St. John Paul II, the actor-turned-pope, and Frank Capra, director of such film classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night, share a birthday, May 18.
But that’s not the only thing these two men have in common. They both wrote letters to the artists of the world.
St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists
If you haven’t read it, JPII’s 1999 Letter to Artists (read the whole thing here) is all about how God has given actors, musicians, writers, painters, etc., talents with which to honor Him.
From the introduction:
To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gn 1:31)
Most people know a little about the former pope, but the details of Capra's life are less well-known, even though he’s a three-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Director.
Who Is Frank Capra?
Capra, born in 1897 in Italy and raised in Los Angeles, got into the industry when he saw an ad that expressed a need for a director. He pretended to be a director on vacation to get a shot at the job.
As Capra related in a 1973 interview with film historian and author Richard Schickel, posted at ScrapsFromtheLoft.com:
“Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House” is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and it all takes place in a Calcutta barroom. It’s a very, very dramatic poem.
Two men fighting for a girl and one of them killing the other one and then the other one suddenly kissing his Cross and all this kind of stuff – very, very heavy. All in one reel. Everything happened fast.
The man Montague, who had promoted this thing, was a vaudevillian. He was a Shakespearean actor. His act in vaudeville was doing little bits from great plays. So he translated this to the screen. …
So I went out just to see him [in San Francisco]. I was broke, absolutely broke. And I introduced myself as Frank Capra from Hollywood, which was true, but not in the sense that he thought. I wasn’t from the studio Hollywood. Our home was in Los Angeles.
But the doors fell apart when I said “from Hollywood” and I was welcomed—asked to come and help them make this film. And being young and ambitious and broke, I said okay. But I didn’t want real actors because they’d know right away 1 hadn’t been near a camera or a studio. And that was my first film.
Capra wrote of himself in The Name above the Title: An Autobiography:
My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.
In 1982, three-time Capra leading man Jimmy Stewart narrated the early years of the director's career, at the 10th AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Frank Capra.
Take a look:
Capra’s Letter: It’s a Wonderful Life
You may be wondering what Capra’s letter to artists is ...
It’s the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life (which is on the Vatican Film List), written by Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with extra scenes by Jo Swerling.
The movie is based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern (read the whole thing here).
After falling into the public domain in 1974, It's a Wonderful Life became a perennial Christmas favorite on many TV stations. In 1993, Republic Pictures reclaimed the rights to the film.
Now, NBC has the exclusive TV broadcast rights, and the film is available on a variety of other streaming platforms.
You can read the whole script here.
Frank Capra Is George Bailey
What makes It’s a Wonderful Life Capra’s unintentional letter to artists?
One way is how closely the life of protagonist George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) replicates Capra’s own life, especially regarding the art of filmmaking.
Both were discouraged from going to college (though Capra did go), were unable to fight in the war (or continue fighting) due to injury or illness, suffered from bouts of depression, and compared themselves to their sibling(s).
Capra’s Struggles as a Filmmaker
At closer glance, Capra's struggles in the film industry and George Bailey's financial difficulties with his small-town Building and Loan are similar, too.
Capra was one of the creators of Liberty Films, which had the goal to make quality movies, since its founders thought what was coming from the big studios was subpar.
When Liberty Films was not making a profit despite successful releases, Capra sold his company -- and went to work for -- Paramount Pictures.
In a way, this is similar to the scene where George is tempted to sell out to local mogul Potter (but unlike Capra, George remained independent).
One could conclude that Capra was writing to himself as much as to anyone else.
George felt like a failure, because he wanted to do something big that got him recognition. "Angel Second Class" Clarence (Henry Travers) had to show him the impact his apparently ordinary life had on others.
This reminds me how many talented painters, like Vincent Van Gogh, never became famous until after they passed.
Art is a legacy that will be handed down for generations, but even if our works affect just one person, even if that person is ourselves, is that not enough?
To paraphrase JPII, if you have that “divine spark which is the artistic vocation,” do not “waste this talent but to develop it."
Image: Hollywood, California/USA. August 3rd, 2019. Jimmy Stewart figure as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life at Madame Tussaud’s in Hollywood/Shutterstock
Maggie Orsinger graduated from John Paul the Great Catholic University in 2020 with a degree in Communications Media. She's pursuing an MFA at Pepperdine University for Screenwriting and expects to graduate in June 2023.