Produced and distributed just as the nation was recovering from the effects of the Great Depression, with the economy somewhat stabilized following Roosevelt's New Deal, and with the looming 2nd world war, Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is an important document not only in terms of the state of affairs as it was at the time of its production, but also in terms of what led up to it and what was about to follow. To better understand how the film accomplishes this, one must first examine the idea of freedom and its changing meaning in the period leading up to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Following that, the ways in which this idea is used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and to what end, will be explored. Finally, the film's role as an active agent in the reality that is to ensue with the outbreak of the 2nd World War, as relating to the past/present reality of the time and Capra's manipulation of this reality, shall be considered.
During the depression and its aftermath, the idea of freedom took several meanings as different issues were at the forefront of the American socioeconomic reality. Foner explores depression-era ideas of freedom, concluding that the socioeconomic freedom (to work and be able to earn one's living) became of greater importance than the political freedom (as expressed in the constitution). But this idea soon came to change as the conditions improved following 's New Deal. Following the labour union disputes and the more militant activism of organizations like the CIO and the Popular Front on the side of the workers, civil liberties and the freedom of speech took an increasingly central role as the decade was nearing its end. The creation of the Department of Justice's Civil Liberties Unit in 1939, established civil liberties as an issue with "a central place in the New Deal understanding of freedom".
It is exactly this idea of freedom that Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonbuilds on to convey Capra's message. While Capra's film conveyed the nation's self image as it was at the time (perhaps more "than one has any right to expect" according to Bergman), it also used this self image in order to make its message heard by his listeners. Qualifying Capra's way of manipulating images as genius and referring to the way that he "understood enough of what people wanted…to help create a consciousness, and to build himself into the system", renders the work not only as one of a reactive nature, but also as an active protagonist. As Muscio notes, Capra was not simply a witness or narrator, but rather a key protagonist in the relationship between communications and politics. As Capra explains: "For two hours you've got 'em. Hitler can't keep 'em that long. You eventually reach more people than does on the radio".
Capra's film then, was in fact a cry to fight for the freedom of civil liberties and the freedom of speech, employing such rhetoric as: "Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books…Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I'm free to think and to speak" or "Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent". But while such a fight was being fought at home by the CIO and protected by the Civil Liberties Unit, Capra points to the looming fight to keep these liberties overseas with his mention of Hitler (and his inability to captivate his audience) and the CBS reporter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reporting: "In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can't see at home ...democracy in action". Bergman points to the relationship between "the machine [Jim Taylor's dictator-like control of the media and politics] and the politics of these diplomats". The nation, according to Bergman, was being "girded for war" in its movie theaters.
In conclusion, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a document important not only in the way it represents the past and the present at the time of its production, but also one indicative of the media's power and role in the eve of the 2nd World War in priming the American people for the fight for their freedom and for democracy. The question of "how much did Capra create and how much he responded to" then becomes moot in the eyes of history - Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonwas as much a part of America as America was part of it, as such, Capra is neither reactive nor catalyst, but simply, a part of history.
Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 96-98.
Andrew Bergman, We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 147.
Giuliana Muscio, "Roosevelt, , and Capra, (or) The Federalist-Populist Paradox." Frank Capra: authorship and the studio system, Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio, eds., (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 182.
Joseph McBride, Frank Capra, The Catastrophe of Success, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 432.
Capra's work is closely, if unconsciously, related to that of avowed Method directors like Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan. It is not that the work of any of these directors dispenses altogether with technical or character acting (any more than Henry James's work dispenses with fixed characters to give itself over to an exclusive depiction of free characters), but at crucial moments itgestures beyond what is depictable in that form of acting. Performances like those turned in by Barbara Stanwyck in even the earliest of Capra's films and Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in the later ones have a passionateness and an imaginative intensity in search of an adequate form of social expression (which can never bequite attained) that directly anticipates the performances of Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando in their best work of the fifties. Stanwyck, Stewart, and Arthur demonstrate that itdid not take Lee Strasberg to bring the emotional inwardness, strangled intensity, and smothered hysteria of the Method to America. In fact, the reason Strasberg's seeds took such immediate and firm root in American soil was that it was already so well prepared to receive his doctrines. The Method is an interesting side path not opposed to, but parallel to, a vast highway of Romantic expression in American art that existed in this country long before the birth of Stanislavski in Russia and at least a century before Strasberg's creatively all-American misreadings of An Actor Prepares. If Strasberg had not come across Stanislavski, he could have gotten the same performative doctrines out of the pregnant silences, the charged glances, and the imaginative unappeasability of the characters in a novel by Henry James, characters like Isabel Archer or Lambert Strether, searching for, but never quite finding a way to speak their deepest, most authentic selves.
Having said that, it needs to be emphasized that although a capacity to play with a situation and to be able generously to encourage playing in others is necessary to a Capra hero (or director), it is not sufficient in itself, or Capra would never have gone beyond the buddy-boy films. For all of Carey's Capra-like geniality, good humor, and charm, he is virtually inarticulate and institutionally almost powerless. While Carey is nodding and mugging, winning the hearts of the crowd in the Senate as well as the one in the movie theater, Smith is dying on his feet and the Deficiency bill is moving hour by hour closer to passage. However charming, Carey is a man with neither principles nor a vision. He is not a leader but merely a bureaucratic functionary, just as equably tolerant of the corrupt opponents of Smith's filibuster as he is of Smith. A Senate chamber filled to the brim with such blandly encouraging, quietly charming old biddies, who believe that there are two equally valid sides to every question and (in what can only be called their moral, passional, and imaginative castration) always can find mitigating arguments all around every issue would be just Taylor's cup of tea.
