by Alex Paquin
Meet John Doe: We are the ninety percent. Also, fascists.
There has always been something fascinating about the American political system, its rituals, its dysfunctional state. I wanted to review classic political films to coincide with the upcoming election; and as I had once considered writing an essay on Frank Capra, the director of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), I decided to conflate the two projects and focus on Capra's political films, with asides where needed.
The task, in itself, is quite daunting; how do you approach a filmmaker whose works have been extensively written about? What could a modest article contribute that had not already been said in the director's (unreliable) autobiography, in Joseph McBride's exhaustive Frank Capra: the Catastrophe of Success (a perfect dynamiting of Capra's reputation), and in countless other books and articles? I decided to reverse my usual writing process; instead of going through the literature first, I would begin by watching the films themselves, and only at the very end, when the largest part of this essay would have been written, would I consult the published sources.
There was also little reason to cover his career chronologically. While he began directing in the mid-1920s and made several profitable and memorable films during this period -- two comedies with Harry Langdon, Platinum Blonde with Jean Harlow and a few Barbara Stanwyck vehicles — he only came to prominence with Lady for a Day in 1933, for which he famously lost the Oscar for best director to another Frank (Lloyd, for Cavalcade). Today, the "classic" Capra films are those he made between 1934 and 1946, beginning with It Happened One Night and ending with It's a Wonderful Life; by the end of World War II, he was already considered passé, and his later films, few in number, are of little interest except for State of the Union (1948), starring the familiar duo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Excluding his work for the U.S. War Department, all but three of Capra's films from those thirteen years had a screenplay written by Robert Riskin. The first association of Riskin with Capra was for The Miracle Woman (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, based on a play the former had co-written about a lady evangelist who unwittingly associated with gangsters and falls in love with a blind man. It was little more than a treatment of revivalist hypocrisy starring a character loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, in which the climax had already been used, albeit differently, in Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (though the climax occurred only halfway through Lewis's book, it concluded the 1960 film adaptation of it). From such an inauspicious beginning would be born an association that would span a decade.
It is nonetheless more appropriate to begin this essay with one of the films on which Riskin did not collaborate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (screenplay by Sidney Buchman), arguably Capra's most famous picture after It's a Wonderful Life, which was also made without Riskin. Released in October 1939, it came after Capra had directed a string of critically acclaimed films — It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take it With You — that earned their director three Oscars as well as two more in the outstanding production (Best Picture) category; it would be the last film Capra would make for Columbia, with which he had been associated since the silent era.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington begins with the death of the senator from an unnamed Midwestern state who was, like all the other major political figures of the state, under the control of shadowy political boss James Taylor (Edward Arnold). The state governor, another Taylor stooge, must now appoint his replacement, already selected by Taylor; but he hesitates after meeting with virulent opposition from reformers who propose their own candidate. His children then tell him about Jefferson Smith, a local hero to the Boy Rangers. Seeking to placate his opponents without alienating Taylor, he decides, on an inconclusive coin toss, to appoint Smith. Taylor, after some convincing, approves of the nomination and tells the other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), to keep an eye on Smith and try to influence him.
At first, this proves easy; Paine had been a friend of Smith's father, and the idealistic Smith, entranced by the Lincoln Memorial, conceives of politics as a noble endeavour for the benefit of mankind to which he wanted to contribute. This leads him to propose a bill according to which a piece of land in an area known as Willet Creek is to be turned into a boys' camp. Unbeknownst to him, the land is the property, under assumed names, of the Taylor machine, which had already arranged for it to be bought for a dam by the government in an upcoming deficiency bill. Having found out about the graft, Smith attempts to expose the matter before his fellow senators, but finds himself framed by Senator Paine, who claims Smith is in fact the owner of that land. Suitable evidence is provided to corroborate the accusation, and Smith, facing expulsion from the Senate, stages a filibuster to convince the audience of his innocence.
This provides a good indication that Capra and Buchman never thoroughly considered matters from the perspective of their characters, who should have realized that the accusations against Smith were necessarily false. The deficiency bill was already being discussed during the tenure of Smith's predecessor, a fact confirmed later in the film by assertions that the bill "took two years to set up" and had spent "months in both Houses, delayed and delayed". How could Smith, freshly appointed without ever seeking the office, have been privy to this exercise in what George Washington Plunkitt colourfully called "honest graft" when he was not even a senator? Smith's colleagues might have thought him to be another Taylor man from a rotten state — certain members of the press, after all, had — but why then did they treat the longer-serving Paine as a model of integrity, as suggested by his nickname, the Silver Knight? Furthermore, if Smith had been the owner of the land around Willet Creek, why should he have proposed the creation of a boys' camp when the government was already going to buy the land? Why should he have risked drawing attention to himself or to the dam proposal? And why did Paine and others in the Taylor organization not just tell him that a dam was already planned at Willet Creek, if you, my dear senator, would just bother to read the deficiency bill which you will soon be expected to vote upon? Instead, they are afraid he will start asking questions if he is told about the dam, and successfully keep him away from the senate when the bill is being read, using Paine's daughter as bait. To no avail: Smith's secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur), who is beginning to fall in love with him, tells him about the graft.
