Capra Films in the 1930s: An Introduction | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


The films Frank Capra made for Columbia during the '30s received thirty- five Academy Award nominations and won eight Academy Awards, two for Best Picture and three for Best Director. It Happened One Night won five Academy Awards, a feat which wasn't equaled for another forty- one years.

The critical and commercial success of these films led John Cassavetes to remark, "Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra."(1) Charles Maland argued that Capra's popularity during the Depression was no accident; the public responded to "his democratic vision" in films which were also "psychic escapes, safety valves."(2) Capra felt the Depression caused him to take a "hard look at life from the eye level of the hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses...It was not the same rosy life we saw--and copied--in each other's Hollywood movies." He felt "the world was hungry for a lift...That was my needed job: lift the human spirit."(3) Other artists felt a similar need to revitalize American cultural mythology. Economic breakdown, fascism, and communism threatened American ideals, particularly the "virtue of deferred gratitude and the assurance that hard work and perseverance would bring success." Fewer than half of the unemployed during the early '30s still believed in "rugged individualism" and the "formula of work, save, and success."(4)

Hollywood stood to gain long-sought prestige through its role as cultural mythmaker. Individual studios and directors benefitted as well. In his autobiography, Capra asked, "Was there some film "hay" to be made out of the Depression? Of course--the "sob" angle: wealth versus "ideals"; Big Money against little people. Opportunistic as Hearst reporters, Riskin and I concocted" the storyline for American Madness.(5)

Walter Huston addresses the crowd during a run on his bank in American Madness
Eighty million people went to the movies each week during the early years of the Depression, despite ticket prices ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. When the people went to see Frank Capra movies, they saw what one critic has since called "the essence of Depression America: the run on the bank in American Madness, the hitchhiking couple in It Happened One Night who meet a road thief, and the long, long line of unemployed men in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."(6) But how willing was Capra to acknowledge the root causes of the Depression?

Morris Dickstein argued that Capra's films don't demonstrate any awareness of the Depression until two-thirds of the way through Mr. Deeds Goes to Town when a hungry farmer lambasts Deeds for his wealth; Dickstein compared Deeds to It Happened One Night, in which the Depression was "scarcely evident."(7) Dickstein ignored American Madness, a film about bank failure, in order to make that claim, but even American Madness stops short of a full exploration of the country's ills. Gary Edgerton identified Capra's film America as a country whose

"problems are not overspending, borrowing on credit, and a concentration of wealth which eventually leads to an abnormal system and a bottomless stock market. For Capra, America's problems are crooked businessmen and political opportunists who ultimately act un-American and wreck the system."(8)

Capra possessed an essentially conservative view. In You Can't Take It With You, Grandpa Vanderhof's sentiments echo Capra's: "Communism-- Fascism--voodooism--everybody's got an "ism" these days...John Paul Jones. Patrick Henry. Samuel Adams. Washington. Jefferson. Monroe. Lincoln. Grant. Lee. Edison. Mark Twain. When things got tough with those boys they didn't run around looking for "isms.""(9) Throughout the '30s, Capra remained skeptical of organized mass movements and fundamental change. Graham Greene dubbed Capra a

"muddled and sentimental idealist who feels--vaguely-- that something is wrong with the system. Mr. Deeds started distributing his money, and the hero of Lost Horizon settled down in a Tibetan monastery--equipped with all the luxury devices of the best American hotels--and Grandpa Vanderhof persuades, in this new picture, the Wall Street magnate who has made the coup of his throw everything away and play the harmonica. This presumably means a crash in Wall Street and the ruin of thousands of small investors, but it is useless trying to analyse the idea behind Capra films: there is no idea that you'd notice, only a sense of dissatisfaction, an urge to escape."(10)

Grandpa Vanderbilt chastises Kirby, the Wall Street tycoon, in You Can't Take It With You
Charles Maland argued that Capra's Depression films "celebrate the common life of Americans and belittle the life of leisure" for conservative ends: "such a much more therapeutic than radical. It makes us happy that we're poor and serene rather than rich and alienated." Thus, according to Maland, "the country emerged without significant redistribution of wealth and power in part because images like Capra's portrayals of America helped recreate faith in the system."(11) Capra's use of American heroes and American mythology to shore up existing structures was, however, nothing new or cynical; Sacvan Bercovitch reminded readers of The American Jeremiad that the fusion of national and sacred identity precluded fundamental social change, which would have implied a bankrupt religious provision.

