The voice of the people. Frank Capra, like Whitman before him, heard America singing. The song Capra heard became an anthem for his movies in the late 1930s-early 40s. He was a household name at the time and for some years later but he seems to have faded away along with his notion of Populism.
His hit films in that period were Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. (2 of them are being shown on TCM this week)
Ironically, those 3 films were studio hits but his glaring failure at the box-office was the 1947 flop, It’s A Wonderful Life which is now part of the American grain.
His themes were about politics but were not political in the way we think of that word today. He identified Everyman, townspeople, simple powerless folk, the American myth. John Cassavetes, of all people, said, Maybe, there was no America. It was only Frank Capra.
His obsession was democracy itself. Nobodys became somebodys naively taking on the stuffed shirts and bloviators who grabbed power through corruption. Hiss the villains. The common man was played by Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, men who knew how to gulp and say aw shucks while the love interest was supplied by perky Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck.
Capra’s invention of an idealized smalltown America was so attractive it was adapted in big cities as well. If Everyman stumbled as they did in his movies it would soon be remedied in his fabricated narrative. I bought what he was selling, along with most of the country. He either captured the Zeitgeist or created it.
What happened along the way is beyond the scope of B-movie backrooms. The downtrodden masses have been played as if some flimflam man rode into town, stoked their grievances and transformed the good folks into a lynch mob. Athens has become Sparta. Democracy is being threatened by racist demotic forces which have always smoldered just below the façade of old movies.
Where are you now Frank Capra? Some called his body of work, Capra-Corn but his vision gave us worthy aspirations, even if simplistic, sentimental and moralistic. He didn’t foresee the level of mindless subversion we are witnessing among Bible-thumpers and a working class having abdicated their autonomy to an authoritarian.
The Populist party of a hundred years ago was the Progressive party with an agenda of direct election of senators and woman suffrage. The word itself has been usurped. Now we see the fetid underbelly of America ripe for descent into fascism. If Capra was preachy, it was of a piece with the hard times and capitalism itself being questioned as we were entering into a war against a Nazi dictator.
The country numbered 132 million when Capra wrote. Today it is triple that with his cast of Caucasians soon to be a minority. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. The new Everyman / woman has a different look. If this were a Capra movie the heartland would wake up in the last reel with city folk and the rural working class finding their common thread.