It ends well; while the Taylor machine's propaganda exhorts the beleaguered senator to resign, Smith miraculously sways his colleagues by holding the floor for an entire day — because only an honest man would do that —, and Senator Paine, overcome by guilt, attempts to shoot himself before rushing back on the floor of the Senate and confessing everything. Isn't that convenient, you say? Welcome to Frank Capra's world.
Otis Ferguson, reviewing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for "The New Republic", was the most relevant contemporary dissenting voice:
"I’m afraid Mr. Capra began to leave this world at some point during the production of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” his best picture. Among those who admired him from the start I know only Alistair Cooke who called the turn when “Deeds” came out. Writing in England, Cooke confessed to “an uneasy feeling he’s on his way out. He’s started to make movies about themes instead of people.” When “Lost Horizon” appeared, I thought our Mr. Capra was only out to lunch, but Cooke had it. “You Can't Take It with You” in the following year made it pretty evident that Capra had forgotten about people for good. He had found out about thought and was going up into the clouds to think some."
Worse, the film's message was so ambiguous that it was denounced in Washington for besmirching American politics yet banned in totalitarian states for spreading democracy; one hopes that the oft-repeated anecdote of a cinema in France during the Occupation screening it without interruption for a month before the Germans banned American films is apocryphal. Indeed, the picture portrays the entire American political class, regardless of party lines, as corrupt — no mention of either party is ever made, both sides are equally worried over any delay in the passing of the deficiency bill, and all senators walk out on Smith as he begins his filibuster. Even before Columbia embarked on the project, the ever-vigilant Production Code Administration had urged other studios to be cautious if they attempted to adapt the source material for the screen.
Furthermore, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, like a few other Capra films (including It's a Wonderful Life), failed to address what would likely have happened after it ended. In It's a Wonderful Life, the building and loan cooperative run by George Bailey (also played by James Stewart) could still have gone bankrupt if all it took the first time was $8,000 missing from the books; in Mr. Smith as it was released, there was nothing to guarantee that Senator Paine would not have been turned into a fall guy by the Taylor machine now that he had confessed to graft. As for Smith, it would still have been possible to claim that he had been Paine's accomplice, or that he had been mistaken about that upright citizen James Taylor; either way, his chances of re-election would remain practically nil as long as the Taylor machine existed.
The fate of the latter is alluded to in the original ending, which was cut during previews. In it, Smith (predictably) marries his secretary and returns to his home state in triumph. He is greeted with not only the customary band-and-confetti parade, but by Senator Paine, who, having redeemed himself by confessing, is evidently spared criminal charges. Meanwhile, the governor, ingratiating himself with the reformers who were calling for his resignation, vows to "clean out of our glorious state every vestige of James Taylor". Well, that's a nice intention, but the screenplay did not expound exactly how he would have done it; in fact it never detailed how Taylor built his operation in the first place. Today, the snooty lady warning on the radio that "men will be thrown out of jobs" as the result of any postponement of the deficiency bill would be replaced with a young woman with children in a television commercial by the Taylor Political Action Committee for Concerned Citizens, and nobody would bother to uncover the truth about Smith. Was it not the point of the underrated Eddie Murphy vehicle The Distinguished Gentleman that voters were so jaded as to not even care whether their usual candidate was corrupt, let alone still alive?
If the greatest problem of Mr. Smith was its absence of plot logic, that of Capra's next film, Meet John Doe, was its ending. The film begins with a newspaperwoman (Barbara Stanwyck) inserting in her last column for the "New Bulletin" ("a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era"), from which she had just been fired, a fake letter from a man she calls John Doe. The John Doe in question, to borrow a phrase from the closest successor to this film, is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore — and by not going to take it anymore, he means committing suicide from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve. When city officials frequently under attack by the newspaper suspect a hoax, the editors hire for the part of Doe a certain John Willoughby (played by Gary Cooper), an unemployed garage-league ball player who, unlike others lured by the prospect of celebrity and employment, never claimed authorship of the letter but happened to be passing by the newspaper's office looking for work. After publishing a series of ghostwritten articles in the "New Bulletin", "John Doe" is encouraged to make a broadcast on a radio station owned by the newspaper's publisher, D.B. Norton (played once again by Edward Arnold).
After the successful broadcast, Norton creates a nationwide John Doe Club movement, which intentionally remains uninvolved in American politics until he announces plans to morph the movement into the John Doe Party, "devoted entirely to the interests of all the John Does all over the country, which practically means ninety percent of the voters." "John Doe" soon discovers that the party is going to be led in reality by Norton and his clique of union and political bosses, whom he finds engaged in a backroom deal just before the foundation convention where Norton would be announced as the candidate for the White House. Doe now attempts to expose the truth with a speech, but is prevented from doing so when Norton, after exposing him as a fraud, announces that the John Doe Clubs are being disbanded as a result of this revelation and has the microphone cut off before Doe can reply.
