Sunday, March 27, 2011

Frank Capra, Socialism, and the American Hero



As director of such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra plays an essential role in the reinterpretation of American mythology following the Great Depression. Capra creates his own brand of American Hero: the honest small-town man forced to combat a corrupted system in order to best provide for the greater public. However, contrary to the more capitalist fashioning of the American Hero as a rags-to-riches individual, Capra portrays the Hero as inextricably connected to his community, a man who simultaneously acts as a communal savior and relies the community for validation and meaning. Capra even states this rather explicitly through the conclusion of It's a Wonderful Life:



"No man is a failure who has friends."

While Capra was a staunch anti-Communist activist, the content of his films—the villanizing of bankers and government bureaucrats, the portrayal of community as the site of moral redemption—are often characterized by a sharp undercurrent of socialism. The ideology in his films and characterization of the American Hero proved popular with American audiences in the early and mid-1930s; as the decade wore on, however, Capra's films became less and less appreciated, grossing lower box-office revenue and receiving criticism from both the film community and the federal government. What, then, changed in the thirteen years between 1933, when Capra released his first film Lady for a Day, and 1946, when It's a Wonderful Life was released to almost no box-office revenue? As Capra's protagonists are the products of a socialist envisioning of the American Hero, their relevance to the American public fluctuated with the general sentiment toward socialism. Capra's films were most successful when many Americans saw socialism, or some of its elements, as a solution to the national woes of the Great Depression. In the years directly before and during America's participation in World War II, however, Capra's films underwent much more scrutiny, as they seemed to promote the ideology of a potentially dangerous foreign power.

The Hero's Journey

The narratives of the many incarnations of Capra's American Hero often take the same route. First, a young, idealistic man falls suddenly into a professional or financial position in which he is at great risk to be taken advantage of. Consider the following clip from Capra's 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which greeting card writer and tuba player Longfellow Deeds inherits $20 million and is forced to leave his small town of Mandrake Falls to live in New York City alongside a team of scheming lawyers:


Here, Capra's dichotomy between the supportive rural community and the conniving urban lawyers is made incredibly clear: the townspeople, cheering en masse around their tuba-playing golden boy Longfellow Deeds, stand in stark contrast to the suit-clad, cigar-toting New York lawyers. The lawyers are already implicitly vilified by their financial extravagance; their wealth is portrayed as a symptom of their corruption, not the result of hard work. The unapologetically-drawn connection between concentrated wealth and moral decay, a common theme in Capra's films, is particularly reminiscent of socialist ideology, echoing Karl Marx's assertion of the “disastrous effects” and “dissolution of moral bonds” caused by the “crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth” (Marx, 1848).

After becoming entrapped into a system of greed and deceit, the Hero is forced to fight against the corrupted powers. He does so not to avenge the misdeeds performed against him, but rather, in the name of his community. Take, for example, the following from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which small-town senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, gives a final speech to the corrupt Washington elite (the speech begins at the 1:05 mark):

Smith's argument against the current state of the government revolves around one principle forgotten by the bureaucrats: “Love thy neighbor.” Though the words are taken from a religious text, they still reinforce the socialist idea of public service before self-service. Corruption, Capra here asserts, is a result of the disconnection between those in power and the common man. Morality can only be restored when the greater public regains some of this power, and Capra's American Hero has the great responsibility to lead this movement. In the most telling example, Capra concludes Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Longfellow Deed's decision to give up his exorbitant inheritance in order to avoid the crooked city life. He does not, however, simply give the money away; instead, he buys a farm for each family in poverty-stricken Mandrake Falls. This action reads clearly as a redistribution of property, a direct response to Marx's claim that “property relations” between the powerful and the powerless are “the conditions for existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule” (Marx, 1848).

A Public in Need of a Savior

After the mass destruction of the Great Depression at the hands of bakers and Wall Street financiers, many Americans became much more inclined toward socialist ideology. Through it had previously been dismissed as an example of ideological extremism, the American Communist Party began to enter the mainstream as they endorsed President Roosevelt's legislative agenda in 1935 (Brinkley, 2010). The party even began to market itself as the savior of modern America, using the slogan “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism” (Brinkley, 2010).

