The Writer's Almanac for May 18th
Today is the birthday of photographer Mathew Brady, born near Lake George, New York (about 1823). He moved to New York City as a young man and learned how to make photographs using the "daguerreotype" process. He found his niche in portraiture, and took photos of famous people like Edgar Allan Poe, Daniel Webster, and James Fenimore Cooper, eventually publishing them in a book, A Gallery of Illustrious Americans (1850). He realized photography's potential in documenting history and, in 1860, he took a portrait of Abraham Lincoln just before Lincoln's landmark Cooper Union address. Lincoln reportedly said later, "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President."
When the Civil War broke out, Brady risked all his financial success to document it.
Exposure times were still too long to permit photographing battles in action, so he began to take photos of fallen soldiers. He held a showing of these in his New York gallery, with a sign on the door that read "The Dead of Antietam." People were shocked; most of them had never been confronted with the carnage of war before. Brady had gambled everything on the project, confident that the government would want the negatives even if the public didn't, but neither wanted to pay for the disturbing images.
Finally, in 1875, through the efforts of friends in high places, Congress paid him $25,000 for the war archive. The amount didn't even cover his debts, and he died penniless.
Today is the birthday of filmmaker Frank Capra, born in Bisaquino, Sicily (1897). He got his first movie studio job in 1921, and for seven years, he learned the business inside and out. He devised gags for silent comedians, wrote title cards, handled props, and worked as a film editor. He began directing: first short subjects, and, later, comedy features. In 1928, he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. It was a relatively small studio, and they gave him a lot of creative freedom. Capra hit the big time himself in 1934 with It Happened One Night, which won all five major Academy Awards.
By the late 1930s, he had found his storytelling rhythm: an idealistic, even naïve, Average Joe runs up against a corrupt system, and prevails with the help of his pluck, determination, and the support of the people who love him. Most of Capra's best-known movies—like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)—all followed the same basic, optimistic formula, which Capra himself jokingly called "Capra-corn."
Capra enlisted in the Army just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the Signal Corps, and directed a series of documentaries called Why We Fight, designed to boost support for the war effort. Capra was the perfect man to sell America, because he was living the American dream. But when he returned after the war, America had changed. It wasn't the same Depression-riddled country starved for sentimental stories about the triumph of common people. His first post-war film, It's a Wonderful Life(1946) was a huge box-office disappointment and didn't even come close to breaking even; it was Capra's last big film. The tenor of Hollywood changed after the war, and his sentimental movies fell out of favor.
Capra himself grew very bitter about the changes he saw in his industry. But by the mid-1970s, TV stations began showing It's a Wonderful Life around Christmastime, and over the years it has become a traditional part of the holiday season for many Americans. The American Film Institute recently named it the most inspirational motion picture of all time.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®