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« A Haunted Neighborhood | Main | Are we better than our enemy? Only if we choose to be... »

Frank Capra and the American Ideals

By Angelo Lopez
January 11, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about It's A Wonderful Life and it got me thinking about Frank Capra. Capra is one of my favorite filmmakers. His films are full of energy and fun, with appealing characters and good humor. When I watch these films, I feel proud of being an American. This was one of the intentions of Frank Capra. Capra made his best films during the Great Depression, during a time of great suffering for many Americans. He wanted his films to show empathy for these common Americans, and he wanted to give these Americans a sense of pride in themselves and their community. Capra and his screenwriters collaborated in films that explored the American Dream at a time when the American Dream had collapsed for many Americans. His movies became a social commentary on those economic and political forces that threatened our American ideals and told his audience to hold together as a community and to help each other.

When I first watched Frank Capra's films, I assumed that he was a New Deal liberal because of the sympathy that his films had for the average American and for its criticism of financial institutions and the wealthy elite. According to Joseph McBride in his book Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Capra was actually a Republican who opposed the New Deal. Capra though, was an open minded filmmaker who was able to collaborate with people who had very different political views than he did, and he was open to being influenced by their views. Robert Riskin, a frequent screenwriter of Capra's films and one of Capra's closest friends, was a New Deal Democrat. Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was an American Communist. His close circle of collaborators also included right wing Myles Connolly, New Deal liberal Jo Swerling, and liberal writer and producer Joseph Sistrom. Thus Capra's films are an amalgam of both liberal and conservative views.

Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

“Depending on one’s political point of view and on what Capra film or films or parts of Capra films one is talking about, Frank Capra is an advocate of Communism, fascism, marxism, populism, conservatism, McCarthyism, New Dealism, anti-Hooverism, jingoism, socialism, capitalism, middle-of-the-road-ism, democracy or individualism.”

Two things helped make Capra's collaborations with his more liberal colleagues possible. One of the things was that the Republican Party of the 1930s was very different than the Republican Party of today. Capra was a Republican at a time when the Republican Party was still close to a progressive Republican tradition that was embodied by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert LaFollette. This progressive Republican tradition had fought for the regulation of corporations, fought for the rights of African Americans, and lobbied for a greater democratic process in the elections of public officials. President Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal expanded the government's regulatory powers over privative industry through such acts as the Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906 to control rates on railroads, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to regulate the food industry, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 which gave the government the power to restrict the use of government owned land. Progressive Republicans like Albert Baird Cummins and Robert La Follette fought for direct primaries to give more power to the people, fought for stringent railroad regulation, and fought for higher taxes on corporations. The progressive Republicans of the early twentieth century wanted to restrict the power of the corporations over the political and economic landscape through the government's regulatory powers. This progressive Republican tradition clashed with the more conservative business-friendly part of the Republican Party and would eventually recede and lose out to the business interests, but it still had some sway among some Republicans during the 1930s. As late as 1924, progressive Republican Robert La Follette ran as a third party candidate for the U.S. presidency and garnered 17% of the vote.

Another thing that made collaboration between Capra and his more left wing colleagues possible was the efforts by left-leaning artists in the 1930s to bring out the radical implications of the American democratic traditions. Left wing artists like Aaron Copland, Thomas Hart Benton, Zora Neale Hurston and Ben Shahn were exploring the early American folk traditions and the myths and ideas of our early Founding Fathers as inspiration for a radical politics that was based on the average everyday people. Many leftists of the 1930s were deeply critical of the capitalist system, but they did not equate the American ideas with the faults of the capitalist system. The Left wanted to fight economic injustice, fight the segregation and lynchings of the South, fight for right of collective bargaining for workers, fight for the poor and downtrodden. In fighting these causes, liberals and radicals saw themselves as fighting for America to live up to its highest values. This attempt by leftists of the 1930s to bridge the gap between America's ideals and its reality is captured by an excerpt from Langston Hughes' poem Let America Be America Again

O, let America be America again--

The land that never has been yet--

And yet must be--the land where every man is free.

