While Frank Capra's critical reputation was comparatively low during the 1960's, his excellence as a director is now properly recognized. This delay was in part brought about by Capra's own withdrawal from the post-television cinema of the 1950's; in that era of director-stars he preferred retirement to the rejection of his own edict: "One man—one• film." This delay also was caused by a critical and academic prejudice against popular and successful movies. In Capra's case this prejudice is exceedingly inappropriate since his populism and democratic empathy are exactly at the heart of his great creative gift. Indeed Capra, perhaps more than any other director, loves America, especially as it is embodied in its people. For him the American Dream, the Horatio Alger story of the triumphant individual, was a reality.
The youngest of a totally illiterate Sicilian family of seven children, Capra came to the United States in 1903 when he was six. By selling newspapers as a boy he both supported his family and began his involvement with the common man. Despite his education at California Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer, he continued his door-to-door contact with the proletariat as an itinerant post-World War I photography salesman. He avoided the inherent drudgery of both jobs by celebrating and even mythologizing the workaday world. It is this celebration and love which forms the kernel of his greatest films.
During the Golden Age of .cinema, from the advent of sound to the onslaught of television, Frank Capra's films between 1932 and 1939 were nominated six times for the Academy Award of Best Picture of the Year. The first of his Columbia comedy series, It Happened One Night (1934), won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director) and remained the only film to have done so until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975. By combining a small stable of attractive stars with the grand themes of the American political experiment, Capra annually brought a humane yet self-critical awareness to an enthralled public.
With the possible exception of some echoes in the somewhat anomalous and slightly pessimistic Meet John Doe (Warner Bros., 1941), Capra ended this series of comic Columbia successes with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). This picture, perhaps even more than its clear cinematic predecessor Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), demonstrates the wonderful mixture of entertainment, social consciousness, idealism, and corruption which was the earmark of these movies. Thus, even without his talented previous script collaborator, Robert Riskin, Capra was able to re-create that delicate balance between pleasure and instruction so evident in the movie's plot.
The movie's story is fairly simple but is open enough to contain both sentiment and pathos. Following the unexpected death of his unnamed state's senator, Mr. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed by the corrupt organization of Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) to fill the remainder of the dead senator's term in office. Taylor chooses him because he believes that Smith's naiveté (his only other leadership position was as head of the "rangers," or boy scouts) will allow the unimpeded passage of a pork barrel land bill. At first Taylor seems correct: Smith amuses the Washington sophisticates and reporters with his country manners and his well-honed duck call. However, with the typical serendipity of the local yokel, Smith proposes a national boys' camp exactly on the site of Taylor's pork barrel land deal. Now he must be dealt with.
Taylor turns to his minion, Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) from Smith's own state, and sets about to discredit Smith's proposal by falsifying documents to show that the camp is Smith's own pork barrel. With Boss Taylor controlling radio and newspaper, except for the Rangers' boyish publication, things look bleak for Smith. Following his secretary Saunders' (Jean Arthur) directions, Smith attempts to triumph over political adversity with a one-man, twenty-three-hour filibuster. As Smith collapses in exhaustion at the end of his heroic effort, Senator Paine, in a fit of remorse, admits his complicity and exonerates Smith and the American Way.
Obviously, such a "corny" (or, as Capra called it, "Capra-corny") plot line could not hold our attention without excellent acting, but the cast meets the challenge. Jimmy Stewart as Smith is warm, lovable, and believable; his innocence andidealism are humane, yet not maudlin. Further, Jean Arthur as his secretary Saunders shortcircuits what disbelief we might have in Smith's childish character by expressing that disbelief for us and then transforming the doubts into infatuation. Against these two, Claude Rains as Senator Paine and Edward Arnold as Boss Taylor form the perfect counterpoint. Rains's austere dignity and polished rhetorical style are perfect for the suspect political practitioner. Arnold's active style and rotund figure also seem to fit perfectly his role, that of a businessman whose power borders on the Machiavellian. However, all this talent might have gone for naught if Capra had not knitted it together with the techniques of his craft.
Aside from his usual talent for balanced composition and natural lighting, Capra applied some special skills to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The use of the Washington background, and the Lincoln Memorial in particular, added much inherent interest in a Depression era of restricted travel. This innovation was matched by the perfect duplication of the Senate Floor at the Columbia Studios. To add to the realism of the filibuster sequence, Capra had Stewart's throat painted three times a day with a substance that made him artificially hoarse and sore. Likewise in his choice of small part players, Capra gave each of them a personality which added to the fullness of the whole picture; one example is Guy Kibbee as the weak governor. Even in his rendition of legislative procedure Capra was extremely careful: James B. Preston, former superintendent of the Senate press gallery, acted as technical adviser.
Capra also used theatrical devices which keep the audience involved for more than iwo hours. Capra had a talent for humor which he developed while working as a gag writer for Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon. Jokes, however, are not funny unless they move, so Capra skillfully utilized montage and juxtaposition, while verbally augmenting the effect by forcing his actors to speak their lines twenty percent faster than was their natural inclination.
All these effects, however, add up to more than simply an enjoyable two hours. Capra is, perhaps above all, a social critic and a utopian idealist. As Mr. Smith's first name, Jefferson, indicates, Capra is in a long line of Jeffersonian idealists. He believes in an agrarian society of self-sufficient individuals who discover the principles of democracy in the simple freedoms of rural life. Thus, in all Capra's films it is the country "rube" who eventually embarrasses the forces of the Hamiltonian centralization of power such as Senator Paine and Boss Taylor.
Because Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released just after the Nazi invasion of Poland, many powerful individuals in the industry and in politics felt the film's images of social corruption might be misused by the Axis. The other Hollywood studios were so alarmed that they offered Columbia $2,000,000 to "can" the film. Senior Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy urged that the film not be released in Europe because it would "destroy . . . morale." Luckily, at Capra's insistence, the film was distributed and became, for the Allies, an image of the success of freedom over oppression. Thus, in occupied France one theater chose to show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for thirty days straight before the film was barred by Nazi control.