When (And Why) Mr. Capra
Took On Washington, D.C.
The Man Who Saved Columbia Pictures In The 1930s Will Always Be Remembered For His Iconic Films, But Beyond The Criticism That He Overly Romanticized American Life Are Films That Attacked Greed And Corruption
Filmmaker, Frank Capra
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
March 19, 2014 — As the world was plummeting into another World War, the Hollywood dream factories were pumping out escapist movie fare at a breakneck pace. The “Golden Age” was wrought with quality films, but for some inexplicable reason, 1939 was destined to be what most movie buffs and historians call Hollywood’s single greatest year. No other annum would boast such enduring classics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, among others.
But there was one more film made in 1939 that still resonates today, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
A few years before his “George Bailey” character in It’s a Wonderful Life would register with audiences as an iconic piece of Americana, actor James Stewart teamed with director Capra to create a character worthy of sainthood: Jefferson Smith.
Stewart, as Smith, plays an idealistic rube who upon arriving in Washington D.C. as an appointed, temporary senator, finds the game rigged then brings down the ringleader.
By the time he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra’s legendary reputation was building. He had not only saved “Poverty Row” Columbia Studios, he arguably became the director of the decade with a string of classics including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon and You Can’t Take it With You.
Born May 18, 1897, in Sicily, Capra would put his stamp in films with a brand of flag-waving sentimentality that has come to be disparagingly known as “Capra-Corn.”
Indeed, Capra’s wholesome characters (Deeds, Smith, Bailey) were often lambasted by critics for their “unceasing morality and dedication to virtuous causes.” Such characters, critics believed, only existed in folklore and legend. Nevertheless, they symbolized the traditional American ideal of a righteous lone eagle that never compromises his beliefs or what he knows to be true.
As for the fire-breathing studio chief Harry Cohn – Capra’s boss at Columbia who signed off on the director’s films – Capra told us in an interview: “Harry Cohn was every kind of a so-and so, but he was awfully smart. He trusted his talent. If he had confidence in someone, then that person would have complete control. He trusted people who had confidence in themselves, and who could stand up to his bullying.”
That trust was evident in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a story of a naive yokel played by James Stewart who is appointed a U.S. Senator and then battles corruption on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
And lest we forget; exposing corruption in Washington, while commonplace today, was risky (even in film fiction) in 1939.
Fredric William Wile, a columnist for the Washington Star blasted the film as a “little short of an affront both to our representative form of government and to the Washington newspaper fraternity.” He added: the movie “ought to go over big in Berlin, Rome and Moscow because it shows up the democratic system and our vaunted free press in exactly the colors Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin are fond of painting them.”
Frank Nugent’s review in the New York Times was more kind calling the film “a jaunty boutonnière in democracy’s lapel.”
If “Mr. Smith” made people uncomfortable and exposed imperfections in our Republic at a precarious time in our history, it also solidified Capra’s film legacy, that of the triumph of homegrown virtue and morality against all odds.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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