What is left for "John Doe" to do? The only way for him to save face is to be John Doe; and John Doe, it must never be forgotten, had threatened to kill himself. It is the only satisfactory closure, the only possible resolution after the film took great pains to craft a Christian allegory around him and spell it out for the audience ("You don't have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive! Someone already died for that once! The first John Doe."), yet we know that Capra could not bring himself to accept this inevitability, and that Capra alone was to blame, as screenwriter Riskin sought the suicide ending, but the director ruled it out, allegedly because he, as the independent producer of the film, was worried about the Catholic lobby, but also, it could be argued, because he wanted an upbeat, optimistic outlook that could never let Norton win (even though, like Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he is never taken down and remains as potent as ever).
Suicide is a recurring theme in Capra's pictures, but it is almost always left unrealized, except for the eponymous character in his pre-Code film The Bitter Tea of General Yen and, reportedly, his silent The Way of the Strong (which I could not find). General Yen's suicide, it is worth pointing out, was just as inevitable as John Doe's; in the middle of the Chinese Civil War, his troops had deserted him, and his attraction to a white missionary was spurned by her and the censors alike. Other examples include: In Ladies of Leisure, a woman jumps off a liner bound for Havana, but is rescued; in The Miracle Woman, the blind man is dissuaded from jumping from his window by the sermon of the lady evangelist on the radio; in It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey considers throwing himself from a bridge while wishing he had never been born; in State of the Union, a man, already dying, kills himself with a revolver; there was Senator Paine, by the same method, but who was required to miss by the plot of Mr. Smith -- no suicide attempt, or a successful attempt, meant no vindication for Smith; and Lost Horizon has two: the one, depicted, of George Conway, who jumps off a cliff, and the one, inferred, of Robert Conway, who returns permanently to Shangri-La at the end of the film. If one film, however, was required to end with the suicide of the protagonist, it was Meet John Doe; even the material on which the film was based, a short story by Richard Connell, ended this way.
Having placed John Doe on the roof of City Hall, and with suicide out of the question, Capra considered other options. One of them involved Norton finally "seeing the light"; even though this was not retained, Norton, who is there to witness the scene, prevent Doe from jumping if need be, or take away any items on his person if he succeeds (the exact opposite of Smith: the characters think for themselves, and the director does not follow), looks on the verge of repenting in one close-up. The official ending, tacked on at the last minute after it was suggested by someone who had seen a preview version, had John Doe being dissuaded from jumping by other John Does, who claimed they never trusted Norton and wanted to start anew; Capra called this ending "the best of a sorry lot, but still it was a letdown".
The second problem with the film is that the populist Capra unwittingly demonstrated in it, and to a lesser extent in Mr. Smith, that populism, even when sincere, could not be trusted. Joseph McBride, in his biography of Capra, even points to his "latent distrust of democracy" on display as early as 1937, when he visited the Soviet Union. The director's distrust also extended to the press, never the noble fourth estate holding public figures to account (though it rises very close to this ideal in 1928's aptly named The Power of the Press) and always either cynical beyond redemption (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Smith, even Platinum Blonde and It Happened One Night) or an instrument of propaganda (Smith again, Doe, State of the Union); to self-serving bureaucrats (a relief administrator in Meet John Doe: "People are going off relief. If this keeps up I'll be out of a job."); to interchangeable political parties and politicians (Smith, Doe, State of the Union); to business leaders and union bosses (Doe, Smith, State of the Union). Predictably, Capra falls back on the individual and the close-knit community as a last recourse. In his world, it pays off to have as many friends as possible (the poor farmers in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the neighbors in You Can't Take it With You, the Boy Rangers in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, other John Does in Meet John Doe, the residents of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life), and there will always be, against all odds, a person in a position of authority who will act fairly (the judge in Deeds, the Speaker of the Senate in Smith, the auditor at the end of It's a Wonderful Life), if not a villain undergoing a last-minute conversion (Senator Paine in Smith, the older Kirby in You Can't Take it With You, or Norton in one of the proposed endings to Doe), not to mention the female lead falling in love with the hapless hero after using him relentlessly (Deeds, Smith, Doe; It Happened One Night was the other way around). In the end, Capra's message is not unlike that attributed to Dickens by George Orwell: If men behaved decently the world would be decent.
One more thing, however, needs to be said: while Capra dismantles every institution as inadequate, hypocritical, or corrupt, he paradoxically wants to believe in the trappings of institutions — the monuments, the parades, the grand proclamations, the rituals of political life — as much as Longfellow Deeds (he who goes to town, as we will see later) and Jefferson Smith do, even as he drags his characters through disillusionment. Only Capra could end State of the Union — in which a politician (Spencer Tracy) seeking the Republican nomination to the presidency declares himself, in the middle of a broadcast, a fraud, an "Al Capone of politics" who reached out to the lowest common denominator, withdraws as a candidate, and now wants to go to both the Democratic and Republican conventions to "open doors, break down windows, let in fresh air", and so on — with a fanfare; never did he seem to realize that all the marble colonnades and the immortal phrases and the brass bands blaring Sousa marches were precisely what was maintaining the whole rotten system in place, and could in fact do far worse.
