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?”

Pool Party and Prosper With This Star Trek Swimsuit

ThinkGeek
ThinkGeek

ThinkGeek—the pop culture-focused online retailer where you can buy your very own lightsaber or a House Stark hoodie—is ready for summer. The store sells one-piece women’s bathing suits modeled after Star Trek: The Next Generation-era Starfleet uniforms, perfect for an afternoon in the Holodeck’s sauna program.

The swimwear comes in three colors: blue, gold, and red, which—as any geek worth her salt vampire knows—correspond to the three departments of Starfleet crew members (sciences, operations, and command). The designers draped collar pips down the right shoulder, so the $59.99 price tag includes the rank of captain for red and gold buyers, and commander for blue. 

The “Trekini Swimwear” line also includes a cover-up romper, which kind of looks like those weird space robes Captain Picard wore in his oft-interrupted down time; a two-piece bathing suit inspired by the original series; a purple one-piece that's decorated with TNG's most famous ships; and some colorful swim trunks for men (one version inspired by TNG, and another from the original series)

We don’t see how ThinkGeek failed to conceive of a beach-ready shoulder bag resembling Worf’s baldric with a d'k tahg-shaped sunscreen bottle to go inside, but apparently there was only so far they were willing to boldly go.

Updated for 2019.

15 Uncensored Facts About Midnight Cowboy

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

On May 25, 1969, United Artists released the film Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight (Texas transplant Joe Buck) and Dustin Hoffman (the sleazy Ratso Rizzo) as street hustlers in New York City. It was the first studio film to receive an X-rating (the studio refused to edit anything out), and it became the first X-rated movie to be nominated and win a Best Picture Oscar (A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris followed suit with X-rated nominations). Hoffman and Voight were also nominated for Oscars, and screenwriter Waldo Salt and director John Schlesinger ended up winning gold statuettes for the movie. After the movie became a success, the MPAA demoted its rating to an R.

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, the controversial film managed to gross $44 million—about $200 million by today’s standards. The movie saved the careers of its actors, producers, and Salt, who had been blacklisted and fallen on hard times. It also produced a hit song, Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Here are 15 facts about the landmark film.

1. John Schlesinger was reluctant to hire Dustin Hoffman.

Like everybody else, the filmmakers associated Dustin Hoffman with Benjamin Braddock, the clean-cut twentysomething he played in The Graduate. “The truth was, I saw The Graduate as a setback, because I was determined not to be a star,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. Hoffman was doing Off Broadway performances during the casting of Midnight Cowboy, so Schlesinger checked him out in a play. Hoffman frequented an automat with fellow thespians Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall; one night Hoffman showed up there with a scruffy beard, disheveled clothes, and a Bowery accent. Schlesinger said to Hoffman, “Why Dustin, you do fit right in,” and he got the part.

2. Mike Nichols tried to talk Dustin Hoffman out of doing the movie.

Dustin Hoffman appears on the set of the film 'Midnight Cowboy' in 1969 in the USA
Dustin Hoffman stars in Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Hot off the heels of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Hoffman could’ve kept his romantic lead image up, but instead he opted to take a supporting part in Midnight Cowboy. “Mike Nichols, in fact, called me up,” Hoffman told Peter Travers. “And he says, ‘Are you crazy?’ He says, ‘I made you a star. This is an ugly character. It’s a supporting part to Jon Voight.’ He says, ‘What are you doing? Why are you sabotaging?’” But Hoffman stuck to his guns and took the role. “I love the fact I was trying to remain a character actor and that was my desire,” he said.

3. Jon Voight was cast only after the original actor was fired.

Jon Voight auditioned for the role of Joe Buck and really wanted the part, but the producers chose Michael Sarrazin, whose major claim to fame is the 1969 Jane Fonda film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Sometimes I would be offered a role and I would recommend somebody else—I was that kind of person,” Voight told Box Office Mojo. “Yet this one stopped me because the thing I was excited about for this piece wasn’t going to happen. I felt quite sick about it.”

Fortunately for Voight, the producers changed their minds when Sarrazin demanded more money. “It came back to looking at our screen tests back to back,” said Voight. “Apparently, Marion Dougherty, who was the casting director, was in the room and said, ‘Well, there’s no doubt who's the best actor.’ John Schlesinger said, ‘Who?’ And she said, ‘Jon Voight.’ Then, Dustin was called in to look at the tests and apparently he said, ‘When I look at my scene with Michael Sarrazin I look at myself—when I looked at my scene with Jon Voight, I look at Jon.’ That was a huge compliment. I think between these comments, that’s what tipped the balance and then John [Schlesinger] came forward, so I was very fortunate.”

4. Voight worked for scale.

Voight was so desperate to play Joe Buck that he worked for scale: “‘Tell them I'll do this part for nothing,’” Voight told The Telegraph. “They took me at my word, and they gave me minimum for Midnight Cowboy.” At the end of the shoot, they sent him a $14.73 bill for meals on the last day of filming.

5. Hoffman thought the movie would ruin his career.

The actor attended a preview of Midnight Cowboy and noticed “people walked out in droves.”