Because Capra chose to avoid any extended treatment of the working-class movements of the '30s, the solutions he offered seem particularly implausible. In his review of a later film, Meet John Doe, critic Herbert Biberman took Capra to task for his apolitical vision:

You ask that people give their neighbors odd jobs to eliminate relief. You suggest that 10,000,000 unemployed accept permanent status as handymen, supported by airplane workers who, even after winning the Vultee strike (for example), make the munificent wage of twenty-five dollars a week. This private charity, you tell us, holds a more creative future for millions of Americans than does the WPA. Where is there a factual basis for such a theory in the whole of American history? Was the Revolutionary War a manifestation of organized neighborliness of an unpolitical character?...Will "unpolitical neighborliness" prevent the eight- hour day from becoming the twelve-hour day?...Do you believe politics should be left to the mugs? The mugs, from Hamilton to Hitler, have tried to spread such a belief."(12)

In Capra's '30s films, the hero depends upon the masses, but the masses, stripped of any political savvy, "rarely act on their own initiative; they often panic in the hero's hour of need."(13) Frank Stricker asked, "Were these the same "people" who won the sit down strikes, were murdered at Republic Steel, and managed to oust anti-labor Republican administrations in Pennsylvania steel towns?"(14) According to Stricker, the supernatural ending of It's a Wonderful Life is symptomatic of Capra's avoidance of 'real' opportunities for change. The film revived the themes of American Madness, but, as Stricker notes, "without government regulation or union mutualism, there was nothing else but memory. The saving angel carries something reality can no longer accomodate--confidence that the lonely individual with help from the masses can win the day."(15)

Jimmy Stewart as the frustrated small-town hero in It's a Wonderful Life
Like others in the '30s and '40s, Capra was worried that reliance on government and mass movements threatened to swallow the idea of individual self-reliance. A survey of college males during the period revealed that most wanted to work for a giant company rather than start their own business; sociologists coined the term "organization man" to describe this worker. Capra called his films after Deeds "the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled to an ort by massiveness--mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity."(16) Although the small town was becoming an anachronism, and the mythic small-town hero's ability to navigate urban mass culture was increasingly suspect, Capra continued to rely on his formula. The breakdown of the American heroic formula which began earlier in Capra's career became completely evident in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. In these films, the qualities associated with the typical American hero prove inadequate to surmount the difficulties posed by an increasingly institutionalized, modern society. The hero needs the people more than ever, but his relationship to them is so completely mediated by an assortment of technologies and institutions that he can't reach them effectively. And because Capra, like Emerson, remained doubtful of the people's ability to act without the inspiration of the hero, they don't come to his rescue.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Thomas Jefferson, an often-invoked figure in Capra films, believed the Tree of Liberty needed periodic refreshment from the blood of tyrants: government's potential abuse of power was one of Jefferson's central political preoccupations. It is also at the heart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The movie was based on an out of print book by Lewis Foster, The Gentleman From Montana. Harry Cohn had attempted a previous production based on Foster's story, but the Production Code Administration squelched what it called an "unflattering portrayal of democracy."(17) Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman had more luck initiating the project a few years later.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington opens with the death of a Montana senator. The remaining senator, Joseph Paine, is working with a crooked political machine boss on a shady public improvement project, the Willet Creek Dam, in his home state; consequently, they pressure the Governor, who is also controlled by political boss James Taylor, to appoint a replacement senator who won't be too nosy or savvy and thus won't blow the whistle on them.

The Governor, pulled in different directions by Taylor and the public, names Jefferson Smith the new senator. Smith is the leader of the Boy Rangers, a Montana organization similar to the Boy Scouts. The Governor convinces Taylor and Paine that Smith is such an innocent he'll never catch on to their graft.

Smith reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial
Once in Washington, Smith gives his political handlers the slip so he can visit all the great American monuments. Eventually he makes his way back to his Senate office, where he meets his hardboiled secretary Clarissa Saunders. Saunders acquaints him with the ways of the Senate and promises Paine that she'll keep him away from anything political.