"I forgot how quickly the Americans smell out the double-dealers and the crooks", State of the Union's politician, Grant Matthews, tells his radio audience; yet Capra forgot how the John Does — most of them, anyway — could never smell out Norton's true intentions even as he disbanded their clubs, or that Smith's constituents sent reams of telegrams demanding his resignation based on the lies of the Taylor machine. To be fair to the director, Meet John Doe was refreshing in that it dared to look behind the façade of his ideas to see what might lurk in their shadow, even though the exercise still lacks in introspection and, as a result, fails as a cautionary tale. The John Doe Club was ostensibly a grassroots movement sharing in Capra's ideals; its slogan, printed on lapel buttons, was: "Be a better neighbor". Everyman John Doe, played by Everyman Gary Cooper, knew he was a fraud, but helped the movement because he believed it could help the downtrodden; when he looked behind the curtain, he found businessmen and influence brokers — worse, even. Noticed that "streamlined era" heralded by the "New Bulletin", these "daring times", in Norton's words, in which "a new order of things" would require "an iron hand"? It also happens that Norton, in addition to his media empire, commands — surprise, surprise — his very own paramilitary organization. Yes, Capra was subtlety incarnate.
What is Meet John Doe warning against, though? Fascism, obviously, but the situation in Europe — the film was released in May 1941 — is never mentioned, and there is nothing in the film to indicate that Norton is particularly concerned with international politics, even though one source claims that Capra made mention in the margins of his shooting script that Norton should be shown reading Mein Kampf. At the same time, none of the usual American varieties of fascism fit perfectly. Huey Long, the boisterous Louisiana politician often accused of fascism, was populist, ambitious, radical, corrupt; his assassination in 1935 left open the question of how high he could have risen, perhaps even to the presidency (he certainly thought he was destined for it: his second book was called My First Days in the White House). But was he a fascist? The first to disseminate the connection was the novelist Sinclair Lewis, with It Can't Happen Here, a roman à clef in which a populist president, Buzz Windrip, creates a paramilitary force and sends his opponents to concentration camps; later writers revisiting the enigmatic character of the Louisiana politician, such as John Dos Passos and Robert Penn Warren (the latter always denying that All the King's Men's Willie Stark was based on Long), would rather portray him as an idealist corrupted by power. Even if we concede that Long might have been a fascist, there is no Huey Long character in Meet John Doe, no fire-and-brimstone populist with a talent for making speeches in favour of the downtrodden while conspiring with business leaders. Gary Cooper's John Doe certainly had popular appeal, but he was the hero of the film and, above all, a puppet, while D.B. Norton could never have passed for a populist.
The John Doe movement is nonetheless strikingly similar to Long's Share our Wealth Society, which had more than 7.5 million members in 27,000 chapters across the United States at the time of his death. More radical than the New Deal in its agenda, the Society did not discriminate on the basis of race, yet it obtained the support of Father Charles Coughlin, who attacked everyone from President Franklin Roosevelt to Jewish financiers and later turned to fascism as a bulwark against the Communists. The difference between reality and fiction was that the John Doe Clubs proposed nothing apart from a fuzzy sense of communitarian self-reliance, leaving politicians from both parties perplexed, while the Share our Wealth Society, as its name implies, sought to tax the rich and introduce measures such as old-age pensions, caps on inheritances, and reforms of everything from agriculture to public utilities. Yet one cannot fathom how Meet John Doe could have considered the Share our Wealth Society a threat in 1941, as it fell apart shortly after Long's assassination, and none of its successor movements met with widespread popularity; as for its platform, the more palatable parts had been co-opted by the Roosevelt administration in the Second New Deal of 1935.
The more one looks into Meet John Doe, the more the fascist angle seems out of place. If it was intended to goad Americans into entering the war, the outlook remained decidedly insular — no Confessions of a Nazi Spy here. This is not to say that a fascist government could not have taken power in the United States in 1941, but that the likelihood would have been greater in 1933, when the Business Plot (a combination of disgruntled veterans and businessmen) was hatched and when no less an intellectual than Walter Lippmann was telling Roosevelt that he might have "no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers".
As it happens, there is one contemporary American film that captured this particular zeitgeist, Gregory LaCava's Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a major box office success. The Nation called it "the most important bad film of the year", and an internal memo at distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer called it "wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree" — not quite unexpected, since the film came from William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures. The newly elected Roosevelt, for whom Gabriel was supposedly intended as a guide to the presidency, is reported to have loved it enough to see it three times. His fictional counterpart in the film, President Judd Hammond (Walter Huston), a cynical wastrel modeled on Warren G. Harding, undergoes a religious conversion after an automobile accident, rules the country as a perfect benevolent dictator, disposes of gangsters with firing squads, compels other nations to repay their debts through gunboat diplomacy, achieves world peace, and dies "one of the greatest men who ever lived". No, it was not a parody, and the message had even been toned down at the request of M-G-M.
