"It's A Wonderful Life," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" - two classic films of Jimmy Stewart - owe themselves to legendary movie director Frank Capra. What many don't know is that a big chunk of the life of the five-time Academy Award winning Hollywood director and producer revolved around a former Ceres girl, wife Lucille Florence Warner.
The second time was a charm for Capra, who was born as Francesco Rosario Capra into a poor Sicilian family in 1897 and immigrated to the United State in 1903. Capra's first marriage to Helen Howell ended in 1928 after five years of a rocky relationship. She was an alcoholic and he was a workaholic.
Stumbles into movies
Capra served in the Army during World War I but illness caused his discharge. He wandered California and the western United States looking for work, and found himself living in flop houses in San Francisco and hopping freight trains. His first taste of film making came at age 24 in San Francisco when he directed a 32-minute documentary on the visit of the Italian naval vessel Libya to San Francisco and the crew's reception by the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club. While selling books in Los Angeles, he read an ad about a fledgling San Francisco movie studio. He was offered $75 to direct a one-reel silent film which was shot in two days. That led to work in Hollywood with Harry Cohn, future president of Columbia Pictures. He soon was a top paid director at Columbia Studios filming silent movies.
Capra directed the high-budget "The Younger Generation" in 1929, which would be his first sound film. In the summer of that year, Capra was introduced to widow Lucille Florence Warner Reyburn, who would become his second wife in 1932, a marriage that would last until her death in 1984.
Lucille was born on April 23, 1903 in Oakland to Myron and Florence Marr Warner. Myron Warner was the son of James and Lola Warner who owned a huge cattle ranch east of Waterford which later sprang up a settlement called Warnerville (off of Warnerville Road). James Warner, who immigrated to the U.S. from England, was a Stanislaus County supervisor around the time Lucille's dad was born Feb. 20, 1881 in Warnerville. Coincidentally Warnerville was a filming location for the 1952 classic "High Noon."
Years in Ceres
Lu's early years were spent in Ceres where her father was a farmer and rancher. Records show that he was vice president and sat on the board of directors of the Bank of Ceres in 1911.
On Nov. 13, 1908 Myron Warner and Leland Collins opened the Collins & Warner general merchandise store in a new two-story building constructed on Fourth Street where it angled down to the frontage road that paralleled the railroad tracks and highway. According to the Retail Grocers Advocate, Warner and Collins were "both experienced in the country merchandise business. They are putting in a big stock and will go after trade aggressively. There is a fine field about Ceres for an enterprise of this kind." The second floor was empty and served as a community meeting and dance hall. In fact, the first graduating class of Ceres High School received diplomas upstairs over the store in 1912.
Leland Collins was married to Edith Nellie Warner, who was Myron's sister.
At the time, the Ceres post office was located inside the Collins & Warner building on Fourth Street. It was only logical that store keeper Myron Warner would take care of the mail and in 1910 was appointed postmaster of Ceres.
Since Lucille likely attended school in Ceres from 1908 to 1915, that she attended school at the "White Brick" Ceres Grammar School which was built in 1909 on North Street between Second and Third streets, facing south toward Whitmore Park (then Triangle Park).
When Lucille was 12, Myron Warner moved his family to Rochester, Nev., where Myron served as an accountant, supply agent and superintendent of the Rochester Merger Mining Co., a gold mine. The Warners returned to the Central Valley, this time to Planada in Merced County when Lu was about 16. There Myron ran a 400-acre Kadota fig ranch.
From September 1921 to Dec. 1923 Lucille studied at U.C. Berkeley, majoring in English. She loved reading books but her penchant for personal studies sidetracked her and she ended up not earning a degree. She followed her parents to Los Angeles where Myron got involved in real estate. Lu found work as a stenographer, a UCLA clerk and as a secretary for another real estate broker. In 1928 she married a young oil company executive named Francis Clarke Reyburn. After a year of marriage he died of a ruptured appendix but because his family was wealthy, Lucille was set financially. For a time she lived with her dead husband's family in St. Louis but was soon back in Los Angeles.
In 1929 Lucille went to visit a college friend, Alyce Coleman, on the San Diego location of the movie Flight. Alyce was married to the film's assistant director, C.C. "Buddy" Coleman. Lu and Frank Capra hung out with mutual friends and finally noticed each other after several nights of hanging out as friends.
