Frank Capra would’ve celebrated his 123rd birthday on May 18, 2020. The three-time Oscar winner dominated the box office throughout the 1930s with his populist fables, nicknamed “Capra-corn.” Yet how many of these titles remain classics? In honor of his birthday, take a look back at 12 of Capra’s greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1897 in Siciliy, Italy, Capra came to the United States with his family in 1903. His work often reflected an idealized vision of the American dream, perhaps spurned by his own experiences as an immigrant. Depression-era audiences lapped up his sweetly sentimental screwball comedies, which often centered on the plight of the common man.
He earned his first Oscar nomination for directing “Lady for a Day” (1933), and his loss was infamously embarrassing: when presented Will Rogers opened the envelope, he said, “Come up and get it, Frank!” Capra bounded to the stage, only to learned that Frank Lloyd (“Cavalcade”) has won instead.
No matter, because Capra came roaring back the next year with the romantic comedy “It Happened One Night” (1934), which became the first film to win the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). Only two other films — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) — have managed to repeat that feat.
Over the next five years, Capra would collect two more Oscar for directing (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” in 1936 and “You Can’t Take It With You” in 1938) and compete once more (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939). All three films would compete in Best Picture, as did his “Lost Horizon” (1937), while “You Can’t Take It With You” won the top prize. His three victories tie him with William Wyler for the second most wins in the category, behind John Ford‘s record-holding four.
With the outbreak of WWII, Capra enlisted in the Army, where he produced a number of propaganda films for the war effort. Hoping to strike out on his own as an independent producer, he founded the ill-fated Liberty Films, where he produced “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), which earned him an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for Best Director, and “State of the Union” (1948). Neither film turned much of a profit at the time, ending Capra’s reign as king of the box office.
Yet a funny thing happened to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the uplifting story of a disillusioned businessman (James Stewart) who sees what life would be like if he’d never been born. After falling into public domain, it began its yearly showings on television during Christmastime, where its audience began to grow steadily over the years. It soon became a holiday classic, proving that box office dollars aren’t the ultimate measure of a film’s longevity.
Capra’s directing career ended in 1961 with “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961), a remake of “Lady for a Day.” He earned the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1959 and the American Film Institute Life Achievement prize in 1982. He died in 1991.
Tour our photo gallery of Capra’s 12 greatest films, including some of the titles listed above as well as “Platinum Blonde” (1931), “Meet John Doe” (1941) and “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944).