the “values” category of its list of 45 “great films”.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ The American Film Institute ranked this as the #1 Most Inspirational Movie of All Time and as the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time.


The end of Frank Capra’s story

Frank Capra old, Most famous Frank Capra films

With the outbreak of WWII, Capra enlisted in the Army, where he produced a number of propaganda films for the war effort.

These films were well received and they became part of the medium of choice to persuade US soldiers and recruits on why fighting was necessary.

After World War II, Capra’s career declined as his later films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), performed poorly when they were first released. In ensuing decades, however, these Capra films were revisited favorably by critics.

In 1982, the American Film Institute honored Capra by giving him their AFI Life Achievement Award and in 1986, he received the National Medal of Arts.

Frank Capra died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home in 1991, at the age of 94.

Film historian Ian Freer notes that at the time of his death, his legacy remained intact:

He had created feelgood entertainments before the phrase was invented, and his influence on culture – from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch, and from television soap operas to greeting-card sentiments – is simply too huge to calculate.

Ian Freer

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of Frank Capra, you may want to read his autobiography: The Name above the Title.


…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 10 Greatest Films of Frank Capra

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

Best Movies of Frank Capra
Legacy of the "American Dream Personified"
The Bitter Tea of General Yen 1932
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)
Lady for a Day 1933
Lady for a Day (1933)
It Happened One Night 1934
It Happened One Night (1934)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 1936
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Lost Horizon 1937
Lost Horizon (1937)
You Can’t Take It with You 1938
You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Meet John Doe 1941
Meet John Doe (1941)
Arsenic and Old Lace 1944
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
It’s a Wonderful Life 1946
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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