IT WAS FRANK Capra's romantic regard for the common man that gave him his distinction, set him apart from other movie directors.
Capra, who died yesterday at the age of 94 in California, believed in the individual citizen. Many of his movies were about the little man who stood up against the establishment and blew it away with heart and logic.
He didn't begin that way. When he entered the world of film, he worked with the Mack Sennett company where he directed his first feature, one starring comic Harry Langdon. He and Langdon did another, then they fell out, and Capra went to work with Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures.
They fought a lot, but together they gave the world some of the best films ever made. Capra did a number of films at Columbia, including ''Platinum Blonde,'' starring Loretta Young and Jean Harlow.
It was in 1934, however, that the Capra era really began. That was the year he did a little comedy called ''It Happened One Night.'' The stars were Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and neither was happy about doing the film. The leading female role had first been offered to Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett.
They refused and lived to regret it. Both Colbert and Gable
received Oscars for their work in the film, one that won an Oscar for best movie of the year and earned Capra the first of three Oscars for best director. It may be one of the best of any year. ''It Happened One Night'' is frequently included on all-time 10-best lists. It was one of the first of the light comedies that were to become a Hollywood mainstay during those years.
The Capra reign continued for several years. ''Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,'' ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' and ''Lost Horizon'' were not only box office winners, they were good films, films that have stood the test of time. Watch them today and they continue to intrigue.
In 1941, Capra ended his association with Cohn, and that may have been a mistake. He did some good films for other studios, ''Meet John Doe'' and ''Arsenic and Old Lace'' among them, but when Capra left Cohn, the Capra star began to descend. Cohn, for all his irascibility, knew how to handle the Capra movie. He knew how to market the ''Capracorn.''
The war took Capra away from Hollywood. He joined the Army and produced ''Why We Fight,'' a highly regarded series of training films for which Capra was once more cited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
After the war, Capra did ''It's a Wonderful Life'' (1947) another common-man film in which James Stewart was the young man who was planning suicide but, before he could accomplish that deed, was given the opportunity of seeing what life would have been without him, had he not been born.
It wasn't that well received when it bowed, but since that time, like ''The Wizard of Oz,'' ''It's a Wonderful Life'' has become a favorite that is repeatedly shown on television, es
pecially at Christmas.
Capra did a few more films, some with Bing Crosby (''Riding High,'' ''Here Comes the Groom''), but none rekindled the kind of respect the man had known in the '30s. His last feature was the 1961 ''Pocketful of Miracles,'' a remake of a film he had done 30 years before as ''Lady for a Day.''
He was unhappy with the movie, putting part of the blame on one of the stars, Glenn Ford, who is said to have insisted that his girlfriend at the time, Hope Lange, be included in the movie.
When it was finished, Capra said he was through, that he would never make another film. Recently, director Arthur Hiller (''Love Story,'' ''Married to It'') said that Capra, one of the truly great movie directors, later decided to return to work but had no success. ''He was thought to have been too old,'' said Hiller. ''The studios thought he had had it.''
Maybe so. Maybe he had had it, but when he did have it, no one had it as big as he did. When he was king, his title was undeniable, and if he didn't reign that long, his films have.
His movies, those he did in the '30s, are treasures to the Capra fan, the Capra scholar who hunts them down on the tube. When he finds one, he has found something special, something done by the son of a Sicilian immigrant, a young man who arrived in this country, worked his way through the California Institute of Technology (where he won a degree in chemical engineering), taught a bit, then entered the world of filmmaking, a world that would be touched by him forever.
Capra appeared in Baltimore 10 years ago as a guest of the Baltimore Film Forum. He met members of the press at a party at a private home. He was 84, and one reporter asked him what had happened to his ''Lady for a Day.''
Capra answered that he had the only existing print. The reporter suggested the esteemed director lend it to the American Film Institute.
Capra asked why. The reporter said that the Institute would make it available to the people.
''To hell with the people,'' said Capra, who, by then, may have had enough of the common man.
Capra is survived by two sons, Frank Jr. and Tom, the executive producer of NBC's ''Today'' show, a daughter, Lucille, and 10 grandchildren.