The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again

Frank Capra thus shared with his more liberal collaborators a great love of American traditions and ideals. Both saw these cherished American democratic ideals under assault by an economic calamity that had led to 25% of the country unemployed, industrial production down 47 percent below normal, homeless people setting up Hoovervilles, and farmers losing their farms to foreclosure. It was a time of labor strife, riots, and demagoguery from the likes of Huey Long and Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. In this time of uncertainty, Frank Capra and his writers wanted to explore the viability of our American ideals in the context of the Depression.

In Capra's more political films, the hero often has to go through a period of disillusionment as his small town idealism clash with the reality of greed and corruption of the world. In "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", Longfellow Deeds inherits 20 million dollars and finds himself fending off greedy opportunists after his money. He eventually finds himself on trial for mental incompetence in an attempt by a greedy lawyer to wrest the fortune from Deeds after Longfellow Deeds decided to give his fortune away to the poor. In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", Jefferson Smith is appointed as a temporary replacement for a Senate seat and finds out that his colleague Senator Joseph Paine, who Smith idolized as a political hero, has been corrupted by a political boss and is attempting to pass a bill full of graft through the Senate. In "Meet John Doe", a drifter named John Willoughby is hired to pose as an idealistic hero named John Doe, and comes to believe in the ideas that he is preaching to the people, until he finds out that he is being used by a powerful businessman to garner support for the businessman's run for the White House. In each case, the hero initially finds that his naive idealism is no match for the financial and political power of big business (in "Meet John Doe"), a corrupt political machine (in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington"), and greedy lawyers and a snotty wealthy class (in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town").

This period of disillusionment is followed by a period of reflection, then maturation, as the hero gets his second wind and gains resolve to fight for his American ideals against some very steep odds. The hero no longer has a naive view of the world, but sees the corruption and venality of the powers that be as something that needs to be fought against. In "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and "Meet John Doe", Jefferson Smith and John Willoughby see that country does not live up to its high ideals. But they still fight for those ideals, because they've met enough decent people to know that those ideals are worth fighting for. Jefferson Smith and John Wllloughby have much in common with the leftist activists who were also fighting to bridge the gap between America's high ideals and the American reality.

Frank Capra's films have a great empathy for the poor and the average everyday person. Capra's films have a deep egalitarian vision, where the average everyday person is highlighted and a deep feeling of community leads to acts of altruism for those in need. In the movie "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", Longfellow Deeds meets a destitute farmer, who chides Deeds for using his wealth for frivolous pursuits while the poor around him starve. Deeds realizes the truth of the farmer's words, and decides to use his fortune to buy farm plots for homeless families. In "It's A Wonderful Life", George Baily works in the Bailey Building and Loan Association that lends money to poor working people so that they could move out of slums and get a better standard of life. In "Meet John Doe", a group of townspeople meet John Willoughby and tell him how his speeches made them get to know their neighbors better and to help those neighbors who were destitute get fed and find work.

Capra frequently compares the everyday citizens of America with the rich and the powerful. The everyday citizens always comes out looking better. In "You Can't Take It With You", Grandpa Vanderhof criticizes rich businessman Anthony Kirby for looking down on the poor. George Baily chides banker Potter for thinking more about profits than he does of the working people who are victims of his profitmaking. Longfellow Deeds finds the company of his servants and of ordinary people a lot more fun than the company of the rich socialites of the New York elite. When Capra criticizes the powerful, it is because their power and wealth separates them from ordinary people and the poor, and they lose empathy for the suffering of others.

In this sense, Frank Capra shares a similar sensibility as Charles Dickens. Both are making moral criticisms of the society around them. Though Capra doesn't have as sharp a critique of the capitalist system as Dickens's works like "Hard Times" or "Oliver Twist", Capra does show in many of his films the economic struggles that people in the depression go through. In his films, Capra shows people who suffer through prolong unemployment, foreclosures on their homes, hunger, isolation. Both Capra and Dickens attack the values of excessive power and wealth, how it makes the powerful greedy and callous to the suffering of their fellow neighbors.

