Frank Capra experienced one of the most precipitous declines in Hollywood history during the '50s and
'60s. By the time he retired, Capra seemed hopelessly out of step with his colleagues. GoreVidal
remembered discussing a film treatment for The Best Man with Capra in 1961: "he wanted the
candidate to dress up as Abraham Lincoln reciting the Gettysburg Address, and I thought, "Oh Jesus." I
said, "Frank, this is a different era, different politics."(1) In the '70s and '80s, however, Americans
returned to Capra. The 'Capra revival' began with college film festivals and talk show promotions for
Capra's autobiography, and it continued through Reagan's terms in the White House. |
The students' enthusiasm for Capra during the '70s was surprising given his public declaration that the students of that time were "hue-and-criers," sons and daughters of "hardworking stiffs that came home too tired to shout or demonstrate in streets...the old reliables who paid their bills and taxes...and prayed they'd have enough left over to keep their kids in college, despite their knowing that some were pot-smoking, parasitic parent-haters."(2) Nevertheless, Richard Glatzer believed that an anti-materialistic sentiment in Capra's films appealed to the students. Capra offered students "a way of looking at middle-class life which does not make it seem banal, sterile, and purposeless, and which invests it with vitality and style."(3) During the conservative Reagan years, It's a Wonderful Life came back into vogue. Critic James Wolcott observed in 1986 that it was the perfect film for the Reagan era because it paid tribute to old- fashioned values "that everyone knows have eroded."(4)
The continued popularity of Capra's films and the enduring appeal of the mythic American hero go hand- in-hand: both sustain Americans' imaginative collective consciousness even if the mythic hero's traditional qualities make him an anachronism in the modern world. What follows is a list, by no means complete, of recent "Capraesque" manifestations of the American hero.
The Hero in Political Life: Political candidates continue to cast themselves in the mold of Jefferson Smith. They vow to their hometown constituents that they are heading off to Congress to "clear out corruption" and to remind entrenched government officials of the existence of an America "beyond the Beltway." The traditional qualities of the American hero still appeal to voters, and presidential candidates try to fit the bill. If asked, most American citizens would probably characterize Ross Perot as folksy and plain-speaking before they would identify him as a millionaire. Clinton's campaign film reminded Americans he was the "man from a place called Hope" who struggled to rise from his poor, single-parent- family origins; much less was heard about Clinton the Rhodes Scholar or Clinton the affluent lawyer. Clinton's 1996 opponent Bob Dole hearkened back to his small-town roots in 'America's Heartland.'
In film, recent productions like 1993's Dave and 1992's The Distinguished Gentleman resurrect Jefferson Smith. Dave is the story of an average guy look-alike who stands in for the President when the chief executive is secretly taken ill. Dave's warmhearted contact with the American citizens and his efforts at government reform endeared him to audiences and critiqued the present system. Thomas Jefferson Johnson, the main character of The Distinguished Gentleman, is a con artist who winds up in Congress and develops a conscience. Newsweek made the Capra connection explicit when it titled its review "Mr. Johnson Goes to Washington."
Television examples of small-town heroes fighting political corruption abound. Two that spring to mind are "The Dukes of Hazzard," an action series about Georgia residents Bo and Luke Duke, two "good ol' boys...fightin' the system like a two modern-day Robin Hood." The Duke boys are engaged in continuous battle with Jefferson Davis "Boss" Hogg, the local tyrant, and his law enforcement henchmen. "Good Times" isn't set in smalll-town, rural America, but matriarch Florida Evans fights the corrupt Alderman Davis on behalf of her family and neighbors.
The Process of Hero-Making: The heirs of Meet John Doe include 1976's Network and 1992's Hero. Peter Finch plays Network lead Howard Beale, a newscaster who, upon learning he is going to be fired after a corporate takeover, threatens to commit suicide on the air. Cynical media executive Diana Christiansen exploits Beale's message, telling her boss that Beale is "articulating popular rage" and that he can become a "magnificent, messianic figure inveighing against the hypocrisies of our time." Beale becomes a hero to the American public and is given his own network show. Communications Corporation of America president Arthur Jensen manipulates Beale so that he will become a spokesman for global capitalism. Jensen tells Beale, "There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon." Massive corporations and mass media threaten the individual. An exasperated Beale tells the public, "this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people...because this company is now in the hands of CCA, there's a new chairman of the board...and when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth?" Beale's exhortation is ironic since he delivers it through the medium he critiques; like John Doe, he has no identity apart from the evil he is fighting.