Meet John Doe is a failure in its treatment of fascism, even in its best scenes (the convention where Doe is exposed), because there is no sense of menace, none of the discomfort that accompanies a modern viewing of Gabriel Over the White House, in which what is chilling is the juxtaposition, in a positive light, of the dignity of the office of president — when it still had some — with the ugliness of totalitarian politics. Just before Gabriel's President Hammond forces his entire cabinet to resign to "facilitate a reconstruction of government", the camera solemnly rests on a bust of Lincoln. Shortly afterwards, the president tells Congress, about to impeach him: "You've been traitors to the concepts of democracy upon which this government was founded. I believe in democracy as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln believed in democracy; and if what I have planned to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator, then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson's definition of democracy: a government for the greatest good of the greatest number." Then he threatens to impose martial law.
Gabriel's depiction of American fascism worked because it understood both that the appeal of fascism lay in its depiction of democratic politics as hampering what needed to be done, and that for it to be popular in the United States it had to give the impression of stemming from American political tradition; Long, who, perhaps seeking to deflect attention from himself, famously asserted that fascism would come to the United States with an American flag in hand "under the name of protecting democracy from its enemies", was correct on this point. This also implied reducing the fascist paraphernalia to a minimum. Even though they exuded brute force, the uniforms, the jackboots and the salutes all seem grotesque today — even during fascism's heyday Orwell said of the goose-step that it was all about daring people to laugh at it —, and openly fascist American organizations such as the Silver Shirts (whose leader, William Pelley, also claimed to have gone through a spiritual transformation and ran for president in 1936 with dismal results) never went anywhere; American fascism, the film told us, would come through those who looked impeccably respectable, refined, civilized, best exemplified by the aristocrats who saw, rightly or not, the new order as a return to the old; and Hammond after his conversion was the closest one could find to an aristocrat in a country which supposedly eschewed aristocracy. At any rate, everything hinged on the claim (as with all fascist movements) that the leader was better than you, unlike a pugnacious crudity like Long, who, with his splendid populist oratory and awkward body language, fit exactly the mold Sinclair Lewis created after him, that of the Professional Common Man who was advised to refrain from "noble, rotund, Ciceronian gestures".
While we are on this subject, Lewis' It Can't Happen Here has been criticized for more or less just sprinkling Nazi elements on the kind of society the novelist had been ridiculing since Main Street and Babbitt; as it were, his greatest fear was less the supremacy of the Aryan than that of the Rotarian. The same can be said of Meet John Doe; what is Norton, without either the flamboyant speechifying of a Long or the otherworldliness of a Hammond, but an ambitious provincial bourgeois? In other words, Capra, who deals in archetypes (which is why he cast the same actors, including Arnold, in several of his films), falls back on what he knows and what he despises, offering us a version of fascism that is led neither by a populist bayou-dweller nor, despite Norton's media holdings, by a press baron in the Hearst tradition (in which case, Capra would have stood no chance against Orson Welles) but by little more than a carbon copy of James Taylor with a motor corps. Norton could have launched a party just as subservient to business as the two which already existed, and it, by itself, would have made Capra's point just as well as James Taylor had made it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the only difference between the two films is that Norton's thugs wear uniforms.
From this, it is worth asking whether Capra understood, albeit indirectly, that his diagnosis of the problems with American democracy, coupled with his aforementioned respect for the trappings of American institutions, could have led to exactly the variety of fascism espoused by Judd Hammond. The president in Gabriel Over the White House says he believes in democracy "as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln believed in democracy" just before talking of martial law; in Meet John Doe, the managing editor of the "New Bulletin", Henry Connell, is the first to warn Doe of Norton's true intentions with these lines:
CONNELL: "Yessir. I'm a sucker for this country. I'm a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner—and I'm a sucker for this country. I like what we got here! I like it! A guy can say what he wants—and do what he wants—without having a bayonet shoved through his belly. Now, that's all right, isn't it?"
DOE: "You betcha."
CONNELL: "All right. And we don't want anybody coming around changing it, do we?"
DOE: "No, sir."
CONNELL: "No, sir. And when they do I get mad! I get b-boiling mad. And right now, John, I'm sizzling! I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself—I get mad for a guy named Washington! And a guy named Jefferson—and Lincoln. Lighthouses, John! Lighthouses in a foggy world! You know what I mean?"
