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.
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
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.
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'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
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
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
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