Frank Capra's 1920s Immigrant Trilogy: Immigration, Assimilation, and the American Dream

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"I'm Proud of Being a Dago, and I'm Proud of that Wheel Gag."

--Capra, after Mack Sennett called him a "dago" and insulted one of his gags. (1)

Although almost every author who writes about Frank Capra's films mentions the famed director's Italian ethnicity and his immigrant origins, few delve into how these identities influenced his work. Most feel that the immigrant filmmaker, in an attempt to distance himself from his lower class, ethnic, immigrant origins, made films about white Americans (not ethnic others or immigrants) as a way of assimilating into American culture (see McBride). In analyses of this vein, Capra's ethnicity is reduced to something the director wished to deny, repress, or transcend, and Capra himself frequently denied that his ethnicity had any effect on the films he directed. In 1978 Dominic Candeloro wrote to Capra asking him to be a speaker in the Italian American program that Candeloro was overseeing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Capra denied Candeloro's request in a lengthy letter:

   Many times intellectual people ask me if my Italian heritage had
   anything to do with my work. And frankly, I don't know what the hell
   they're talking about. The word heritage evokes memories and
   spiritual experiences with the cultured heroes of the past. I never
   had such experiences. I am very proud to have been born an Italian,
   very proud of all the great men that Italy has produced in the arts
   and the sciences, very proud of the giant Italian intellects that
   created the Renaissance. But only as history, and as great men who
   contributed to making history. I admire Shakespeare and Tolstoi
   [sic.] and Dante with equal reverence.

In that same letter Capra described himself as a "10-90 Italian-American," saying that he immigrated to the United States at such an early age that he had little memory of the land he left. (2) Such remarks would seem to place Capra, who arrived in the US at the age of 6, firmly within the tradition of what Werner Sollors has labeled "consent." By effectively denying his "descent" identity as an Italian, Capra consented to a new identity as an American (Beyond Ethnicity 4-6).

Despite Capra's claims, three works in the vast body of Capra scholarship have argued that Capra's immigrant and ethnic identities are, if not a strong influence, then at least an important issue to consider when evaluating his work. Lee Lourdeaux's Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America." Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese (1990) was the first work to devote itself to arguing that Capra's artistic vision was significantly influenced by his Italian heritage. By doing so, Lourdeaux lent credence to Michael Novak's contention that our "emotions, instincts, memory, imagination, passions, and ways of perceiving are passed onto us in ways we do not choose, and in ways so thick with life that they lie far beyond the power of consciousness (let alone of analytic or verbal reason) thoroughly to master, totally to alter" (xvi). Lourdeaux's willingness to treat Capra as an ethnic artist uncovered a far too often ignored aspect of his oeuvre and initiated a new and important vein of research for scholars of ethnic studies.

In recent years, Robert Sklar and John Paul Russo have followed Lourdeaux's contribution with works of their own. Sklar focuses his essay on For the Love of Mike, a lost film (3) directed by Capra in 1927, and The Younger Generation, a film Capra directed in 1929, and argues that at least in Capra's rarely discussed 1920s films, an ethnic element is clearly present. Russo provides the first serious consideration of Capra's 1959 film, A Hole in the Head, the only Capra-directed work to take Italian/Italian Americans as its main characters. However, while A Hole in the Head is clearly the focus of his essay, Russo does include a noteworthy consideration of Mike. By arguing that the two ethnically focused films, separated by 32 years, share similar themes, Russo implicitly contends that an ethnic vein is present in select films throughout Capra's career. …