One says Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln serve as lighthouses in a foggy world; the other cites them to justify extinguishing the beacons. If both sides are reverential to them, Capra, it would appear, has attacked the wrong variety of fascism, the one so egregious and unpalatable to American tradition that the population would have turned away from Norton the moment they saw a paramilitary uniform around the John Doe Party — the one, in other words, that never was a threat anywhere in the United States except in the mind of the director. If, however, he had attacked the more insidious kind of fascism, the one that came with the American flag, the one that recited Jefferson with the grandeur of Lincoln, he would have, in the process, been forced to consider what his own beliefs, and his own films, might have led to, something he was evidently unwilling to do.
Capra was upset upon discovering that It Happened One Night had a fan in the person of Adolf Hitler, but there is nothing in that film that looks particularly suspect today. However, if we take for granted that the Hammond model was more plausible, it is worth considering that Capra may, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, have given us a possible version of Hammond in miniature in the person of Longfellow Deeds (also played by Cooper). The latter, just as Hammond (and Smith), is attracted to Americana, and his first intention when going to New York is to visit Grant's Tomb. Even though Mr. Deeds Goes to Town for the most part avoids politics, we can find in it, as Alistair Cooke said without the benefit of hindsight, the germ of Capra's later excesses, especially towards the end of the film.
If you have only seen the 2002 remake, Mr. Deeds, this has practically nothing to do with the original. The plot is broadly the same — a hick inherits a large sum of money, becomes disillusioned with life in the city, and gives his fortune away — and a few scenes are retained (house acoustics; the restaurant brawl; the lady journalist — a television reporter in the remake — romancing Deeds to get scoops, then falling in love with him), but everything else was turned into an Adam Sandler film; and if Gary Cooper was regarded as the American Everyman of the thirties, I doubt Sandler ever was shortlisted for that honour, because there is nothing flattering about a Sandler Everyman — he's a Jerry Lewis with fists, essentially.
The third and most important part of the original is abandoned entirely to be replaced by something even more naïve than anything coming from Capra's vision. In the remake, most of Deeds' fortune came from his deceased uncle's media company stock. Selling the stock, Deeds cuts a 40-billion-dollar cheque to the United Negro College Fund, but later realizes that the CEO of the company (also the attorney in charge of the succession), who bought the stock, intends to break up the company's assets and fire most of the workforce. Deeds buys back one share and attends the stockholders' meeting, where he persuades those in attendance of not dismantling the company by appealing to their childhood dreams. The CEO however points to the proxy votes he holds, giving him a majority even though every other stockholder is now siding with Deeds. At this point, a deus ex machina gives the dead billionaire whose fortune Deeds had inherited a hitherto-unknown illegitimate son, meaning that Deeds, a more distant relative, had not, according to the film's logic, inherited his fortune in the first place and had no right to dispose of it. (How the United Negro College Fund reacted when the cheque turned out to be a dud, we do not know.) When Gilbert and Sullivan used such endings, they, at least, were not meant to be taken seriously.
In the original, Deeds announces his plan to give his fortune away, and is put on trial for insanity as a result. The original Deeds' plan is more intricate, and more in keeping with the woes of the Depression: he wants to buy land and turn it over to farmers who had lost their livelihood. The opposition comes from Arthur Cedar, the attorney in charge of the succession; after Deeds denies him the power of attorney that would have allowed him to dissimulate the embezzlement he had undertaken when the uncle was still alive, he takes up the claim of the uncle's widow, who had been left out of the will, and tries to have Deeds committed on a diagnosis as trivial as manic depression. Deeds is an eccentric with a short fuse, who plays the tuba, likes to chase fire engines, and has little patience for sycophants. The audience knew he was sane — just as it later knew that Robert Conway in Lost Horizon was sane in his obsession to return to Shangri-La, or that the Sycamore family in You Can't Take it With You was sane — but here Capra tips his hand: the judge not only comes to the reasonable conclusion that Deeds is sane, but adds that he is "the sanest man that ever walked into this courtroom". Yet this sanest of all men was also one who believed in individual endeavor and free enterprise. He tells a flagging opera company — of which he had just, like his late uncle, been made honorary chairman in expectation of a financial contribution — that it should try to be profitable ("maybe it isn't to you, but it certainly is a business to me, if I have to make up a loss of $180,000"; "maybe you're selling bad merchandise"). He expels the first attorney of his uncle's widow after the lawyer offers to settle for a lesser amount, because, in Deeds' logic, nobody who asks for seven million would settle for just one, which apparently invalidates the claim altogether — even though at first Deeds was willing to give her everything. After this brief moment of generosity, it is only after he discovers that the lady he had fallen in love with (again Jean Arthur) was a reporter mocking him in print that he decides to give his fortune away.
Arthur Cedar, at the trial, claims the matter goes beyond one insane man and that it is, in fact, of national importance:
"In these times, with the country incapacitated by economic ailments, and endangered with an undercurrent of social unrest, the promulgation of such a weird, fantastic and impractical plan as contemplated by the defendant, is capable of fomenting a disturbance from which the country may not soon recover. It is our duty to stop it! Our government is fully aware of its difficulties and can pull itself out of its economic rut without the assistance of Mr. Deeds, or any other crackpot."