Redford and Fonda as cowboy and reporter in The Electric Horseman
Redford directed The Milagro Beanfield War, a 1988 film about the efforts of a poor New Mexico Hispanic community to stop developers from turning their town into a golf resort. Redford directed an ensemble cast of 16 key characters instead of relying on an individual hero. This, plus the regular intervention of angels, signals the underlying doubt that developers can be stopped by a traditional American hero.
Strong, female anti-corporate crusaders can be viewed in any number of made-for-TV productions on the Lifetime Television Network. They are treated somewhat more extensively in two feature films, Silkwood and Norma Rae. 1983's Silkwood is based on the story of Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoma nuclear plant worker who blew the whistle on her bosses and died under mysterious circumstances. Norma Rae is a widow, mother, and millworker in Alabama who decides to protest the intolerable working conditions at the Henley factory. She does this with the help of a New York labor organizer named Reuben. Reuben and Norma Rae's collaboration is a breach of the traditional backwoods-big city heroic dichotomy and suggests the inadequacy of the heroic model to triumph against large corporations.
The East vs. West, small town vs. big town dichotomy is preserved and exalted in television shows like Boston Common and The Andy Griffith Show. Boston Common's hero, Boyd Pritchett, is a folksy transplant from Appalachia who regularly puts the professors at Randall Harrington College in their place. The guitar-strumming, cracker-barrel Andy Griffith must regularly prove to big-city visitors that Mayberry is the equal of its larger sisters; in one episode, Andy bets the State Troopers who have disparaged his law enforcement methods that he can catch the criminals which have eluded the Troopers. Andy is successful and Mayberry is vindicated.
Reader's Digest is the motherlode of traditional American heroism. In its regular features "Heroes for Today" and "Drama in Real Life" the Digest extols the bravery of ordinary citizens who are unexpectedly called upon to be heroes. The magazine is also a preserve for the Norman Rockwell, small- town picture of American life. As previously mentioned, this ideal held particular appeal during the 1980s. Andrew Britton's 1988 essay "Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment" describes Americans' efforts to forget the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate and to return to "a precrisis, reactionary, patriarchal world of old, traditional values" for "a populace who wants to be constructed as mock children" out of an "urge to evade responsibility."(5) Field of Dreams, released in 1989, strongly evokes this sense of a longing for a mythic, rural past. Its star Kevin Costner and the critics said the film was a baseball version of It's a Wonderful Life. Like George Bailey, Costner's character misses his father, is threatened with financial ruin, and experiences profound self-doubt; in both films, the screenwriters and directors resort to supernatural intervention to resolve the main characters' crises.
The Innocence of the Hero: a curious phenomenon in recent years has been Hollywood's identification of mental impairment with moral innocence or superiority. Audiences watching Slingblade forgave Carl, a mentally impaired inmate in a psychiatric facility, for murdering his mother after they learned the circumstances of Carl's childhood and saw that Carl, when returned to the community, stood up against local bullies to protect women and children. Dustin Hoffman in Rainman and the character Corky in T.V.'s Life Goes On are two other examples. Most noteworthy is the phenomenal popularity of Forrest Gump. Gump receives the Congressional Medal of Honor, goes to the Olympics, starts a cultlike jogging craze, and is feted at the White House three times. His folksy maxims like "Stupid Is As Stupid Does" and "Life is Like a Box of Chocolates" became cultural catch phrases. Gump is, in many ways, the ultimate American fantasy--a fantasy of eternal moral innocence in which the plainspeaking, small-town hero can dramatically affect American history. The fantasy's reliance on the mental impairment of the hero (to ensure his innocence) and endless serendipity (to alter history) must make us question the future of this heroic type; audience reaction should assure us should assure us of its persistence, no matter how fantastic.
1 qtd. in Joseph McBride, _Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success_, 642. 2 Frank Capra, _The Name Above the Title_, 468. 3 Richard Glatzer and John Raeburn, eds., _Frank Capra: The Man and His Films_, xii. 4 qtd. in McBride, 522. 5 qtd. in Wes Gehring, _Populism and the Capra Legacy_, 38.