Born in Sicily, Capra moved with his family to America in 1903, settling in Los Angeles, California, where he graduated from Throop Institute (later renamed the California Institute of Technology) with a Bachelors degree in chemical engineering. On October 18, 1918, he joined the United States Army. While at the Presidio, he got Spanish influenza and was discharged on December 13. In 1920, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Like other prominent directors of the thirties and forties, Capra began his career in silent films, notably by directing and writing silent film comedies starring Harry Langdon and the Our Gang kids. In 1930 Capra went to work for Mack Sennett and then moved to Columbia where he formed a close association with screenwriter Robert Riskin and cameraman Joseph MacDonald. However, in 1940 Sidney Buchman replaced Riskin as writer.
After the 1934 Oscar winning romantic comedy It Happened One Night, Capra directed a steady stream of films for Columbia intended to be inspirational and humanitarian. The best known are Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the original Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His ten year break from screwball comedy ended with the comedy classic Arsenic and Old Lace.
Between 1942 and 1948, when he produced State of the Union, Capra also directed or co-directed eight war documentaries including Prelude to War (1942), The Nazis Strike (1942), The Battle of Britain (1943), Divide and Conquer (1943), Know Your Enemy (1945), Tunisian Victory (1945) and Two Down and One to Go (1945). His Academy Award-winning documentary series, Why We Fight, is widely considered a masterpiece of propaganda, surpassed only by Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will: Capra was faced with the task of convincing an isolationist nation to enter the war, desegregate the troops, and ally with the Russians, among other things.
Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life (another inspirational and humanitarian themed film) was the first picture for Jimmy Stewart after his service in World War II. The film was ignored on its initial release, but it became a favorite for television progamming on Christmas Day after its copyright expired. The film is often considered a saccharine valentine to traditional America, but it is much more than that: a look at the pettiness, incompetence and bullying of small-town life. It is also an almost frightening portrait of a depressive man (played by Jimmy Stewart) with suicidal wishes. The fact that this tone is ignored in the public perception speaks to Capra's talent in creating this dismal story, throwing the hero into an alternative world nightmare and then shattering it with a blast of pure joy and love at the end as he realizes that his life has been wonderful after all. The film critic Ray Carney has popularized this view and provided the most insightful commentary on the film.
Capra's final theatrical film was 1961's Pocketful of Miracles, with Glenn Ford and Bette Davis. He had planned to do a science fiction film later in the decade but never even got around to pre-production, but he did end up producing several television specials for the Bell Telephone System dealing with science.
In 1971, Capra published his autobiography, The Name Above the Title. Though unreliable in its details, it offers a compelling self-portrait.
Capra was also the subject of a 1991 biography by Joseph McBride entitled Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. McBride corrects many of the impressions left by Capra's autobiography.
Capra won an Academy Award for Directing in 1934 for It Happened One Night, in 1936 for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and in 1938 for You Can't Take It with You; It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It with You also won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
- The Strong Man (1926)
- For the Love of Mike (1927)
- Long Pants (1927)
- The Power of the Press (1928)
- Say It with Sables (1928)
- So This Is Love (1928)
- Submarine (1928)
- The Way of the Strong (1928)
- That Certain Thing (1928)
- The Matinee Idol (1928)
- Flight (1929)
- The Donovan Affair (1929)
- The Younger Generation (1929)
- Rain or Shine (1930)
- Ladies of Leisure (1930)
- Dirigible (1931)
- The Miracle Woman (1931)
- Platinum Blonde (1931)
- Forbidden (1932)
- American Madness (1932)
- The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)
- Lady for a Day (1933) – Nominated for best director Oscar.
- It Happened One Night (1934) – Won best director and best picture Oscars.
- Broadway Bill (1934)
- Opera Hat (1935)
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) – Nominated for best picture Oscar and won best director Oscar.
- Lost Horizon (1937) – Nominated for best picture Oscar.
- You Can't Take It with You (1938) – Won best picture and best director Oscars.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – Nominated for best picture and best director Oscars.
- Meet John Doe (1941)
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
- It's a Wonderful Life (1946) – Nominated for best picture and best director Oscars.
- State of the Union (1948)
- Riding High (1950)
- Here Comes the Groom (1951)
- A Hole in the Head (1959)
- Pocketful of Miracles (1961)