A few minutes later, he adds:
"If this man is permitted to carry out his plan, repercussions will be felt that will rock the foundations of our entire governmental system!"
What allows the film to remain effective is that at no point is the veracity of Cedar's assertion ever tested, something which the later Capra could rarely resist. At first, Deeds does not fight the charge of insanity; he only does so when the reporter who had tricked him declares her love for him.
When asked about his plan, Deeds replies that "from what I can see, no matter what system of government we have, there will always be leaders and always be followers", and proceeds to make a comparison to the cars trying to climb the hill into the front of his house. He "was going to give each family ten acres - a horse, a cow and some seed. And if they work the farm for three years, it's theirs." Deeds' philosophy seems akin to distributism, but it is more or less a moneyed version of King Vidor's Our Daily Bread (1934), a film in which can be found an anti-democratic streak. Even if we remain charitable to Deeds, the proximity of the Vidor treatment certainly raises a few questions about his motivations. What would be Deeds' relationship with his farmers? Would he become their leader beyond dealing with logistics and infrastructure? Who would run the local government? Would he have a say in farm management, or would it be left to the farmers? What if the farmers failed before the three years were through? What if Deeds' noblesse oblige turned out a little too heavy on the noblesse? The film does not tell us. Could it be that Cedar was made to denounce Deeds' plan because he was be the least credible person who could raise an otherwise valid point?
By 1941, this was irrelevant. Riskin and Capra fell out after the release of Meet John Doe as a result of the director's self-aggrandizement, and Capra turned to the film adaptation of the play Arsenic and Old Lace — which would only be released in 1944, after the Broadway production had ended — for Warner Brothers. Cary Grant's performance is one of the few highlights of the film, a black comedy in which there is just too much whimsy to my liking. This would be Capra's last commercial film until the end of World War II; he had almost finished it when came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he enlisted in the army within days, where he was tasked with producing propaganda films.
The best-known of his works from his time in uniform is the seven-part Why We Fight series, narrated by Walter Huston. It is still highly regarded today, but there are predictably a few offensive gems to be found in them, such as the inevitable reference to the "buck-toothed Japs" and the suggestion that it was a great boon to Poland that it had not been "completely destroyed" by the Nazis in 1939 as a result of the Soviets invading the remaining part. The choice of Capra to direct films justifying the American entry into the war (as if Pearl Harbor had not been enough) is in itself quite rich. The first of the Why We Fight films, Prelude to War, includes a passage stating that "we simply did not want to understand that our individual and national problems were, and always will be, dependent upon the problems of the whole world", yet Lost Horizon and You Can't Take it With You were nothing if not frankly isolationist films; by the time he made Mr. Smith to Washington, Capra had doubts — "the cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic, but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world's attention to the pimple of graft on its nose" — but he went ahead anyway. And Meet John Doe, as we have seen, was not really better.
In Lost Horizon, an airplane carrying westerners who had escaped from the Chinese Civil War, including British diplomat Robert Conway and his brother George, runs out of fuel and crashes in the mountains. The passengers make their way to a lamasery named Shangri-La, where people live for hundreds of years. The two brothers later leave, accompanied by the woman George met at the lamasery and fell in love with. She reverts to her real age and dies on the way back, and George throws himself off a mountain, but Robert continues alone and is rescued. He soon becomes obsessed with returning permanently to Shangri-La; whereas the novel on which the film was based left uncertain the success of his return, the last scene of the film shows him finally discovering the entrance to the lamasery.
Lost Horizon appeared while the Chinese were fighting each other instead of the Japanese, but the first page of the text introduction reads: "In these days of wars and rumors of wars — haven't you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?" According to a scene that was cut from the 1937 general release but reinserted during the restoration of the print undertaken in the seventies, Robert Conway, who is about to be made Britain's new Foreign Secretary, is a pacifist:
"I'm not going to have an army. I'm going to disband mine. I'm going to sink my battleships - I'm going to destroy every piece of warcraft. Then when the enemy approaches we'll say, "Come in, gentlemen - what can we do for you?" So then the poor enemy soldiers will stop and think. And what will they think, Freshie? They'll think to themselves — "Something's wrong here. We've been duped. This is not according to form. These people seem to be quite friendly, and why should we shoot them?" Then they'll lay down their arms."
The picture failed to recoup its budget during its original run, strained relations between Capra and Columbia head Harry Cohn, and only became profitable when it was re-released in 1942, properly trimmed for the war effort, as if the overall message could be altered by removing a scene here and there. Even Prelude to War pointed to the utopian world of Lost Horizon; having shown how the Axis powers would divide the world between themselves, the narration added: "All they left us was Shangri-La, and they'd claim that too if they knew where it was." The picture was re-released again in 1952, with further cuts to reflect that the Chinese were no longer allies but Communist heathens. Then it was infamously remade as a musical in 1973, with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; it was critically derided and flopped at the box office.
