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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 what would be his 120th birthday.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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20 John Carpenter Quotes About Horror Movies
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Though he’s made a variety of movies—from fantasy to science fiction films—John Carpenter will forever be known as a master of horror, thanks in large part to the role he played in reinventing the genre with 1978’s Halloween. To celebrate the award-winning filmmaker’s 70th birthday, we’ve gathered up 20 of his most memorable quotes about Hollywood.

1. ON THE DEFINITION OF HORROR

“Horror is a reaction; it's not a genre.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

2. ON THE RULES OF MOVIEMAKING

“I think the rules of filmmaking are essentially the same as they were since, I guess, The Birth Of A Nation. The way you make movies: long shot, close-up, camera movement, structure—it’s all the same. Not much has changed. But the technology of movies has vastly changed. From 35mm black-and-white to color, from nitrate film to safety film and now into digital—and yet we’re still breaking scenes into master shots and close-ups. The cinema narrative has not changed that much since the silent film.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

3. ON THE TWO TYPES OF HORROR STORIES

“There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.”

—From a 2011 interview with Vulture

4. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

“One movie that showed me it was possible to make a low-budget horror movie was Night of the Living Dead (1968). When I saw that, I was like, 'Wow, that's really effective, but it's obviously low budget.' They didn't have any money but they actually made something cool. That was inspirational to me when I was in film school.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

5. ON THE TRUTH ABOUT HOLLYWOOD

“Film buffs who don't live in Hollywood have a fantasy about what it's like to be a director. Movies and the people who make movies have such glamor associated with them. But the truth is, it's not like that. It's very different. It's hard work. If you were suddenly catapulted into that situation—without any training—you would say after it was over: 'Oh, God! You're kidding! You mean, this is what it's like? This is what they put you through?' Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like this—and it's often worse. People have tried to describe the film business, but it's impossible to describe because it's so crazy. You must know your craft inside out and then pick up the rules as you go along.”

—From an essay for Santa Fe Studios

6. ON THE HORROR OF WATCHING HIS OWN MOVIES

“I don't watch my films. I've seen 'em enough after cutting them and putting the music on. I don't ever want to see them again.”

—From a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly

7. ON THE EMOTIONAL TOLL MAKING MOVIES CAN TAKE ON A DIRECTOR

“I’ve been feeling old for years and years, and I think the movie business did it to me. At one point I just did movie after movie, and it starts tearing you down physically—emotionally too, if you do one after another. The stress, the emotional exertion of dealing with others. I’ve worked with really great actors and really difficult actors. The difficult ones are no fun. And the style of the movies today have changed a great deal. To me, I’m not a big fan of handheld. That’s just my tastes. That’s a quick fix for low budget. Let the operator direct it! Walk around. That’s how you burn through the pages. And found footage—how many times do we need to do that?”

—From a 2014 interview with Deadline

8. ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD HORROR FILM

“There’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

9. ON THE PERCEPTION OF A MOVIEMAKER

“In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the U.S., I'm a bum.”

—From The Films of John Carpenter

10. ON STANDING OUT

“I don't want to be in the mainstream. I don't want to be a part of the demographics. I want to be an individual. I wear each of my films as a badge of pride. That's why I cherish all my bad reviews. If the critics start liking my movies, then I'm in deep trouble.”

—From an essay for Santa Fe Studios

11. ON MAINTAINING CONTROL

“My years in the business have taught me not to worry about what you can’t control.”

—From a 2007 interview with MovieMaker Magazine

12. ON HIS FAVORITE MOVIES

“I have two different categories of favorite films. One is the emotional favorites, which means these are generally films that I saw when I was a kid; anything you see in your formative years is more powerful, because it really stays with you forever. The second category is films that I saw while I was learning the craft of motion pictures.”

—From a 2011 interview with Rotten Tomatoes

13. ON BEING STUCK IN THE 1980S

“Well, They Live was a primal scream against Reaganism of the '80s. And the '80s never went away. They're still with us. That's what makes They Live look so fresh—it's a document of greed and insanity. It's about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse.”

—From a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly

14. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF INSTINCT

“I think every director depends primarily on his instincts. That’s what’s got him where he is, what’s going to carry him through the good times and the bad. I generally go with what I instinctually think I can do well.”

—From a 2011 interview with Vulture

15. ON BEING TYPECAST AS A DIRECTOR

“I haven't just made horror. I've made all sorts of movies. There have been fantasy movies, thrillers, horrors, science fiction. In terms of the ultimate reward, listen, man, when I was a kid, when I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a movie director, and I got to be a movie director. I lived my f*cking dream, you can't get better than that. That's the ultimate.”

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

16. ON THE REALITY OF MONSTERS

“Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on. The zombies in George Romero’s movies are us. They’re hungry. Monsters are us, the dangerous parts of us. The part that wants to destroy; the part of us with the reptile brain. The part of us that’s vicious and cruel. We express these in our stories as these monsters out there.”

—From a 2011 interview with the Buenos Aires Herald

17. ON MOVIES AS A SENSORY EXPERIENCE

“A movie’s not just the pictures. It’s the story and it’s the perspective and it’s the tempo and it’s the silence and it’s the music—it’s all the stuff that’s going on. All the sensory stuff. Sometimes you can get a lot of suspense going in a non-horror film. It all depends. But, look, if there was one secret way of doing a horror movie then everybody would be doing it.”