Let me be clear why I am being so hard on everybody's favorite charmer. In another film, by a director with an entirely different sensibility (say, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game), Carey could be a mild–mannered, slightly bewildered, admirably modest modern hero. He could be Octave, with his conviction that everyone has his reasons. Even in an earlier film by Capra–say American Madness–much of what Capra is condemning in Carey's performance here is presented favorably in the figure of Dixon. Capra, however, is no longer satisfied with the poised, well-meaning master of ceremonies, the Rotarian as hero. Carey, whatever his apparent virtues, must be judged in comparison with Smith, and Smith represents imaginative possibilities that begin precisely where Carey's stylistic reach ends (both as an actor and as a character). The similarity between Gary Cooper, in Deeds, and Carey in this film, and yet the difference between one's feelings about the two characters is indicative of a significant change in Capra's work. Charm is just not enough. There are alien entanglements–repressive systems of understanding and, expression–for personality to negotiate in this film that it did not have to face in the earlier one. Smith himself represents an imaginative intensity and passion that indicates the limitations of Carey's performance in his film as Deeds's performance was not similarly "placed" in his.
In contrast to Paine's polished language of the upper class and the nineteenth-century stage and Carey's folksy idiom, Smith's language (and that of Saunders, with whom he is linked in the second half of the film) is that of unsystematic, unformulatable feeling. More accurately, it is a language attempting to speak the energies of imagination and desire in the public expressive forms of the world, but that is to suggest what a complex and problematic linguistic task it sets itself. In one of the crucial scenes of the film, Capra summarizes Smith's expressive problem concisely. Smith and his secretary Saunders have stayed late one night in the Senate Office Building to draft a bill that Smith wants to propose in the Senate for a national boy's camp. The drafting is not going well. I quote from the shooting script of the film, which is slightly more complete than the released version:
Smith: Did you ever have so much to say about something–you couldn't say it?
Saunders: (dryly) Try sitting down.
Smith: I did–and–and I got right up.
Saunders: Now, let's get down to particulars. How big is this thing? Where is it to be? How many boys will it take care of? If they're going to buy it–how do they make their contributions? Your bill has to have all of that in it –
Smith: And something else, too, Miss Saunders–the spirit of it–the idea–the –In his walk he has come to the window. He points out suddenly.
Smith: That's what's got to be in it.
She looks in that direction, and sees the lighted Capitol Dome, seen through the window–with Jefferson in the foreground.
Smith: (pointing) That.
Saunders indicates that she sees the Dome, her eyebrows lifting a little.
Saunders: (quietly–with only a touch of sarcasm) On paper?
Smith: (still looking out of the window, not conscious of her cynical question) I want to make that come to life–yes, and lighted up like that, too–for every boy in the land. Boys forget what their country means –just reading "land of the free" in history books. And they get to be men–and forget even more. Liberty is too precious to get buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men ought to hold it up in front of them–every day of their lives and say: "I am free–to think–to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. My children will."
And we see a new Saunders looking at Jefferson with a new expression–listening rather raptly–then starting to make rapid notes.
Smith: The boys ought to grow up remembering that.
He breaks off– turns from the window–collecting himself out of a daze–and a little embarrassed.
Smith: Well–gosh–that–that isn't the "particulars," is it?
The real language that Smith and Saunders finally employ, the important presence that they manifest ultimately in the film, is not conventionally linguistic or syntactic at all. It is not a verbal language of words and argument, but a visual and acoustic language of imaginatively charged gasps, pauses, glances, and gestures. The voice that Smith and Saunders offer as an alternative to the other voices in the film is at times indistinguishable from silence. It is a melodramatic language of eruptions of desire, expressible in a cinematic language not of scripted speech but of high-key-lighting effects, extreme close-ups, violent actions, agitated gestures and movements, and powerful musical orchestrations. It is, to put it most briefly, a language opposed to everything Paine represents in the language of theatrical expression, everything Taylor represents in the language of bureaucracy, everything the newspapers and radio represent in the language of high-tech journalism, and everything the Senate and its members represent in the language of institutional legislative procedure and political scripting. Where Paine's voice is a complete, and completely verbal, speech in which there are no flaws, gaps, fissures, or failures of expression, Smith's is a speech that is more nonverbal than verbal and, where it is verbal, is almost nothing but hesitations, stuttering inarticulateness, elisions, and ellipses. Where Paine's speech (as in his scene of feigned moral outrage at Smith's conduct on the floor of the Senate) translates emotionality into consummately modulated eloquence and oratorical tones and cadences, Smith's speech–though ultimately enriched and authenticated by its emotionality–is broken up, disrupted, interrupted, and frequently completely arrested by his overcharge of feeling. His speech is a language of melodramatic silences, pauses, exclamations, gestures, and glances that emphatically is not reducible to anything that might appear in the script of a stage play.
Capra is suggesting that in a world devoted to the institutional control and normalization of desire and imagination, such articulate stillnesses, silences, gasps, and gestures may be the last remaining expression of personal imagination and desire. In concert with Saunders and Smith, he offers a new sort of language as an alternative to the social languages within the film. It is a photographic language of silent shrugs and glances, an aural language of music and sound effects, an editorial language of visual rhythms and juxtapositions....
This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.