If Capra’s name rings a bell, it’s because he shares it with Frank Capra, the film’s legendary director, producer and co-writer. Tony Capra is senior director at NBC News in Washington, D.C. and Frank was his grandfather. Tony grew up in California watching the film with his family every year like many other families. He says he has seen it all the way through “about 50 times.” But unlike other families, the Capras watched an original 16mm version.
“There’s the obvious connection and it does bring me close to my grandfather and the relationship I had with him,” Capra said.
Frank Capra was born in Sicily in 1897. He moved to California with his family when he was five years old. He became Hollywood’s highest-paid director in the 1930s thanks to classic movies like “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It with You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He was nominated for Best Director six times – including for “It’s a Wonderful Life” – and won three Oscars.
“If you watch all of his films, it’s like the culmination of all of his films.”
Capra, who volunteered in both World Wars, died in 1991 at the age of 94.
“He was very smart and very funny but could not tell a joke to save his life but he would have you falling on the floor telling stories,” Capra said.
When ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” came out in 1946, a year after the end of World War II, it was not a blockbuster. Reviews were mixed but it was nominated for five Oscars including Jimmy Stewart for Best Actor for his portrayal of down-on-his-luck George Bailey. The movie did not become an iconic film until the 1970s when its copyright lapsed and television stations all around the country started playing it often, especially during the holidays. It is now considered one of the greatest films of all-time.
The 1946 movie has become the definitive holiday classic that resonates with so many people, standing the test of time with its universal messages.
Seventy-six years after the movie’s release, people come up to Capra at work — especially this time of year — to say how much the movie means to them. “It’s a meaningful film. It makes people feel good. It means a lot to me,” Capra said. “It is important, it’s got a message and he was very proud of it,” Capra said.
And though his grandfather was a Hollywood legend, “he was just a normal grandfather,” Capra said. “He taught me how to fish, how to do all sorts of stuff. I feel very lucky to have had him in my life. He was a wonderful person to be around. He was a wonderful grandfather.” You’ll excuse Capra if he uses the word “wonderful” more often than most. He’s got a pretty good excuse.
And, yes, he’ll be watching Saturday night with his family just like he has every year for as long as he can remember. “It always gets me.”