In 1983, Michael Thomas was running the San Diego Film Society and invited legendary director Frank Capra, then 86, and his longtime cinematographer, Joseph Walker, to San Diego for a lecture and a screening of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The city where Capra met his wife, Lucille, while shooting a picture 50 years earlier held happy memories for him, and during the limousine ride through the winding mountains from his La Quinta residence, he reflected on his wonderful life--which began exactly 100 years ago, in Palermo, Sicily, on May 18, 1897--in this never-published interview.
Question: Why didn't you become an engineer after graduating from Caltech? How did you become a director?
Capra: I couldn't get a job. It was right after World War I and everything was closing down. I never saw a movie until I made one [the one-reel "Fultah Fisha's Boarding House" in 1922, for which he was paid $75].
After that, I got a job for two years in a lab putting home movies together, editing them, for room and board. That was a great learning experience.
Q: You got your big break directing Harry Langdon, in "The Strong Man," in 1926.
A: He was the sorriest case I ever met in show business. When his pictures became big and the critics began comparing him to Charlie Chaplin, it went to his head. His problem was that he thought he had created his own character but since he hadn't, he didn't understand the concept at all. I had been reading the book, "The Good Soldier Schweik," and I thought that kind of character, the passive man-child who loves everybody, would fit Harry perfectly. With that moon face of his, he could wander through all these situations, but it was important that he not instigate any of them. He was just God's own holy fool protected by his own innocence.
Well, when he got big, he thought he could do the thing all by himself, just like Chaplin--write, direct--but it was a disaster for him. Years later, when he was down on his luck, I saw him being directed by somebody who kept yelling at him, "Faster, Harry, faster!" Well, the one thing you did not say to Harry Langdon was to move faster.
Q: Speaking of Chaplin, was he an influence on your work?
A: Chaplin? [snorts] He was a bastard.
A: I mean, he was a great filmmaker and all, but the way he treated people. . . . I'll never forget when Doug Fairbanks Sr. died in 1939, the motion picture academy wanted to award him a special posthumous Oscar, because he had been the first president of the academy. Well, he and Chaplin had been the best of friends, so Mary Pickford and Doug Jr. had wanted Chaplin to present the award.
Since I was president of the academy, they wanted me to go over to Catalina and ask him to present the Oscar. So I go down to Long Beach and sail over to where Chaplin had his yacht moored. We pulled up to the yacht and I met this big goon and I said, "I'm here to see Mr. Chaplin." The lug disappears and then after a while returns and says, "Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed." Well, I blew up. "You go and tell Mr. Chaplin that Mr. Frank Capra, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has just traveled for three hours to come to see him." The guy disappears and then returned, saying, "Mr. Chaplin is not to be disturbed."
So I go back to Long Beach, furious. . . . I'm sailing back, thinking, what am I going to tell Doug Jr. and Mary?
But Mary just said, "Don't worry about it, Frank. We always knew Charlie was a little [expletive]." We got Doug Jr. to present the award.
Q: You were very involved with the academy during some critical times.
A: It was being used by the studio heads to try and destroy the guilds in the mid-'30s. And they were going to destroy the academy to do it. Well, I didn't want to see that happen, I knew the Academy Awards are the best advertising for the film industry. So in 1935 we decided to try and unite the industry by honoring the man who started it all, D.W. Griffith. Except nobody knew where he was. I found him in a bar in Kentucky, dead drunk.
Well, we got him sobered up and brought him back to Hollywood and presented him with a special Oscar [in March 1936] and it worked; it helped to reunite the industry and save the academy.
Q: What does it take to be a director?
A: The ability to make quick decisions. Everybody's asking you questions--"Where do I put this?," "How do I play this scene?" Problems have to be solved and you have to be able to solve them immediately. If I take a penny and toss it, I'll be right in predicting it 50% of the time. In show business, if you're right 50% of the time, you're ahead of the game. It doesn't matter if you're not right all the time, but you've got to make those snap decisions!
Q: Did you ever have any blowups on your sets?