Frank Capra was hesitant on getting together with Lu. For one thing, he didn't want to suffer another miserable union. Secondly, he was involved with a love affair with married actress Barbara Stanwyck, who was starring in his movie, "Ladies of Leisure." Lu was smitten by Frank but he remained noncommittal. In fact, she wrote him a series of lonely letters to Capra who was away six months to shoot the movie Dirigible in the summer of 1930, one of which hinted that she wanted a home and a baby.
It is said that the film "Forbidden," which Capra wrote was somewhat biographical. The film's central character is a repressed librarian named Lulu Smith - an obvious parallel to Lu Reyburn - who spends her life in a painful affair with a married politician. Capra was not a politician but was famous and he was not married though he considered Stanwyck his wife.
Hollywood scandal sheet reporters regarded Lu as Capra's girl even though he was too busy to attend social events with her. Frank decided to take a long vacation in Europe with friend Al Roscoe and confided in him that he couldn't make up his "mind between these gals." Lu, growing frustrated about Capra's indifference to commitment, saw them off in New York and sent along her photo to take along since he was leaving her behind.
Secretly he was trying to get Stanwyck to leave her alcoholic husband, Frank Fay. Lu found out and fired off an angry telegram to him in which she told Capra how hurt and betrayed she felt. Capra wired her back several times begging for forgiveness but she made him stew. Head games were being played when she finally wired that she was getting married to another man. That's all it took for Capra to offer to marry her as soon as he landed in New York City.
The press reported that Capra "likes actresses and enjoys working with them but when it came to picking a second bride, he chose a home girl."
The two were married in 1932 in New York and spent their honeymoon in the Adirondack Mountains for Lake Placid's 1932 winter Olympics.
Malibu was their home and children came. Lucille gave Frank a daughter and three sons. Their second child, John Capra, born April 24, 1935, died after a tonsillectomy on August 23, 1938. Another of their boys was Frank Capra Jr. who died in 2007. His son was Frank Capra III, also a Hollywood director and assistant director in the 1995 film The American President.
Unlike his first wife, Lu was supportive of the demanding and long hours of her director husband. After all, she loved going to movies - especially the ones he created.
Actress Jean Arthur said of Lu: "She was a person with a most wonderful sense of humor. She was very pretty and very charming and kinda happy, like she was just going to burst out laughing. She always found a joke in something. You felt good when you were around her."
By the time Lucille's dad Myron passed away on Nov. 28, 1952, Capra was pretty much done with Hollywood. It was just six years after "It's A Wonderful Life" was released and was a movie house failure. He had become out of sync with American audiences, people felt. At the outbreak of the Korean War, Frank tried to re-enlist in the Army but was rejected because of his age.
A conservative Republican, Capra retired from films in the 1960s because of changes in the movie industry. Capra felt movie stars were calling the shots and compromising his artistic vision. He also blamed budgetary and scheduling demands that stifled his creativity. In his 1971 autobiography Capra wrote: "The winds of change blew through the dream factories of make-believe, tore at its crinoline tatters.... The hedonists, the homosexuals, the hemophiliac bleeding hearts, the God-haters, the quick-buck artists who substituted shock for talent, all cried: "Shake ‘em! Rattle ‘em! God is dead. Long live pleasure! Nudity? Yea! Wife-swapping? Yea! Liberate the world from prudery. Emancipate our films from morality!".... Kill for thrill - shock! Shock! To hell with the good in man, Dredge up his evil - shock! Shock!"
The Capras lived comfortably for the next two decades in Southern California. It's not known if Lucille ever pursuaded Frank to take her on a trip down nostalgia lane in revisiting the hometown that helped shape her but it's possible they did make it to Ceres.
Lu died on July 1, 1984 of emphysema at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and is buried in the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery in Riverside County.
Joseph McBride, a family friend, told the Associated Press: "There's no question that she was the inspiration for the kind of women Frank had in his movies. Especially the characters such as Jean Arthur's in ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' and the Donna Reed character in ‘It's A Wonderful Life.' He made the best films after they were married."
He added that: "She was the first woman, and the only woman, who had no enemies. Everyone was her friend."
With his beloved wife gone, Capra became a recluse. Frank said of her: "She was fun to be with. She enjoyed the same things I did. She was sunny. Our arguments were very few and very mild."
The following year Frank suffered his first of a series of strokes. The man who gave the world "It's A Wonderful Life" died of a heart attack in his sleep on Sept. 3, 1991 at the age of 94.
He was laid to rest by his wife, a devoted Ceres girl.