Smith decides to introduce a bill for the organization of a national boy's camp. With Saunders's help, he drafts legislation for a camp to be located on land adjacent to Willet Creek. When Paine learns the camp's location, he tries to persuade Smith to give up the idea. Eventually, Taylor comes to town and attempts to bribe Smith; bribes turn to threats and Smith's persistence gets him framed in a trumped-up scandal. The disillusioned Smith prepares to flee town but is persuaded to stay by Saunders, who has rediscovered her ideals. With her help, Smith captures the Senate's attention in a filibuster. He is unable, however, to communicate with his constituents, as Taylor controls the press in his home state. Smith reminds Paine of his days as a fighter for "lost causes;" he reminds Paine of the elder Senator's friendship with Smith's father, who gave his life for a lost cause. Paine, in anguish, tries to commit suicide and confesses his wrongdoing and Smith's innocence on the Senate floor.

When they went to Washington to film this drama, Capra, Buchman, and the crew took in the sights on a tour bus. In his autobiography, Capra recalls seeing the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the White House, "our trinity of liberty..the godhead of freedom on earth," also "the memorials to our great Presidents Washington and Lincoln." Capra concluded the sights were "certain to unglue the freshman Senator from Montana, just as they did this little old country boy from California."(18) During the filming of Smith, Capra attended a White House press conference. After listening to FDR answer the questions of reporters, Capra said he panicked: with all the grave problems the government faced, was it right to make a film criticizing it? He hopped in a cab and rode to the Lincoln Memorial, shrine to "another lanky hayseed who came to Washington...the fountainhead of moral courage." While there, he saw a child reading Lincoln's speeches to an elderly man, and Capra thought, "We must make the film, if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa." Capra

"left the Lincoln Memorial with this growing conviction about our film: the more uncertain are the people of the world...the more they need a ringing statement of America's democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter's simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor...The panic was over. It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom's bell."(19)

Capra cast Jefferson Smith in the mold of the quintessential American hero. Smith, like other Capra heroes, does not have an appetite for power. At the banquet celebrating his appointment to the Senate, Smith confesses, "I can't help feeling that there's been a big mistake somehow." Turning to Paine, he says, "I don't think I'm gonna be much help to ya down there in Washington, Senator. I'll do my best."

Smith is an unrefined, unaristocratic man. Wes Gehring commented that Jefferson Smith reminded him of Seba Smith's long-legged, homespun character Jack Downing. Downing was the first cracker-barrel Yankee; much of his material recounted his trips to Washington to advise Andrew Jackson. Smith also calls to mind Davy Crockett, who taught himself to read and write and became a Colonel in the militia before his term as a Congressman in Washington. During his campaign, Crockett boasted that his opponent's stump speeches were drowned out by crickets and bullfrogs sounding out "Crockett"; he further delighted voters by serving liquor to the crowd.

The fledgling Senator demonstrates bird calls for the press
Like Ben Franklin, who arrived at European palaces sporting a fur cap, Smith arrives in Washington toting a crate of pigeons. He explains that they are trained to fly back to his home in Montana. His political handlers snicker: "suppose there's a storm, and all the lines are down. How you gonna get messages back to Maw?" His practical, outdoorsy intelligence, though not appreciated by these handlers, earns him the respect of the children in Montana, who call him "the biggest expert we got in wild game, animals, and rocks." The children remind their parents about the forest fire that "Jeff put out himself," which makes him the "greatest hero we ever had." Cynical Washington newspaper reporters, however, are less impressed by Smith's abilities. At his first press conference, reporters persuade him to demonstrate bird calls; the reporters pair photographs of the bird calls with ridiculous captions to humiliate the fledgling Senator.

Smith, unable to 'hold onto his hat' in the presence of Susan Paine
The contrast between Smith's wholesome, plain Western upbring and East coast pretension is clear in his conversations with Susan Paine, the Senator's beautiful daughter. In Susan's presence he repeatedly drops his hat, stutters, and knocks over furniture as he regales her with stories about his pigeons. After his departure, the Senator dryly observes that Susan has "made another conquest"; she rolls her eyes and replies, "Not old Honest Abe!"

