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Frank Capra - Director at Columbia Pictures. (Aberdeen collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Frank Capra—Independent Profile

The Rise of the Producer-Directors in Classic Hollywood

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen

Perhaps the most significant challenge to the studio system was the rise of the producer-director. In contrast to the considerable authority of the pre-Hollywood era film directors like D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, most of the directors at the major studios in the 1920s and 1930s were reduced to hired-hands. The studio system by its very nature had compartmentalized and restricted the role of the director, and concentrated the creative power in the hands of the film executives who oversaw production from script to editing. 

As the studio system itself was strained by the economic chaos of the early 1930s, some directors demanded, and received, greater creative freedom at the studios. Directors who had a strong artistic vision, but who also were commercially reliable, worked their way out of mere contract-director status, to head their own semi-autonomous units at the major studios—Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Gregory La Cava, Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, Mervyn Le Roy, Tay Garnett, William Wellman, and Cecil B. DeMille. As producer-directors, their work seemed to show a continuity of style, and allowed their films to transcend the studio assembly-line.

The Screen Directors Guild in the late 1930s: Frank Capra, as president of the SDG, presents honorary life memberships to D. W. Griffith and guild counsel Mabel Walker Willebrandt. FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: John Ford, Frank Strayer, Willebrandt, Rouben Mamoulian, Griffith, J. P. McGowan, W. S. Vandyke II, William Wyler, Capra, Leo McCarey, and George Marshall.  

The studio bosses knew that for many of the independent-minded directors there was only a short jump between unit production under the studio and independent production away from the majors. To avoid an independent production exodus, more studios offered producers and directors a degree of creative freedom and profit participation in their films.

"An event of importance to every exhibitor!":  Boxoffice magazine announces the renewal of Frank Capra's Columbia contract in 1934. His next movie "Opera Hat" was later retitled Mr. Deed's Goes to Town (1935).

Frank Capra

Frank Capra's career best illustrated the rising power of the producer-director that pushed the limitations of the studio system in the 1930s. Capra rose to prominence as a contract director at Columbia Pictures with his successful mixture of populist drama and sentimental comedy that defined depression-era attitudes and elevated Harry Cohn's studio from Poverty Row status to one of the Big Eight majors. Capra was suitably rewarded with his own production unit and an unusually high level of creative freedom. Producing about one picture a year, the Capra unit made quality, event pictures, not unlike the prestige films of Capra's independent producing counterparts. After the success of It Happened One Night (1934), his new five-picture contract with Columbia gave him 25 percent of the net profits, and even contained an anti-block booking provision that required all Capra films to be sold individually, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935).

Capra had adopted a "one man, one film" mantra which later generations would dub the auteur theory, which claimed that a film, like any other important work of art, should be largely the product of a single creative vision and not the offspring of a studio committee. He believed producer-director setups to be the answer to the generic, manufactured Hollywood film. He blamed the complacency of the well-paid contract directors for selling out their artistic responsibility to the studios. Ultimately, Capra concluded, the ideal position for ambitious, creative filmmakers was in independent production.

With the market for independent films heating up, in 1936 Capra tried to force the cancellation of his contract by protesting Cohn's persistent controversial marketing practices. Capra initiated a bitter lawsuit against the studio, and laid plans for his own independent company. But Columbia reconciled with Capra, and he fulfilled his contract with You Can't Take It With You (1938), his highest grossing Columbia picture, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), his signature film, which he initially contemplated as an independent production.

Robert Riskin and Frank Capra.

In July 1939 Frank Capra joined with his chief collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, to form Frank Capra Productions, and landed a one-picture distribution deal with Warner Bros. The highly-favorable terms, a 20 percent distribution fee and all rights to the film returning to Capra after five years, were an indication of the softening attitude of the majors toward independent films. Back at Columbia, Harry Cohn compensated for the loss of Capra by extending unit-production deals to other filmmakers like Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks.

The inroads made by the producer-directors in Hollywood the 1930s helped pave the way for later artistic, single-minded producer-directors like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. The movement was also closely related to—and in many respects, identical with—the independent production trend that was rising in opposition to the studios.






For more information on unit and independent production during the Depression see Bordwell, Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, pp. 316-330. For additional background and insight on this subject the author recommends: Schatz, The Genius of the System.
"Pictures lose their individuality": Bernstein, Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent, p. 94.
Capra's anti-block booking deal: "Frank Capra" Boxoffice, November 15, 1935.
Capra's views on unit-production—see Frank Capra, "By Post From Mr. Capra," NYT, April 2, 1939, sec. X, p. 4. Excerpt available.

See Bibliography.


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