Downhill After Death

“M. Night Shyamalan Movies Keep Getting Worse.”

— Business Insider, June 4, 2013.

I hate to say it, but Frank Capra has not made a good film since 1964’s Rendezvous in Space, which was the last film he made before dying of heart failure in 1991. I can’t say whether Rendezvous in Space was any good, because I haven’t seen it. Most people haven’t, I gather. It was an industrial film made for the Martin Marietta Company and screened at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. But it’s still better than anything he made after, which is nothing.

To say that Capra started off strong is something of an understatement: It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film to win all five “top” Oscars—Best Picture, Best Director (Capra), Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Indeed, Capra would go on to win a total of six Academy Awards. He was nominated six times for Best Director, winning the award three times. He held the record for most Best Director Oscars after he won for the third time in 1938 (...until John Ford tied him in 1941, then beat him in 1952). In any event, though, Capra took home no further Academy Awards—for Best Director or otherwise... not even a “Scientific/Technical” Award—and indeed no awards whatsoever after he had passed away. Some people do win posthumous awards, you know. But not Frank Capra, whose best days were, at the time of his death at age 94, without question behind him.

(Capra left part of his 1,100-acre ranch in Fallbrook, California to Caltech. Capra's personal papers and some of his film related materials are contained in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, which allows scholars and media experts from around the world full access. None of these scholars and experts have been able to dig up—literally or figuratively—any previously unknown films in either of Capra’s bequests, only further proving that the director’s career died when he did.)

In 1982, the American Film Institute bestowed upon Capra the AFI Life Achievement Award. An argument might be made that the AFI knew that the man born Francesco Rosario Capra would achieve things only during his life. After all, Capra was not awarded—then or ever—the AFI Life and Death Achievement Award, or anything like that. The final award Capra received is the National Medal of Arts. This was in 1986. Good thing, too, because not much later his body would have to have been exhumed to have a medal pinned to it. Capra was buried at the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery in California, where for some twenty-plus yeas and counting he has been accomplishing precious little.

More than one film historian has noted that even at the time of his death in 1991, Capra’s legacy remained intact: “He had created feelgood entertainments before the phrase was invented,” said one such film historian, “and his influence on culture—from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch, and from television soap operas to greeting-card sentiments—is simply too huge to calculate.” Indeed, even as of this writing, Capra’s legacy survives. But a legacy is hardly the same thing as a growing body of work. Capra’s corpus is as finite today as it was in 1991, as it was in 1964, after he made his final film. And that’s hard to feel good about.

Capra can take some consolation—or, he might have, anyway, if he’d continued to live—from knowing that he’s not alone in failing to produce good work after his death. A cross-section of others famous persons who did the same include:

And there are likely a handful more.

Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.

Read more humor here. Or read some fiction here.