The villain Taylor dismisses Smith as a "yokel" whom he is going to "smash." In Taylor's person, wealth is clearly identified with corruption: Taylor walks into a party, holds up a diamond bracelet, and exclaims, "Which one of you girls wants this?" Capra intends that we prefer Smith's brand of plain living and common sense. Saunders tells a dispirited Smith, "All the good that ever came into the world came from fools with didn't just have faith in Paine, or any other living man--you had plain, everyday, decent, common rightness, and this country could use some of that." During his filibuster, Smith echoes Saunders when he tells the Senators, "I wouldn't give two cents for all your fancy rules if they didn't have behind them a little plain, ordinary kindness." After the press makes him look like a buffoon, Smith angrily rebukes them, "If you thought as much about being honest as you do about being smart..." In Smith's plea for a boy's camp to "get the poor kids off the streets, out of the cities" the superiority of his way of life is made evident.

Smith, like other American heroes, endures failure. The belittling newspaper accounts of his birdcalls are minor compared to the humiliation Smith experiences when he is framed by Taylor and Paine, called before an investigation committee, and nearly expelled from the Senate. Smith packs his bags and stops at the Lincoln Memorial before he heads out of town. His earlier trip to the Memorial fortified and inspired him, but this time Smith buries his head in his hands and cries.

Smith chastises Paine during his Senate filibuster
Smith answers the American experience of 'fatherlessness' with a call back to national origins in the persons of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and his own father. Paine, Saunders, and the entire U.S. Senate are rootless, 'fatherless', and cynical at the beginning of the film. When Paine relishes the thought of "the young patriot...turned loose in our nation's capital," his amusement alludes to the absence of idealism in Washington. Donald Willis argued that Paine is, in some sense, the most interesting and complex character in the film, for "as Paine says at one point, Smith is Paine twenty years ago. This sense of Smith as Paine's conscience is strong." For Joseph McBride, Paine represented "the catastrophe of success" which befell Capra in his later years.(20) Initially, Saunders is jaded as well. She tells Paine, "When I came here, my eyes were big blue question marks--now they're big green dollar signs." She retains the vocabulary of cultural myth, but uses it only sarcastically. When no one is able to locate Smith during his sightseeing tour of D.C., she muses, "Daniel Boone's lost, lost in the wilds of Washington." She assures Senator Paine that she's keep an eye out for him: "I'll hang a light in the belfry. One if by land, two if by sea." The Senators are similarly unimpressed with his patriotic gestures. While Smith reads from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution during his filibuster, the Senators read the paper and nap.

Smith's first name ties him to the Founding Fathers. In the banquet scene prior to Smith's departure from Montana, Capra frames Smith's disciples, the Boy Rangers, between portraits of Washington and Lincoln hanging in the background. Smith's embodiment of pure American virtues is completed when he makes his ritual pilgrimage to the shrines of American culture: in a montage sequence, Smith appears at the Supreme Court, the White House, the Capitol Rotunda, the National Archives, the Washington Monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery, and finally the Lincoln Memorial, where Capra slows the pace for a visual exchange between Smith and the gigantic statue of a seated Lincoln.

"That's what's got to be in it--the Capitol Dome."
Like Cotton Mather, Jefferson Smith wants younger generations to understand and revere their community's origin. When Saunders asks Smith what he wants to include in his bill for a national boy's camp, Smith gestures out the window of his office to the Capitol: "that's what's got to be in it--the Capitol Dome. I want to make that come to life for every boy in this land...boys forget what their country means when they're just reading 'the land of the free' in history books. When they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every day of their lives and say, "I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. And my children will." Smith's speech affects Saunders immediately. Her 'fatherlessness' and cynicism are dissolved in a soft- focus extreme close-up. Her dewy-eyed transfiguration is complete when, after his reverie about his home state, Smith asks, "Where'd you come from, Miss Saunders?"

Smith affects Paine in a similar fashion at the end of the movie. He reminds Paine of Paine's earlier work with Clayton Smith, Jeff's father, evoking a time when Paine lived by "one plain simple rule: love thy neighbor. I loved you for it, just as my father did." He reminds Paine that some of the most worthy causes are lost causes, causes you even die for, "just like a man we both knew." Smith's call back to 'the father' causes Paine to confess, "Every word that boy said is true! ...I'm not fit for any place of honor."