“Twenty minutes into that movie, Jon Voight has a gay sex scene in the balcony with a kid who was played by Bob Balaban, and people would get up at that point and just walk out of the theater,” Hoffman told Larry King. “We said, ‘We have big problems’ when we heard we got an X-rating and we thought this could end everybody’s career. As a matter of fact, I was talked into doing a movie I wished I hadn’t done, because they had me so frightened that I had buried myself and reversed whatever good The Graduate did.” Hoffman’s agent forced him to star with Mia Farrow in the romantic drama John and Mary to make him “look like a respectable person.”

6. Voight knew the film was destined to become a classic.

Voight and Schlesinger wrapped filming in Texas and Voight noticed how red the director’s face was. Voight thought Schlesinger was having a heart attack and asked him if he was okay. “He looked up at me and said, ‘What have we done? What will they think of us?’ After all, we had made a film about a dishwasher who lives in New York and f*cks a lot of women,” Voight told Esquire. “In the moment he’d finished it, he was shaking. All of a sudden, he saw it as banal and vulgar. He’s having an anxiety attack and I grabbed his shoulders to shake him out of it. I said, ‘John, we will live the rest of our artistic lives in the shadow of this great masterpiece.’ He said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘I’m absolutely sure of it.’ The only reason I said such an extravagant thing was because I wanted to get him out of it and nothing would take him out of it but that. But the statement turned out to be true.”

7. Voight and Hoffman were competitive with each other.

What made the chemistry between Hoffman and Voight work so well is they were constantly competing with one another. Hoffman became a movie star before Voight did, and that brought some jealousy to the set. “We were like Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, two fighters going at it,” Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times. “We knew the movie depended on the bond between us. All through shooting, we’d say to each other, out of the side of our mouths, like a fighter in a clinch, ‘Buddy, is that the best you can do?’”

8. Hoffman placed pebbles in his shoe to acquire Ratso’s limp.

“Why pebbles? It’s not like you’re playing a role on Broadway for six months where you’re so used to it, limping becomes second nature,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “The stone makes you limp, and you don’t have to think about it.”

9. Schlesinger came out during the movie’s production.

In the late 1960s, one's sexuality wasn't often discussed in the open. But the British director fell in love with Michael Childers, who worked as his assistant on the movie. “We were one of Hollywood’s first out couples,” Childers told Vanity Fair. “He took me everywhere. I felt a little bit uncomfortable at times, but John never did. He said, ‘F*ck ‘em.’”

“John was totally torn up, because part of him wanted to just embrace this, and another part of him was in terror,” the film’s producer, Jerome Hellman, said. “He had these fantasies that if he were openly gay on a film set, that if he tried to give the crew an order, they would turn on him. I said to him, ‘John, look, you’re the director. It’s your movie. I’m the producer, but I’m your partner. There’s nobody who can challenge your authority. If someone speaks out of line to you, they’ll be fired the same minute.’”

10. The famous “I’m Walkin’ Here” line was improvised.

The scene in which Joe and Ratso attempt to walk across the street and almost get hit by a cab was filmed guerilla-style, with a camera in a van across the street. “It was a difficult scene, logistically, because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut,” Hoffman explained. “He wanted us to walk, like, a half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh, you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s f*cking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’”

They figured out how to properly time the walk but then almost got run over by a cab. “I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character,’” Hoffman said. “So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning, ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have f*cked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times, because he loved it.”

11. Hoffman threw up on set while trying to cough.

Talk about Method: Ratso has a deadly cough (consumption), and in a particular scene Hoffman got sick in real life. “Because I was so nervous that I was going to come across fraudulent and not have the right cough, I tried to do the cough as realistically as I could,” Hoffman told Vanity Fair. “Each time, I tried to do it more realistically until, finally, I did it so realistically I threw up all over Jon. My lunch came up. All over his cowboy boots. Jon looked down. He said, ‘Man, why’d you do that?’ He thought I did it on purpose.”

12. Schlesinger didn’t think anybody would make the movie today.

In 1994, the director found himself at a dinner party with a studio executive. “I said, ‘If I brought you a story about this dishwasher from Texas who goes to New York dressed as a cowboy to fulfill his fantasy of living off rich women, doesn’t, is desperate, meets a crippled consumptive who later pisses his pants and dies on a bus, would you—’ and he said, ‘I’d show you the door,’” Vanity Fair reported in 2000.

13. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl pays tribute to Midnight Cowboy.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's 2015 Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features two friends who turn The Criterion Collection movies into film school comedies. One of those films is Midnight Cowboy, renamed as 2:48 p.m. Cowboy. In the film, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) portray Ratso and Buck, respectively.

Midnight Cowboy became my favorite movie,” Cyler said in a featurette on Greg and Earl’s films. “Now I can’t stop watching it. I’m addicted to it. I’ll be in my trailer. ‘RJ, whatcha doing?’ ‘Watching Midnight Cowboy with some ramen noodles right now.’ It’s just so quirky the way the parody was made, and not just because I got to wear a beautiful cowboy hat.”

14. There’s a speakeasy bar in Austin named after the film.

Midnight Cowboy the bar is located inside a former oriental massage parlor that was busted by the FBI, hence the seedy name. It has a red light—not a sign—outside to mark the place. In order to drink there, you need to make a reservation online, and when you get there, you buzz the box and give the password “Harry Craddock.” They have rules, though: no talking on your cell phone inside the bar, and no “excessive displays of public affection.”

15. A Chicago theater turned it into a stage production.

Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre puts on a lot of literary adaptations, and in 2016 they presented a stage version of Midnight Cowboy, based on the book.

Updated for 2019.

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