Frank Capra ended more than one of his movies with a shot of joyfully pealing bells. They don't end 'em like that anymore and Capra, now almost 85, is inactive as a director, but he is still full of insistence that life is really a pretty good deal after all. In person, as with his films, he can make you want to believe it.

Sunday night, CBS will give the country a chance to thank Frank Capra for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Meet John Doe" and his other fanfares for the common man when it airs the American Film Institute Salute to him at 9:30 on Channel 9. At a big and glittery dinner last month in Hollywood, the AFI gave Capra its 10th Life Achievement Award for filmmaking.

"They charged $300 a seat for that dinner, and I said, 'Who in the hell is gonna pay $300 a seat when it's me!' " marvels Capra, whose physical appearance has gone from paisan terrible to Little Old Winemaker. "I thought they were nuts!" He laughs. "They weren't. By God, they were sold out the first week. Terrific night."

Among the stars paying tribute were James Stewart, Bette Davis, Steve Martin, Donna Reed and Bob Hope. Jean Arthur, that plucky dynamo of "Mr. Smith" and "Mr. Deeds," stayed home in Carmel, Calif., however. Why? "She's just a hermit," says Capra; she won't come out in public. He leans forward in his chair and whispers: "She's fat." And still has her actress' vanity. But Capra was bowled over that Claudette Colbert--"the dame that got the biggest attention"--did show up. She hadn't been in Hollywood in years.

"Oh, boy. She's got class," Capra says.

Occasionally Capra has trouble calling up names and titles as he looks back over the years, and the movies with which he brightened them. He refers to "the guy in 'It Happened One Night' " and then remembers it was Clark Gable. Nor can he recall the costars of his early film "Broadway Bill," but "The Name Above the Title," the lively and ingenuous autobiography he wrote in 1971, lists them as Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy. "A fine memory!" he scolds himself, muttering.

Capra's films have never been far from the public eye, or from the public heart. His message was inevitably uplifty, prompting some unknown critic to dub his oeuvre "Capra-corn," but the message was, almost always, put so entertainingly as to pulverize all resistance. Even Capra is surprised at how the films have held up; "Lost Horizon," for instance, played just last month on Home Box Office, and although HBO's print had a rickety and scratchy soundtrack, the film was still capable of casting a captivating spell.

"It's an amazing thing: Those films hang in there," says Capra, who is dressed in Palm Springs elder prep: bright green shirt and bright yellow pants. "Emotions--in the '60s and '70s especially--anything emotional, in the way of love, was stomped on. Back then, I never thought those pictures of mine would ever run again," Capra says. Yet here he is, back in vogue and getting showered with praise. Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to believe again. "Today, most films are not about people; they're about things. But as ever, I think people are more interested in other people than they are in anything else in the world," he says.

As did the late Alfred Hitchcock, Capra delights in telling stories he's told before--like the way he sneaked a naked (but silhouetted) Jane Wyatt past the censors in "Lost Horizon." He screened the film for them, held the shot on the screen, pointed at Wyatt's figure and said, "Don't you see that line there, that flesh-colored thing there?" Yes, they said, they saw it. Was it really there? Capra laughs. "No!"

He still clings to the story that when "Lost Horizon" was shown to preview audiences in Santa Barbara, they laughed the movie off the screen and ran to their cars cursing it, and saying the people who made it "should be shot," while he stood there in apoplexy.

"You could hear them yelling, 'For Christ's sake!' 'Almighty God!' And I was listening to these things! The picture cost $2 million, and $2 million was a big thing then. It was half of Columbia's budget for the year. With the other $2 million, they made 20 other pictures." He went back to the studio, threw out the first two reels (about 20 minutes) and put the titles at the start of the third reel. Then he screened the film again, in San Pedro, and presto, a smash hit.

Now just what was in those first two reels? "I don't know. I forgot," he says mischievously. He burned them, he says. And he turns to the story about how Joseph P. Kennedy, when ambassador to England, offered Columbia Pictures $2 million not to release the 1939 gem "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," because Kennedy claimed its portrayal of corrupt politics in the nation's capital would help the cause of Nazi propaganda. "Boy, did I yell," Capra recalls--mostly at Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures. Cohn was feared by most, but Capra was one director who seemed to have him under control. It must have been charm.

Although Capra made most of his films for Columbia, "Arsenic and Old Lace" was shot at Warner Bros. Capra was there at the same time Ronald Reagan was there under contract, but he was not tempted to offer Reagan any roles. Does he think Reagan was much of an actor? "No. He wasn't great, but he was good enough to use in certain parts. He was never a star."

Of the films considered Capra classics, most were populist hits, not surprisingly, but one, "It's a Wonderful Life," flopped on first appearance in 1947. Capra is still hurt by this. He says people stopped going to the movies generally in 1947. "They just stopped going. During the war, anything went. God, you'd open the doors and they'd pile in." But it's also been suggested that after the bitter experience of World War II, Capra's brand of folksy optimism was out of style.

He himself says that the only time his own spirits fell was during the same period. "I had a miserable feeling about the world right after the war. I saw so much." He made a series of documentary films called "Why We Fight" and recalls spending four months in England during the bombing there, and seeing women and children crouched in fear. And he went to a party honoring the manufacturer of the Spitfire, got drunk, and shouted, among other things, "This isn't the human race, this is--what is this?"

The Spitfire was an instrument of death and, Frank Capra thought, not to be celebrated with parties, no matter whose side it was.

As for "It's a Wonderful Life," it has since waddled into the realm of classics. An "It's a Wonderful Life" fan club in New York runs the film every Christmas, its members drinking and weeping copiously all the while, and one year they invited Capra himself to attend the annual rite. "That film's got more than I put into it," he says. "Something happens. It's got a life and a power of its own. I guess that's possible."

Many of Capra's films are still worth cheering, but Capra only groans when one of them turns up on TV. "I see the very core of the damn thing cut out," he grumbles. "It's the only time I want to commit murder. I would actually shoot somebody at that time, just shoot 'em down and stomp on 'em. Bastards! They don't know what they've done to these pictures!"

Butchered for television or savored in revival houses, Capra's films will be giving people pleasure, and trying to argue them out of cynicism, for years to come--though Capra says they could play on the Moon and he still wouldn't see a dime from them. "Columbia owns them," he says. "They made millions. I wasn't really wise, financially."

He laughs, presumably at himself. "I'm the poorest director you ever saw," he says, but--the line is like a song cue--there are those who would argue with that. As James Stewart said in his toast at the AFI dinner--paraphrasing a closing line from "It's a Wonderful Life," in which he starred--"To Frank Capra . . . the richest man in town."