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)
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
"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:
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 career...to 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)
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
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)
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 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 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 faith...you 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'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.
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."
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."
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 that...one 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.
"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 individuals...as 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_, 301. 26 Stricker 461.