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