Washington Times-Herald, October 16, 1939
In Capra's account of the film's reception, he became a hero similarly engaged in calling the nation back to its original, pure sense of purpose. He claimed that when the film premiered at Constitution Hall on October 16, 1939, one-third of the audience left before the film's conclusion, a figure disputed by McBride. Congressmen fumed at the portrayal of the Senate, and reporters disliked the fact that Diz, one of the reporters in the movie, was a drunk loafer. Capra commented that reporters could "make or break Senators, they could influence elections, they could expose graft in high places--but let Hollywood dare to slight them, and it would feel the full fury of their majestic rancor." The Senators, according to Capra, were "very touchy about any commoner poking his nose into their uppity bailiwick."(21) Congress responded to the film by pushing the Neely Bill through the House Committee on Interstate Commerce. The bill, a piece of antitrust legislation aimed at Hollywood studios, quickly passed the Senate. Joseph Kennedy, serving as America's Ambassador in England, wrote Harry Cohn a letter offering to buy all the prints of the film, which he considered a dangerously unflattering picture of American democracy. Capra furiously told Cohn, "I'll burn your goddamn place down if you sell this picture to anybody!" Capra felt he was "all alone with these guys, trying to fight, being attacked by the big shots."(22) The reviews of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continued the debate about the film's representation of the U.S. government.

Capra insisted on the film's timeliness and public benefit for the same reason Kennedy wanted to suppress it: the growing threat of fascism. This is explicitly stated in the film by radio newsman H.V Kattenborn in a cameo appearance during Smith's filibuster. Kattenborn tells his radio audience that "German and Italian diplomats" attended the filibuster to see "democracy in action." Yet how well was the hero able to persuade these diplomats--or his fellow Senators, or movie audiences--that democracy was alive and well and in capable hands?

The ambiguous ending of Smith can be attributed to the inadequacy of Smith's quintessentially American heroic qualities to meet the challenges posed by an increasingly institutionalized, national and international mass culture. The anti-intellectualism typically prized in the American hero handicaps Smith as the film progresses. After Smith chastises the reporters who made him look foolish in the papers, they ask him, "What do you know about laws or making laws or what the people need?" Smith confesses, "I don't pretend to know." He subsequently tells Paine he wants to start drafting and studying bills. Paine responds that the bills are "put together by legal minds, after long study...why, I can't understand half of them myself." When Smith later confronts Paine about the Willet Creek dam project, Paine questions Smith's ability to understand the legislation: "Jeff, you're fighting windmills. You're trying to understand in moments what it took two years to build." Smith is woefully unprepared to do battle with Paine and Taylor; native intelligence and common sense don't help him navigate the Senate floor. Donald Willis observed that Smith's "involvement with U.S. history is in the past. He knows surprisingly little about the present, about the workings of the Senate: too little from someone who's that involved in our history."(23) Smith is utterly dependent on Saunders's knowledge of Congressional protocol to get his bill introduced, to gain the Senate floor and filibuster, to call the Senators back after they walk out, and to avoid losing the floor by adjournment. The children in this movie are better equipped than Jefferson Smith for Congressional office. When the Governor frets early in the film about naming a replacement for the deceased Sam Foley, his school-age children push Jefferson Smith, and they do so pragmatically: "Always lookin' for votes, aren'tcha? Well here's 50,000 kids with two folks apiece and they vote." When the kids ask their father about James Taylor's choice for a replacement, the Governor irritably snaps, "What about Taylor?" His son replies, "Well, he's still runnin' the show, ain't he?"

Due to his lack of knowledge, Smith becomes infantile. Taylor contemptuously dismisses him as a "drooling infant"; Saunders feels like he is "toddling off to school for the first time"; and Paine counsels, "You've been living in a boy's world, Jeff, and for heaven's sakes, stay there. This is a man's world, Jeff, a brutal world, and you have no place in it." Smith acknowledges the truth of Paine's words when he tells Saunders later that he is in "a whole new world...what are you going to believe in?" He clearly feels ill-equipped to tackle the Senate's problems when he apologizes to the Senators: "I know I'm being disrespectful to this honorable body...a guy like me should never be allowed to get in here in the first place." His apology is alarming given that it comes at the end of the film, when we would expect that his heroic qualities would have enabled him to defeat his adversaries and earn the respect of the well- educated, refined Senators.