In the year 2012, we are going through some of the same struggles that Frank Capra's audiences experienced during the 1930s. An economic meltdown, people losing their homes through foreclosure, millions enduring long term unemployment, a rise in hunger and homelessness. Nowadays, because of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Contra hearings, the Iraq War, and the current deadlock in Congress, we're a bit more skeptical now about American ideals and the goodness of American intentions. But I still think Frank Capra's films have something to give to us. Morris Dickstein wrote in his book Dancing In The Dark: A Cultural History Of The Great Depression

I have stressed Capra's darker side partly to show his complexity, the kind of complication we can easily miss in this kind of popular filmmaking, but also because Capra was long portrayed- not the least by himself- as a cockeyed optimist, a purveyor of marketable fantasies. If this were true, his work would not have reached people the way it still does, nor would it have connected so well with the climate of insecurity and foreboding of the Depression years. His work is both a catharsis of pain and fear and an evangel of hope. His faith in human nature is linked to an immigrant's belief in self-improvement. But Capra's work was also simple in a way that was right to be simple. As Robert Warshow wrote about Chaplin, "the impact of his art... is helped rather than hindered by a certain simplicity in his conception of political and social problems." The same point can be made about Dickens. Capra's populist simplicity showed up in the way he personalized social problems into Boy Scouts and bosses, heroes and villiains. But the same approach enabled him to transform America into a vivid personal myth of archetypal simplicity, affecting humor, and elemental emotional power. Like Chaplin, like Dickens, Capra remained in touch with something raw and vulnerable in himself and his audience, a memory of humiliation, struggle, and inner resolution. The coming of the Depression gave it a more than personal meaning, and helped turn it into a not always comforting social vision.

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) tells Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) what really matters in two scenes from Capra's "You Can't Take It With You"

A group of average Americans tell John Doe (Gary Cooper) how he's inspired them, from a scene in Capra's "Meet John Doe"

Jefferson Smith talks of the meaning of liberty in scenes from Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington"

Tom Dickson tells the banking board that they must help the average Joes in a scene from Capra's "American Madness"

George Baily argues for the right of working people to live in decent homes in a scene from Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life"

Comments (2)

Peter Tramel Author Profile Page:

Great blog, Angelo. Thank you. Republican progressivism and concern for the poor used to be a real thing. I would have voted for Lincoln and T.R. And Democrats used to often be awful -- they were the party of racism because Southerners were mostly Democrats who refused to vote for the "Party of Lincoln." That was overwhelmingly true until Kennedy's time. I think that FDR represents the first moment in American history when the Democrats decisively took the moral high ground and became our better party. Before then, neither party was clearly more progressive than the other. But, then, in response to America's greatest 20th century crisis, the Great Depression, Hoover chose to "deregulate and duck", as all Republicans since have done. That made things worse (led us from recession to depression), and FDR stepped in and slowed down the damage with progressive policies. Since then, Republicans have denounced progressive ideals (although Eisenhower was wise enough to pay lip service to a few).

Capra made movies in an age when it was not clear how all of this would play out, and much of the past was on the side of the Republicans. We ought to know better, now. Hoover's response to economic crisis of '29 - '32 was tragic, and it is the one that all Republican candidates want to try again. Obama has saved us by not being Hoover; but he has not resurrected us because he has also not been F.D.R.

Angelo Lopez Author Profile Page:

Great insights, Peter. I'm sad that the progressive Republican tradition has disappeared from the Republican Party of today. If I was around during the late 1800s or early 1900s, I would've supported Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette too. You're right about the Democrats of that time being hindered by the Dixiecrats who adamantly supported segregation in the South. It's hard to believe now, but at that time, the Republicans were far better on civil rights than the Democrats. I'm guessing you're right that it was FDR's presidency that brought the Democrats in a more moral high ground, with help of Eleanor Roosevelt and other activists.

I think you're also right about your comment about Obama the comparison between Hoover and FDR. Hopefully, Obama has the capacity to learn and grow.

If you have time, watch some of these Frank Capra movies. I think they're great. And I think they really speak to these times.

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