by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In the latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, political science professor John Marini explores the work of Frank Capra, the Sicilian immigrant who ended up becoming a quintessentially American filmmaker.
Capra was often thought to be a populist. But Capra did not assume that a virtuous opinion existed in the people, or that the people simply needed mobilizing. He was aware that the modern public is created by modern mass media whose techniques spawn mass society, posing a danger to individual freedom. Capra wrote that his films “embodied the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled into an ort by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.” He did not believe in the use of mass power to improve society or to right historical wrongs. Reform, he thought, must take place through moral regeneration—thus through moral education.
Consider Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an idealistic man goes to Congress, runs into rampant corruption, becomes despondent, is later inspired at the Lincoln Memorial, decides against hope to stand on principle, and prevails. Capra had doubts about making Mr. Smith. While in Washington preparing for the film, he attended a press conference in which President Roosevelt outlined the great problems facing the nation. Capra wondered whether it was a good time to make a dramatic comedy about Washington politics. In his troubled state he visited the Lincoln Memorial, where he saw a boy reading Lincoln’s words to an elderly man. He decided, he later wrote, that he “must make the film, if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa.” He left the Lincoln Memorial that day, he recalled,
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 [the film’s lead character, played by Jimmy Stewart] would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor. . . . It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.