They used to call his films Capracorns, and it wasn't a term of endearment. Too sentimental, they said, too awash in goodness and idealism to endure, until even their creator worried that his works would be "nothing but museum pieces, and myself nothing but a museum footnote." But Frank Capra's life, like his movies, deserves a rousing final act, and it came Thursday night in Beverly Hills when the director was presented with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
The creator of such affirmative classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "It Happened One Night," Capra, two months shy of his 85th birthday, was celebrated because, in master of ceremonies Jimmy Stewart's words, "no director ever opened the window to America like Frank Capra. He got above writing, above directing, above acting, to something that was actually happening." Or as Richard Benjamin put it, "the way we see the world through your pictures may not be the real world, but it is the world the way it should be."
Among the hordes of old and new Hollywood folk who turned out for Capra were such diverse types as Richard Dreyfuss and Bert Parks, Meryl Streep and Loni Anderson, Jessica Lange, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bette Davis, who told the crowd, "I am an actress, not a song." Even Art Buchwald was there, speaking, he said, "for the public who could not afford this dinner. I studied the films you made with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, Mr. Capra, I studied them and studied them, and if it wasn't for your pictures I wouldn't be the sex symbol I am today."
There was even a telegram from Ronald Reagan, thanking Capra for "recognizing and helping us recognize all that is wonderful about the American character." The message was read by Bob Hope, who began by saying, "I'm very lucky to be here tonight; Johnny Carson drove me over," and ended with a wry "because of the budget deficit that telegram was sent collect."
Over the course of the evening Capra, a tiny, dapper man whose head could barely be seen over the table, was compared to everybody from Beethoven to Picasso and Faulkner. Frank Price, head of Columbia Pictures, the studio Capra's films helped build, even compared him (favorably) to Coca-Cola. It was all rather heady stuff for a man who had come to this country from Sicily when he was 6, the son of an illiterate fruit picker. Capra never lost the immigrant sense of America as an enchanted place where wonders could and did happen, and he put that quality into his best films, two of which got the lion's share of the praise at the tribute.
The first was "It Happened One Night," Capra's first big hit and the start of a romantic comedy trend. Claudette Colbert, the film's costar, her face still wrinkle-free at 76, flew in from Barbados for the event and got the biggest ovation of the night. Even now, nearly 50 years after the film's release, she marveled at its success in the midst of the Depression when movie audiences seemed to want "fantasies, dreams of splendor and glamor and here Clark Gable and I were, looking rather seedy and riding on a bus. But Frank made magic out of a very simple story, one you could tell in a small paragraph. He is that rare artist, a storyteller who makes you believe every word."
The other film was Capra's personal favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life," a failure when it first came out but now very much in vogue. Stewart, who said he had total faith in the director, remembered Capra coming over and reciting the film's rather farfetched plot. "I told him, 'If you want to do a story about me committing suicide and an angel with no wings saving my life, then I'm your boy.' "
Many actors' tributes to Capra were along the lines of Lionel Stander's remark that "you spoiled me for other directors." Peter Falk remembered that when he told Capra he was a committed New York stage actor and couldn't possibly do comedy in "Pocketful of Miracles," the director chuckled and said, "Maybe everyone else will be funny and you'll be the serious relief." Falk credited his Oscar nomination in that film to Capra's procuring a good coat for him, and added, "Years later, when I got an offer for a TV series, I went out and got another good coat and I've been eating well ever since."
The funniest moment of the night, and a bit of brisk relief from the wave of platitudes, came when Steve Martin stood up and said: "I suppose of every person in this room I share the most memories with Mr. Capra. We've known each other for over 80 years. We've worked and played together and made so many pictures I can't remember their titles. Only one thing would make this night more special for me and that would be if this dinner was in my honor. As Mr. Capra once said, 'An onion can make you cry, but there has yet to be invented a vegetable that can make you laugh.' "
The climax of the evening was Capra's own acceptance speech. After looking at the award and saying, "Well I'll be damned," he talked about his love for people and the importance of ideals, "a forgotten word almost." After advising young filmmakers, "Don't follow trends, start trends," and noting "only the valiant can create; only the daring should make films; only the morally courageous ought to speak to their fellow man for two hours in the dark," he introduced his old cameraman and editor, his three children and 10 grandchildren by name, and ended with a moving reminiscence of his coming to America.
"I celebrated my sixth birthday in the black, dark hold of a ship, crammed with retching, praying, miserable people," he said. "After 13 days, the ship stopped and my father brought me up on deck. 'Chico,' he said, 'look at that.' And I saw the statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple. 'That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem,' my father said. 'That's the light of freedom, Chico, remember that freedom.' "
Frank Capra never forgot.