Even if his heroic qualities do not serve him well, we might expect the hero to triumph in the end anyway through the aid of the public he represents. Charles Maland claimed that Capra's average citizens "publicly support the hero and, implicitly, his values. With the support of...the crowd, the Capra hero emerges at the end vindicated."(24) However, there is considerable doubt in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington about the reliability of this formula. Paine counsels Smith, "You can't rely on people voting--half the time they don't vote." When Smith is framed by Paine and Taylor, he pleads with the other Senators to adjourn for one week before voting on his expulsion so that he can return to Montana and present his case to his constituents; he believes that after hearing him, the citizens will rally and kick Taylor out of the state. When the Senators defeat his motion to adjourn, Smith concludes that he will have to "speak to the people of my state from this floor. And wild horses aren't going to drag me away until those people hear all I've got to say."

Smith reads telegrams deminding his expulsion from the Senate
The people never hear Smith, however, since Taylor controls the media in Montana. Taylor instructs his henchmen to "get the hoi polloi excited. Have them send letters, wires, anything you like." Taylor relies on the people's ability to be manipulated. Near the end of the film, Paine shows Smith thousands of telegrams from Montana citizens who believed Taylor's phony news reports and who call for Smith's resignation.

The people's ability to be manipulated is augmented by a growing institutionalization which separates the hero from direct contact with the public. This institutionalization of American life is evident in the opening frames of Capra's film. First, we hear a radio announcement announcing, "Senator Sam Foley, Dead"; Capra follows this with a series of shots in which the news is relayed by telephone through a political institutional hierarchy--Paine calls the Governor, the Governor calls Taylor. All communication in the opening sequence is mediated by technology in radio and telephone. Capra underscores the pervasiveness and scale of the political machine-institution by focusing exclusively on several backroom meetings and strategy sessions for the first ten minutes of the film before we ever get a glimpse of Jefferson Smith. The individual hero's ability to conquer large-scale, institutional evils is foreshadowed in Smith and Paine's conversation about Clayton Smith's murder: "he and his little four page paper against that mining syndicate...I suppose when a fella bucks up against a big organization like man can't get very far, can he?" Paine answers, "No."

Senate protocol is another institutional obstacle and mediator of the hero's interaction with the public. Smith, in an attempt to see Paine in his office, is rebuffed by a secretary who lies that Paine has left town; Smith's own office is filled with citizens waiting to talk to him. Saunders steers him past the crowd, dismissing them as "press, office seekers, cranks, get-my-son-into-West-Point-or-I'll..." Senate protocol literally silences Smith at various points through the film. After a fellow Senator brandishes a newspaper containing the embarrassing birdcall photographs, Smith protests but is silenced by the Vice President, who informs him that he has "no voice until the oath of office has been administered." The day the Willet Creek Dam bill is to be discussed, the Vice President begins the session by reminding Senators that they will only be allowed to speak one time, for a period of five minutes. The Vice President recognizes Smith, but Smith loses the floor when he ignorantly yields to Paine. After Paine implicates Smith in graft and demands an investigation, Smith attempts to defend himself but is drowned out by boos from the gallery. At the committee hearing, Smith is the last person called to speak; in frustration, he walks out of the room without saying a word. When Saunders persuades him to come back to the Senate chamber and filibuster, Smith is careful not to repeat his mistakes but he still must struggle to be heard. When he tries to be recognized by the Vice President, Saunders yells from the gallery, "Let him speak!" The Vice President sterny reminds the public that "they are our guests" and silences them. After Capra makes two dramatic, rapid cuts between Smith and another Senator, the Vice President recognizes Smith, who declares, "I tried to say [a few things] once before and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. But...I'm not going to leave this body until I get them said." Paine attempts to wrest control from Smith, who repeatedly asks, "Mr. President, have I the floor?" Paine makes that question irrelevant when he leads the other Senators in a walkout from the Senate Chamber.