While the American Communist Party represented the most outwardly socialist organization, elements of socialist ideology—that power should be returned to the workers, that wealth should be distributed equally—found their way into public and political discourse. Louisiana Senator Huey Long's proposed Share-Our-Wealth Plan, for example, sought to use the tax system to take excess money from the upper classes, using the funds to assure that each household would have a $5,000 “homestead” and an annual $2,500 salary (Brinkley, 2010). Long's plan was so popular with the American public that a poll taken in the spring of 1935 suggested he could win a full 10% of the vote as a third party candidate.

That same year also brought another breakthrough in legislation tinged with socialist ideology: the Wagner Act. This law created the National Labor Relations Board, an organization which forced employers to recognize unions as legitimate, thereby giving greater power to the workers (Brinkley, 2010). The congressional and public support of the Wagner Act suggests that socialism, or socialist ideas, were not a threat in the mid-1930s; on the contrary, they were seen as the likely salvation of a depressed economy.

It is for this reason that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town resonated so profoundly with American audiences in 1936. The film, for which Capra won an Oscar for Best Direction, was a monumental box-office success, grossing less than only one other film in the history of American cinema up to that point: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (Carney, 1986). This popularity was a result of the the Capra's understanding of the new moral alignment that arose the wake of the Great Depression: that corporations, financiers, and the wealthy elite are inherently corrupt; and that the hardworking, community-oriented man is the soldier for good.

Turning Point

As the decade wore on, however, and the rest of the world surged into war, Americans became much more weary of socialism. As there was an incredible amount of turmoil abroad—government takeovers, transnational invasions, civil wars—many Americans sought to maintain their own country's stability. Thus, an ideology preaching complete overturn of wealth and power lost popularity among the American public.

In 1940, the President signed into law the Smith Act, which allowed the government to imprison any person who distributes written or verbal communication advocating the overthrow or destruction of the United States government (Johnson, 1958). This law was deliberately used to target political outliers, especially socialist activists. Socialism had lost favor with the greater American public since the 1939 nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, when the American Communist Party resumed its sharp criticism of the American governmental system and abandoned its positive reputation in exchange for a more threatening one (Brinkley, 2010). As a result, thousands of Americans left the party, further adding to the growing sensation of suspicion surrounding the socialist ideology (Brinkley, 2010). The Smith Act was simply a reaction to this suspicion. In 1941, the first major trial under the Smith Act prosecuted members of the Minneapolis Socialist Workers Party and union workers (Johnson, 1958). Through the Smith Act, socialists were positioned as a threat to national security; they were not simply advocates for change, but rather, mercenaries sent to collapse the American way of life.

It was during this period that Capra's films began to come under fire. His 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was cautioned by Joseph Breen, director of the censorship office of the MPAA, that before the film is produced, it should address the following concern:

"the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government" (Maltby, 2003).

Here, it becomes clear that in the wake of World War II, Capra's American Hero has become a terrorist. He no longer fights against the corrupted system for the good of the common man; he threatens the strong America, finding and exploiting weakness in order to create chaos. While the film still grossed well in the box-office, it was still considered by critics and the public alike to be controversial, a label it may have avoided had it been produced five years earlier (Dirks, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)").

By the end of the war, however, Capra's imagining of the American Hero had ceased to be a threat; rather, he had become completely irrelevant to American life. Though the movie is ironically the most time-tested of Capra's films, his 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life was virtually ignored by moviegoers at the time. It was a verifiable failure at the box-office, its revenue paling in comparison to that of his other films (Dirks, "It's a Wonderful Life (1946)"). After World War II, Capra's heroes and villains—the honest community man and the greedy banker—seemed dated, ghosts of the Great Depression unable to again make themselves relevant. In 1947, the Oscar-winning picture was William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a film documenting the lives of men home from their service in World War II ("19th Academy Awards (1947)"). The difference between this film and Capra's of the same year clearly conveys the transition of American mythology between the 1930s and 1940s: after the war, the hero is the man who fights enemies abroad, not at home.

Works Cited

Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: a Concise History of the American People. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.

Carney, Raymond. American Vision: the Films of Frank Capra. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Print.

Dirks, Tim. "It's A Wonderful Life (1946)." Greatest Films: The Best Movies in Cinematic History. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. .

Dirks, Tim. "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)." Greatest Films: The Best Movies in Cinematic History. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. .

Johnson, Claudius O. "The Status of Freedom of Expression Under the Smith Act." The Western Political Quarterly 11.3 (1958): 469. JSTOR. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.

Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema: an Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. Print.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

"The 19th Academy Awards (1947)." Oscars.org: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.


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