Frank Capra in Silent Film

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Today is the birthday of Frank Capra (1897-1991). While the films of his peak years of the 1930s and 40s are almost universally known, many don’t know that he began his career in silent pictures, and actually made a mark in them. After getting a degree in chemical engineering, serving in World War One, and riding the rails as a hobo awhile, the Sicilian born Capra broke into films in the San Francisco area, doing odd jobs and actually getting to direct a couple. His first Hollywood work was for Harry Cohn (prior to the establishment of Columbia, where Capra was later to make his mark).

His first serious creative work though was for Hal Roach starting in 1924, where Capra was a gag-writer for the Our Gang series. The following year he went over to Mack Sennett, where he contributed to such boffo outings as Super Hooper -Dyne Lizzies before becoming part of the creative team assigned to build up the character of star comedian Harry Langdon. When Harry Edwards walked away in 1926, Capra was bumped up to director and made his first feature The Strong Man, starring Langdon. The film was a critical and box office smash, voted one of the ten best of 1926. The film is a classic; one of the masterpieces of the silent era. Their follow up feature Long Pants (1927), did slightly less well but was still a hit. Unfortunately at this stage, Langdon fired the hot-headed, plain-spoken Capra and the two parted ways.

Capra directed one more silent feature For the Love of Mike (1927) starring Ben LyonClaudette Colbert and Ford Sterling, but it failed at the box office. Fortunately, Harry Cohn re-hired him at this stage to help him make  talkie features at his newly formed Columbia Pictures studio. The two men were the making of each other, and the rest was history.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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