It is easy to dismiss Frank Capra and his contribution to cinema. His popularity throughout the decades has fluctuated more than any other director and his political views have more than contributed to that polarization. Love him or hate him, Capra was a very important figure in American cinema and one who, no matter how tired you become of seeing It's a Wonderful Life, contributed greatly to the fabric of film history.
Early in his career, he was the darling that could do no wrong. In 1934, his film, It Happened One Night. It was the first of only three films in Academy Awards history to win Oscars in the five major categories. It would take 41 years before another film would even match that.
Capra's films would take a struggling Columbia Studios and make it a major player on the Hollywood scene. His films in the 1930s were always major contenders for awards.
He preached self-belief. If you didn't believe in yourself, no one else would. That was the Capra model. Sure, that attitude got the better of him and manifested itself in the form of his autobiography The Name Above the Title. In the book, an aged Capra casts himself in a highly embellished version of his life story.
From a theorist's point of view, Capra represents what could be viewed as one of the first of cinema auteurs. Long before French New Wave director Francois Truffaut was espousing his theories and lionizing Alfred Hitchcock, Capra was making films that bore his personality on them. What he was being cheered for, the sappiness of It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Lost Horizon, became the focus of scorn during reappraisal of his work.
Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, Capra made films his way and, until he became an antiquated fossil. Still, in a time of mass production, where films were made by the dozens every week, he made personal films that were a reflection of his sensibilities.