Taylor in his most characteristic posture--bending over his political inferiors, here Jeff Smith, in a spirit of intimidation.
Taylor's political machine silences Smith even more effectively than the Senators do. The more experienced politicians recognize that their connection to the public has always been mediated by Taylor; he reminds Paine, "I picked you up from a fly-specked hole in the wall and blew you up to look like a Senator." Paine is completely absorbed in institutional structures. Capra makes this point visually in Paine's office, the walls of which are entirely covered by framed certificates, photographs, and memorabilia. Paine's existence is so scripted that when Smith pays him a compliment at a banquet, Taylor must direct Paine to "get up, take a bow." Paine warns Smith that if he opposes the Willet Creek dam, the "great powers" behind it will "destroy you before you even get started." Taylor vows to his henchmen, "I'll make public opinion out there within five hours. I'll blacken this punk." He is able to tie up the few remaining independent newspapers in Montana--he directs his employees to "stall their deliveries, push them off the streets"--and when the Boy Rangers rally to the cause, Taylor instructs his men to "kill it" by violence. Jeff Smith's mother phones to tell Saunders there are "children hurt all over the city...tell Jeff to stop." The inability of Smith and his Rangers to stand up to Taylor is further emphasized in two montage sequences: the first contrasts Taylor's massive printing machinery to the Boy Rangers' small, manually powered hand letter presses; the second cuts between shots of the Boy Rangers falling asleep after hours of labor and shots of Taylor's huge machines which effortlessly run all night. Raymond Carney defines the major change from Deeds to Smith as a movement

"from an eighteenth or early nineteenth century artistic world, in which the actions and confrontations of individual actors are dramatized, to a twentieth century world where impersonal technologies, systems, and institutions have displaced the authors of value and controllers of interpretation."(25)

The heroic qualities of homely wit and outdoorsy, athletic intelligence can't help the hero master these institutions and systems, nor can they reach the public to call it to the hero's aid.

Capra ends Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with an outpouring of spontaneous public speech: Saunders screams "Yippee!", the Senators are in an uproar after Paine's confession, and the cheering citizens in the gallery ignore the Vice President's call for order. This might be interpreted as a victory over the institutional ills central to the film, but it is a hollow, ambiguous victory. Smith has, by this time, collapsed and been carried, unconscious, out of the Senate Chamber, so he witnesses none of this. Taylor is conspicuously absent, as is any determination of what will be done to punish him. As Richard Jameson observed, to the very end of the movie the Senators believe Paine, not Smith: it is only Paine's confession which absolves Smith of any wrongdoing in the minds of the other Senators and the general public. Capra was ultimately unwilling to confront fully the institutional causes of Smith's predicament; Frank Stricker noted that Taylor "is not a representative figure of an economy, just a corrupt individual...[Capra] doesn't delve into the roots of delinquency [a reference to the boy's camp] or political corruption."(26) As far as we know at the end of the film, American institutions--most notably the Senate--remain unchanged, save the anticipated retirement of Paine.

The fascist leaders watching "democracy in action" in the Senate gallery witnessed the partial breakdown of the ability of American mythmaking, in the heroic persona of Jefferson Smith, to deal with threats presented in the modern world to American democracy. In Smith, the hero was weak. In Meet John Doe, filmed two years later, Capra administered Last Rites.


	1  qtd. in Jeanine Basinger, "America's Love Affair with Frank
Capra," _American Film_, March 1982, 46.

	2  Charles Maland, _Frank Capra_, 63.

	3  Frank Capra, _The Name Above the Title_, 137, 203.

	4  Robert Sklar, _Movie Made America_, 196, and Frank Stricker,
"Repressing the Working Class:  Individualism and the Masses in Frank
Capra's Films," _Labor History_, 1990 no. 4, 457.

	5  Capra 137.

	6  Basinger 50.

	7  Morris Dickstein, "It's a Wonderful Life, But..." _American Film_,
May 1980, 44.

	8  Gary Edgerton, "Capra and Altman:  Mythmaker and Mythologist,"
_Literature Film Quarterly_, 1983 no.1, 29.

	9  qtd. in Joseph McBride, _Frank Capra:  The Catastrophe of
Success_, 383.

	10  qtd. in McBride 383.

	11  Maland 86

	12  Herbert Biberman, "Frank Capra's Characters," in _Meet John
Doe_, Charles Wolfe, ed., 232.

	13  Stricker 455.
	14  Stricker 463.

	15  Stricker 463.

	16  Capra 186.

	17  McBride 401.

	18  Capra 255.

	19  Capra 259.

	20  Donald Willis, _The Films of Frank Capra_, 32, and McBride 415.

	21  Capra 282, 255.

	22  McBride 423.

	23  Willis 30.

	24  Maland 94.

	25  Raymond Carney, _American Vision:  The Films of Frank Capra_,

	26  Stricker 461.