Lost Horizon was the first clear indication that Capra had completely reversed his position from just five years earlier. The opening titles to The Miracle Woman claimed the film was "offered as a rebuke to anyone who, under the cloak of Religion, seeks to sell for gold, God's choicest gift to Humanity — FAITH". Lost Horizon never was openly religious, but it did try to sell something just as intangible. When asked whether he believes in the existence of Shangri-La, a character replies to conclude the film: "Yes, I believe it. I believe it because I want to believe it. Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Here's my hope that Robert Conway will find his Shangri-La. Here's my hope that we all find our Shangri-La."
Capra's next film, You Can't Take it With You (1938) was, in the words of Otis Ferguson, "Shangri-La in a frame house", which one website mistook for a compliment. An expensive frame house, too; Columbia paid an unprecedented $200,000 for the rights to the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The film made a star of James Stewart and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it is now considered inferior to Capra's other films from this period. The play, in comparison, has been revived several times, and it is not surprising: with the exception of the White Russians and the black servants, you could almost mistake it for a stage adaptation of Arrested Development, down to every idiosyncratic excess. How deftly does it move from the era of George S. Kaufman to that of Charlie Kaufman! In other words, it is unbearable. The Sycamore family is full of loveable eccentrics who like ballet dancing, xylophone playing, homemade fireworks. One of them (still Jean Arthur) loves Tony Kirby (still James Stewart), the son of the munitions magnate (still Edward Arnold) who tries to buy their home to build a new factory (this is a Capra-Riskin touch not found in the play). But the most endearing character is the Sycamore patriarch, Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), whose eccentricity is to love not paying his taxes.
In a scene transferred directly from the play, the Internal Revenue Service sends an agent to convince him. "What are they going to give me?" asks Vanderhof. "I wouldn't mind paying for something sensible." "What about Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President?", the government official asks him. No. The Army and Navy? "The last time we used battleships was in the Spanish-American War. What did we get out of that? Cuba. And we gave that back." And when it became clear that the two would remain at loggerheads, audience over, back to our little self-indulgent eccentricities, and the taxman's protests are drowned by the din of the xylophone accompanied, on cue, by the grotesque arabesques of the would-be ballerina and the sound of fireworks from the cellar.
In one scene, Vanderhof's daughter Penny, who loves to write awful plays (were Hart and Kaufman on to something here?), seeks his advice about what to do with her heroine. Here is what he offers:
"Why don't you write a play about ism-mania?.... You know. Communism. Fascism. Voodooism. Everybody's got an "ism" these days.... When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out and get yourself an "ism" and you're in business.... Only give her Americanism. Let her know something about Americans. John Paul Jones. Patrick Henry. Samuel Adams. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Edison. Mark Twain. When things got tough with those boys they didn't go around looking for "isms". Lincoln said: "With malice toward none, and charity to all." Nowadays they say "think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights out of you"."
Yet is there anything more crass, more self-indulgent, than Grandpa Vanderhof's motto of "don't do anything that you're not going to enjoy doing"? You don't enjoy paying taxes? Don't pay them! One wonders how Grandpa Vanderhof's refusal to pay his taxes would have been received just a few years later, when those (let's keep up with the times) aircraft carriers were badly needed? My guess is that he wouldn't have had a house from which to proclaim it, as Kirby would have taken over the land, with the US Government's blessing, to build his munitions factory.
By some coincidence, You Can't Take it With You opened in Los Angeles on September 30, 1938, the exact day Neville Chamberlain said something about peace for our time; when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released, this was no longer true.
After the war, Capra was considered out of touch with the new reality. His first film after his discharge from the army was It's a Wonderful Life, which failed. Then came State of the Union; it would be his last political film. He made four more features, two of them remakes, starring the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. In 1971, he published his autobiography, modestly called The Name above the Title, which has been criticized for its embellishments and inaccuracies. He died twenty years later.
What is left of Capra's work today? If a director's worth is determined by the mediocrity of other people's remakes of his films, he was a genius; unfortunately, any mention of him today will inevitably include the word "Capra-corn". Many of his films are still quite watchable — It Happened One Night, to which I have given short shrift in this essay, is probably the best, while It's a Wonderful Life remains a Christmas classic — but of his more serious political work nothing can be really retained, if not a few great performances and a handful of memorable scenes. It is not because the context in which they appeared is no longer relevant; on the contrary, it would be interesting to discuss whether Grant Matthews' designs on the Republican nomination in State of the Union could be compared to the ascendancy of the Tea Party, or whether the John Doe movement can provide an explanation for the failure of protest organizations, including the poseurs of Occupy. It is, rather, because he provided contrived upbeat endings to problems for which he offered no concrete solution beyond wishful thinking, and never carried his films to their logical, tragic conclusion.
With Capra, it was always the small victories; by the time of the great defeats that one could see looming in the distance, the cameras had long stopped rolling. The horizon was lost, and there was no Shangri-La.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3451
originally posted: 10/27/12 02:56:18
last updated: 01/04/13 18:06:10