The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34
It’s hard to imagine a Christmas season without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet, had his family been denied entrance into the United States, as many are today, we would not have this classic movie.
Film Director Frank Capra was born in 1897, in Sicily. In 1903, his family immigrated to New York. He later described the voyage as “The most degrading place you could ever be. Oh, it was awful, awful. It seems to always be storming, raining like hell and very windy, with these big long rolling Atlantic waves. Everybody was sick, vomiting. God, they were sick. And the poor kids were always crying.”
HIs family settled in California, where Frank’s older brother lived. On the long, cross-country train trip, they ate bread and bananas because that’s what they could order with their limited English. He attended Throop College of Technology (which became California Institute of Technology). There, ironically, he discovered the power and beauty of poetry. He considered it a turning point in his life since that turned him from technology toward the world of words.
When World War I broke out, Frank enlisted in the Army and discovered he was not a naturalized citizen. He was naturalized in 1920.
A bout with influenza led him back to his brother’s California home to recuperate. While there, he answered a bid for a movie extra and thus began his career in film. By the 30’s he was considered Hollywood’s most successful director, but the years prior to that were a real rags to riches series of successes and failures.
He was frequently unemployed and struggled most of the time – writing short stories no one wanted to publish and tutoring the son of a wealthy gambler for a place to live. He had several failed attempts at directing. At one point he was so desperate he became a hobo, riding the rails. Through his perseverance his version of the American Dream eventually came true.
After a decade of various ups and downs in filmmaking, he directed a melodrama about the desperate conditions of the early 30’s, America Madness (1931). This was the precursor to the much beloved 1947 It’s A Wonderful Life. Capra produced many films that he considered more significant, but this one has captured the hearts of the film viewing public. The American Film Institute put it at the top of the AFI’s “100 Years , , , 100 Cheers” list, naming it the best film ever made.
We never know in what amazing ways immigrants might enrich the culture of their adopted country. It is a wonderful life indeed whenever we overcome our fears of strangers to put out the welcome mat for those longing to start a new life in a new homeland.