Sunday, July 8, 2018

Capra and Mr. Smith

I'm been in dire need of a little positivity for a while now regarding our nation.  So, I've turned, of course, to one of the best representations of the best we have to offer.

Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Perhaps the greatest film on the ability of one man to affect change.  Yes, some people view Capra as too sentimental, but I'm not one of them and this film is truly his best.  Representing the ideals this country was founded upon and should be held to.

Capra was born in Sicily and immigrated to the United States at the age of five.  He remembered the ship's arrival in New York Harbor, where he saw " a statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a torch above the land we were about to enter."  He remembers his father exclaiming "Ciccio, look!  Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem!  That's the light of freedom!  Remember that.  Freedom."

From humble beginnings in Los Angeles' East side, Capra worked up into film with Hal Roach and the Our Gang shorts, into success at Columbia with The Younger Generation, It Happened One Night, and You Can't Take It With You.

While he is probably best known for It's A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington probably best represents the Capra myth, expressing his patriotism more than any other and presenting the individual working within democratic systems to overcome rampant political corruption.

It was an uphill battle to get the film made.  While researching the film, Capra was able to stand close to President Franklin Roosevelt during a press conference after recent acts of war by Germany in Europe.  Capra would fear that it was the most untimely time to make a satire about Washington.  Likewise, when the filiming was completed, Columbia sent preview copies to Washington.  Joseph Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom begged Columbia not to release it in Europe, so as not to paint the picture that the United States was full of graft, corruption, and lawlessnes.

Capra's vision remained clear.  "The more uncertain the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, 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 would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter's simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure."

They found their Abe Lincoln in Jimmy Stewart, who truly honed his everyman image in this film.  This was his second film with Capra after You Can't Take It With You, as well as his second screen partnership with Jean Arthur.  But while You Can't Take It With You brought Stewart widespread attention, it was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that brought him critical acclaim, earning Stewart his first of five Academy Award nominations.  Before Stewart died, he stated he wanted to be remembered "[A]s someone who believed in hard work and love of country, love of family, and love of community."  Mr. Smith to the end.

In a way, Joseph Kennedy's fears were proven true, with a lukewarm reception in Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, and Stalin's Russia, who all banned the film.  It represented the American value and spirit too well.  When a ban on American films was imposed in German occupied France in 1942, some theaters chose to show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the last movie before the ban went into effect.  One theater owner in Paris reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days after the ban was announced.

Truly a standout film in a year of great film.  1939 remains one of the best years in film.  The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Babes in Arms, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka.  And Mr. Smith is one of the best of that year.

I need this film every once and a while.  I think we all do.

"Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask.  Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty.  Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something.  And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting.  Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed.  That's what you'd see.  There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.  And, uh, if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do.  And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else.  Great principles don't get lost once they come to light.  They're right here; you just have to see them again!"

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