—From a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club

18. ON THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF HORROR

"Horror is a universal language; we're all afraid. We're born afraid, we're all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I'm afraid of, you're afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it's taking that basic human condition and emotion and just f*cking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors."

—From a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine

19. ON THE REMAKE TREND

“It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it—no matter how good it is. So it becomes, 'Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before.' That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine.”

—From a 2007 interview with MovieMaker Magazine

20. ON THE LASTING INFLUENCE OF HALLOWEEN

“I didn’t think there was any more story [to Halloween], and I didn’t want to do it again. All of my ideas were for the first Halloween—there shouldn’t have been any more! I’m flattered by the fact that people want to remake them, but they remake everything these days, so it doesn’t make me that special. But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness—it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake. However, I couldn’t stop them from making sequels. So my agents said, ‘Why don’t you become an executive producer and you can share the revenue?’ But I had to write the second movie, and every night I sat there and wrote with a six-pack of beer trying to get through this thing. And I didn’t do a very good job, but that was it. I couldn’t do any more."

—From a 2014 interview with Deadline

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15 Surprising Facts About Half Baked
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Universal Pictures

You may have known these facts about Half Baked—Tamra Davis's stoner comedy starring Dave Chappelle, Guillermo Díaz, and Jim Breuer—at one point. But it’s easy to see how the film, which was released 20 years ago, could make viewers a little forgetful.

1. THE SCRIPT WAS A TEAM EFFORT.

Half Baked was written by star Dave Chappelle and his writing partner Neal Brennan. Five years later, the duo would go on to co-create Chappelle’s Show for Comedy Central. (Brennan even has a cameo in Half Baked as the cashier at the burger joint where Scarface works.)

2. NEW YORK CITY WAS A KEY INSPIRATION.

Chappelle was inspired to write Half Baked after a friend told him about New York City drug dealers who conveniently deliver illicit substances to customers’ apartments.

3. THE OPENING SCENE WAS A RISK FOR THE STUDIO.

The studio originally wanted to cut the opening scene showing kids smoking marijuana and getting the munchies, but decided to keep it after audiences at test screenings found it hilarious.

4. DIRECTING IT WAS A NO-BRAINER FOR TAMRA DAVIS.

Tamra Davis
Francois Durand/Getty Images

It's a good thing that opening scene stayed in, as it's what sold Tamra Davis on the project. In fact, she only read 10 pages of Chappelle and Brennan’s script before accepting the directing job.

"The reason why I wanted to do this movie was because the opening scene is so funny," she told Mass Appeal in 2017. "And they were like, 'No, it sends a bad message, kids smoking pot.' I was like, 'Can I screen the movie? Nobody’s ever seen this movie, can we look at it first and see how the movie plays before you guys start giving me cuts?'"

5. THE FILM HAS A MUSIC VIDEO PEDIGREE.

Davis is also humorously listed as the director of Sir Smoka Lot’s “Samson Gets Me Lifted” music video in the film. Prior to directing feature films like Half Baked and Billy Madison, Davis directed more than 30 actual music videos, including Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and Hanson’s “MMMBop.”

6. MOST OF "NEW YORK" IS REALLY TORONTO.

The film was shot over 40 days, primarily in Toronto. Three days of exterior shooting were done in New York to feature landmarks like Washington Square Park.

7. PRODUCERS PULLED OUT ALL THE STOPS ON CAMEOS.

Tracy Morgan makes a cameo as the VJ who introduces Sir Smoka Lot’s music video. Other cameos in the film include Jon Stewart, Tommy Chong, Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Saget.

8. THERE WAS A REAL GUY ON THE COUCH.

The Guy on the Couch was inspired by a friend of Chappelle’s who constantly crashed on Chappelle’s couch while he and Brennan toiled away at writing the screenplay. In the film, the role of the Guy went to comedian Steven Wright.

9. THE BEASTIE BOYS INSPIRED THE FILM'S DESIGN.

Davis drew inspiration of the prop and color design of the guys’ apartment from the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Recording Studios. The connection makes sense, as Davis was married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys.

10. THE PRISON HAD VERY CLEAN WATER.

The exterior of the prison where Kenny is locked up is actually the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in Toronto. (The same facility played the role of Elsinore Brewery in 1983's Strange Brew.)  Some prison interiors, including the cafeteria scenes, where shot in an actual prison.

11. THE DIRECTOR HAS A TINY CAMEO.

All the acting with Killer’s fake dog paws was done on-set by Davis.

12. THE CAST GOT GREAT SOUVENIRS.

Many members of the cast and crew kept blocks of the fake medicinal marijuana as a joke after production wrapped.

13. NO, THAT'S NOT JERRY GARCIA.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Jerry Garcia did not appear in Half Baked. Garcia is played by impersonator David Bluestein.

14. ALL THAT "POT" WAS TOBACCO.

The actors smoked a tobacco-based substitute to stand in for marijuana in the film (though there are some rumors that the scene featuring Snoop Dogg featured real marijuana).

15. IT ALMOST HAD A DARKER ENDING.

The original ending of the movie was supposed to be much darker. In it, Thurgood abandoned his girlfriend Mary Jane and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge after the joint he threw away.

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