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Liberty Films

The Independent Film Company of Frank Capra, William Wyler, and George Stevens

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen

Liberty Films, probably the most heralded postwar independent production outfit, was the brainchild of Frank Capra who entered into a partnership with two other producer-directors, William Wyler and George Stevens.

The founders of Liberty Films, with their spouces, at a party for General Omar Bradley. TOP: William Wyler, Frank Capra, Gen. Bradley, George Stevens. BOTTOM: Margaret Wyler, Lu Capra, Mary Bradley, Yvonne Stevens.

Frank Capra Goes Independent

Frank Capra had developed close associations with the founders of SIMPP through his independent production efforts before World War II. In the spring of 1937 Capra visited Alexander Korda at the Denham Studios during a vacation to England. The trip began a nine month exile from Columbia Pictures as Capra plotted his own freedom from the studio system and unsuccessfully tried to form his own company. When he and Robert Riskin founded Frank Capra Productions in 1939, David O. Selznick rented them office space at Selznick International. Loyd Wright, who filed Capra's incorporation papers, encouraged a distribution deal with United Artists. Despite the support of Mary Pickford, the negotiations broke down after delays caused by Charlie Chaplin's reluctance. Later in May 1941, Korda, Selznick, and Capra formed a three-way entente in an attempt to take control of United Artists, but the partners struggled with the logistics of the takeover. While Korda and Selznick argued over the details, Capra considered distribution deals with other studios. Frank Capra nearly became the ninth founding member of SIMPP, but instead put his career on hold when he liquidated his production company in December 1941 and joined the Signal Corps, one month before the organization of SIMPP.

Toward the end of the war, Capra renewed his independent aspirations. According to Leo McCarey, he and Capra originally planned to go independent together, but “couldn't see eye to eye.” Instead Frank Capra discussed his new independent production plans with Sam Briskin, the former Columbia production executive who had a long friendship with the director. As World War II ended, they decided to form an independent production company, announced as Liberty Films on January 29, 1945 and incorporated in April 1945.

Frank Capra - Independent producer at Liberty Film.  (Aberdeen collection). 

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Capra envisioned the future of the industry dominated by producing directors, with Liberty providing a financial and creative umbrella. They convinced others to join, including William Wyler in July, and George Stevens toward the end of the year. Liberty arranged for distribution through RKO, which offered to finance three films from each of the directors-a combined production deal that totaled over $15 million.

Throughout 1946 the large amount of publicity generated by Liberty ignited the independent production market. “Undoubtedly there will always be big studios. . . .” Capra wrote in anticipation of the emergence of the independent filmmakers, “but we hope they will be divided by the individual creative efforts of the independents, of which, fortunately, I happen now to be one together with Producer-Directors William Wyler and George Stevens, and production executive Samuel J. Briskin, under the emblem, Liberty Films.”

Unfortunately Liberty's ambitions were curtailed during the difficult start-up period. Wyler had to fulfill his prior production commitment with Sam Goldwyn by directing one more feature from a prewar contract. Stevens still awaited military discharge for months after the war's long end. So the initial film from Liberty was from Frank Capra. He produced and directed his masterpiece It's A Wonderful Life (1946), starring James Stewart who also returned from the war reluctant to resume his former position as MGM contract player. The $2.3 million film was the most expensive of Capra's career, and although it was well-received, the movie was not the unqualified Capra blockbuster that they had hoped would inaugurate the new company.

On the other hand, the Wyler-directed Goldwyn film, Best Years of Our Lives (1946) grossed $11.3 million and became the highest grossing film behind the champion Gone With the Wind (1939). It's a Wonderful Life also suffered from direct competition with Best Years of Our Lives in key markets. Thus Wyler unexpectedly contributed to the declining fortunes of Liberty before ever making a film for the company.

Unable to overcome the negative cash-flow, Capra and Wyler decided to avoid an unpleasant takeover by offering Liberty and its director contracts to the highest bidding studio. MGM and Paramount offered to purchase the company, and the latter studio landed the prestigious deal. Stevens protested the sale, unwilling to relinquish his independent status. He withdrew from Liberty to join Leo McCarey at Rainbow Productions. When Stevens realized that McCarey was also having second thoughts as an independent, and would soon sell his production company to Paramount Pictures, Stevens returned to Liberty to finalize a deal with the major studio in May 1947.

Liberty became a subsidiary of the Hollywood giant for $3.1 million in Paramount stock. Capra, Wyler, and Stevens were given producer-director status at the studio, and Sam Briskin became a Paramount executive. Though the major studio promised autonomy for the filmmakers, Paramount demanded approval of script and budget, prompting Wyler to remark, “I guess there is no such thing as complete independence unless you put up your own money.”

Capra recalled the sale of Liberty-his final gasp as an independent-with great regret. He later admitted that it was a mistake to give up, but that at the time he had felt strongly that he needed to handle it the way he did. Liberty Films remained a working division at Paramount until the subsidiary was terminated in a joint agreement with Frank Capra in March 1951.

Liberty Films was never a member of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers or United Artists. The actual reason is unknown. One Capra biographer wrote that UA denied Liberty a distribution deal, an indication of the atrophy of Capra's commercial credibility during the war. But this claim seemed far-fetched given the perpetual product deficiency at UA and the unanimous trade adulation Liberty received from its inception.

The reasons Liberty did not join SIMPP are also speculative. Possibly the Liberty partners decided to wait until the company got on its feet (which it never did). More likely, Liberty never joined because the three owners espoused the same attitude of other independent directors who were typically not as inclined to enter into a fellowship with the other independent producers. Given Capra's expansive master plan of Liberty as a home for independent directors, Liberty was essentially envisioned as a society unto itself. It is also reasonable, given the organization of Liberty where all company decisions were made collectively, that if at least one of the partners were disinterested in SIMPP that Liberty would never join.







Frank Capra information: Capra, The Name Above the Title, pp. 214-219, 290-308; McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, pp. 269-273, 427-443; Balio, United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars, pp. 176-177, 181-183.
Capra-McCarey plans-“couldn't see eye to eye”: Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It, p.389. McCarey's statement seems to suggest that he and Capra planned to form a company together shortly before McCarey organized Rainbow in 1944. However, it is also likely that McCarey referred to a prewar Capra-McCarey plan that never materialized.
Capra on producer-directors: Frank Capra, “By Post From Mr. Capra: Directors Without Power,” NYT, April 2, 1939, sec. X, p. 4.
Liberty Films: Capra, pp. 371-374; McBride, pp. 506-508; Anderegg, William Wyler, pp. 293-299. “Undoubtedly there will”: Frank Capra, “Breaking Hollywood's 'Pattern of Sameness',New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1946, pp. 18, 57, also see Koszarski, Hollywood Directors, 1941-1976, pp. 88-89.
“I guess there is”: McBride, p. 533.
Dissolution of Liberty Films: Capra Termination Agreement, March 20, 1951, pp. 1-2, (Butterfields internet auction, November 1999, lot 019).

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