Capra, Frank (1897–1991)

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan criticized Congress for its opposition to his Supreme Court nominee, the right-wing Robert Bork, by citing one of the most iconic scenes from Frank Capra's oeuvre: Jefferson Smith's stand against the corrupt machinations of Washington in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) . “Jimmy Stewart stands in the well of the Senate,” Reagan summarized for the representatives, “and says that the lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for . . . I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room . . . is filled with lies. So will I” (Rogin and Moran 215 ). Reagan's alignment of himself with Jefferson Smith, the naïve Washington outsider who recalls the Senate to its lost ideals, was later repeated in Sarah Palin's 2010 autobiography, America by Heart: Family, Flag, and Freedom. Palin explains the enduring popularity of Mr. Smith by stating, “It's about an ordinary man who stands up and says, ‘We're taking our country back.’” Reagan's and Palin's respective references to Capra's film attest to the influence of Frank Capra's cinematic populism on U.S. politics and how politicians have appropriated his narratives and imagery.

Director Frank Capra was a first-generation Italian immigrant whose family moved to the United States in 1903 and settled in Southern California. Hailed as one of the most notable progressive directors of the 1930s by the proletariat newspaper Daily Worker, Capra's career ranged from his production of canonical romantic comedies of the 1920s and 1930s such as Lady for a Day (1933) and It Happened One Night (1934) to his seven-film propaganda series Why We Fight (1945), chronicling the United States’ involvement in World War II. Arguably, he is most well known for It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and his “little man” trilogy of the 1930s, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) , and Meet John Doe (1941)

Released during the same year that Mount Rushmore was unveiled, Mr. Smith foregrounds national monuments and seeks to repair the divide between the nation's ideals and its governmental practices. Jefferson Smith, the leader of the Boy Rangers (an organization inspired both by the Boy Scouts and the New Deal–era Civilian Conservative Corps), is appointed to an open Senate seat by corrupt politicians who hope to capitalize on his ignorance of politics and the mainstream appeal of his patriotism. “He knows Washington by heart,” an earnest Boy Ranger advertises. This statement is later reiterated to ironic effect by the compromised Governor Hubert Hopper, who assures his boss, Jim Taylor, that Jefferson Smith does not, in fact, know the operations of Washington by heart and will therefore be compliant. While Smith is dismissed by his colleagues and the news media as a “Daniel Boone” who needs to return to the backwoods of his western American hometown, Smith's proposal of a bill that would establish a camp for boys and his commitment to the nation's ideals results in the exposure of his corrupt colleagues. In the penultimate scene that President Reagan later cited, an exhausted Smith embarks upon an extended filibuster consisting of passages from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bible. After he is shown telegrams demanding his resignation as a result of Jim Taylor's smear campaign against him, Smith insists that he will continue to fight for the lost causes and faints onto the floor. His collapse prompts his fellow representative to confess to the plot against Smith and predicts the recuperation of the nation's integrity and innocence.

At the time of its release, Mr. Smith was denounced by politicians for what they charged was its cynical portrayal of U.S. democracy. As Eric Smoodin and Michael Rogin and Kathleen Moran have documented, Ambassador to England Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film's distribution in Europe, and House Majority Leader Alben Barkley averred that it was “‘as grotesque as anything I've ever seen!’” (Rogin and Moran 214 ). Yet the film was commercially successful and subsequently canonized as a model of how government should work. Photoplay Guides, a publishing firm that produced educational guides for junior high and high school curricula, produced editions that focused on the film and provided discussion questions for instructors who wished to use it in their classrooms. Although Mr. Smith's successor, Meet John Doe, explored darker concerns with the manipulation of the people through news media, it, too, provided a similar lesson in the power of the people to ultimately triumph over moneyed interests.

Rachel Ann Walsh

See also: Film ; New Deal ; Palin, Sarah (1964–) ; Reagan, Ronald, Populist Rhetoric of ; Socialism, Christian ; Tea Party


Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Gehring, Wes D. Populism and the Capra Legacy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

It's a Wonderful Life! Dir., Frank Capra. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946.

Meet John Doe. Dir., Frank Capra. Warner Bros, 1941.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Dir., Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures Incorporated, 1936.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dir., Frank Capra. Columbia Pictures Incorporated, 1939.

Palin, Sarah. America by Heart: Reflections on Faith, Flag, and Freedom. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Rogin, Michael P., and Kathleen Moran. “Mr. Capra Goes to Washington.” Representations 84 (1): 213–248.

Smoodin, Eric. “‘Compulsory’ Viewing for Every Citizen: Mr. Smith and the Rhetoric of Reception.” Cinema Journal 35 (2): 3–23.