Classic Frank Capra Movies

A Vision of Good People in a Great Country

Though the director was born in Sicily, Frank Capra movies are quintessentially American. His dramas are inspirational, patriotic and filled with a sense of duty. His comedies are witty and warm. Dated now, and chock-full of what his critics dubbed "Capra-corn," his films are richly entertaining, and his vision of the nation’s stalwart heart and soul will make you yearn for simpler times.

Here are some of Frank Capra’s best movies.

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'It Happened One Night' - 1934

It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night. Columbia Pictures

Delightful screwball comedy with Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress and Clark Gable as the down-on-his-luck reporter who latches on to her in hopes of a front-page story. She hates him on sight, and the two are forced into a madcap cross-country trip. Hmm. Think those two crazy kids will get together? Infamous as the movie where Colbert showed a little leg while hitchhiking, and Gable scandalously took off his shirt on screen. Yowzah!

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'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' - 1936

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Columbia Pictures

In the first movie of Capra's "common man" trilogy, Gary Cooper stars as an unassuming small-town tuba player who inherits $20 million, and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. A nasty newspaper publisher dispatches an unscrupulous reporter (lovely Jean Arthur) to parody the nouveau riche rube as he hits the big city with his small-town ways. Hmmm. Think those two crazy kids will get together? A charming Depression-era fable about a man who must prove he’s sane when he tries to give away his fortune.

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'Lost Horizon' - 1937

Lost Horizon
Lost Horizon. Columbia Pictures

A fantasy about a lost world tucked away high in the Himalayas, a utopia where people barely age, where there is no sickness, war, or conflict: Shangri-La. The world's treasures of culture, art and learning are stored in the remote and improbable valley against the day when the outside world descends into Armageddon. With lush sets and a lavish budget, Lost Horizon is a bit plodding and talky. Paradise never seems to be all it's cracked up to be.

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'You Can’t Take it With You' - 1938

You Can’t Take it With You
You Can’t Take it With You. Columbia Pictures

In his delightful film version of the smash-hit play, Capra uses some of his favorites in an unbeatable cast. Lionel Barrymore is the adorable grandfather of a wonderfully free-spirited and loving family, who unfortunately live in the last house the local banking family needs to buy for some nefarious financial scheme. Jean Arthur stars as the closest-to-normal member of the family, and Jimmy Stewart as the banker's son madly in love with her, of course. Just try not to smile at this sweet-natured comedy.

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'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' - 1939

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Columbia Pictures

The tale of an honest man who comes to Washington, uncovers a cesspool of corruption and deceit, and yet manages to preserve his ideals and triumph in the end. Filled with patriotic images of what the nation's capital city used to look like, with wonderful performances by a young Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, Jean Arthur as his cynical assistant and Claude Rains as his corrupt mentor. The second, and the best, of Capra's "common man" trilogy.

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'Meet John Doe' - 1941

Meet John Doe
Meet John Doe. Warner Brothers

The third and the darkest of the common man trilogy, Meet John Doe is the story of a feisty newspaperwoman (Barbara Stanwyck) about to lose her job. She invents a fictional character who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve out of disgust with corrupt politics and the hopeless plight of the poor. The newspaper's circulation soars, and a reform movement is born. She has to find a real man to play John Doe and fills the bill with Gary Cooper as a down-on-his-luck baseball player. Earnest, preachy, but still compelling.

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'Arsenic and Old Lace' - 1944

Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old Lace. Warner Brothers

Capra's film of the enormously successful stage play stars dapper Cary Grant as a New York theater critic who finds out his adorable elderly aunts are dispatching elderly male visitors to their rooming house with poisoned elderberry wine. Gracious! Luckily, cousin Teddy thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, and finds a place for the bodies in his basement "Panama Canal." No profound messages here; just a silly, sweet screwball comedy where the action goes by fast and even the murders are diverting.

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'It’s a Wonderful Life' - 1946

It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life. RKO Radio Pictures

This holiday classic is a little corny, yet still utterly magical. Jimmy Stewart stars again, this time with Donna Reed as his loving wife, Lionel Barrymore as the evil town banker, and a spectacular cast populating the Christmas-card-perfect town of Bedford Falls. The heavens grant hero George Bailey a strange and wonderful gift: the chance to see what his family and his world would be like if he had never been born. Not a success at the box office, it was nevertheless the first film to be nominated for all five of the top Oscars.

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'State of the Union' - 1948

State of the Union
State of the Union. MGM

Capra brings his familiar themes of political corruption, double-dealing big business and the ultimate wisdom of the people to this somewhat dated movie about presidential politics, adapted from the stage. Loosely based on a real political figure, Spencer Tracy plays a tycoon running for the presidency, with Katharine Hepburn as the wife trying to keep him true to his ideals, and Angela Lansbury in a blazing performance as the cynical, manipulative, would-be kingmaker.