Capra was often thought to be a populist. But Capra did not assume that a virtuous opinion existed in the people, or that the people simply needed mobilizing. He was aware that the modern public is created by modern mass media whose techniques spawn mass society, posing a danger to individual freedom. Capra wrote that his films “embodied the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled into an ort by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.” He did not believe in the use of mass power to improve society or to right historical wrongs. Reform, he thought, must take place through moral regeneration—thus through moral education.
Consider Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an idealistic man goes to Congress, runs into rampant corruption, becomes despondent, is later inspired at the Lincoln Memorial, decides against hope to stand on principle, and prevails. Capra had doubts about making Mr. Smith. While in Washington preparing for the film, he attended a press conference in which President Roosevelt outlined the great problems facing the nation. Capra wondered whether it was a good time to make a dramatic comedy about Washington politics. In his troubled state he visited the Lincoln Memorial, where he saw a boy reading Lincoln’s words to an elderly man. He decided, he later wrote, that he “must make the film, if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa.” He left the Lincoln Memorial that day, he recalled,
with this growing conviction about our film: The more uncertain are the people of the world . . . 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 [the film’s lead character, played by Jimmy Stewart] would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor. . . . It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.
When watching Mr. Smith, it is important to notice where Capra locates the corruption. FDR customarily attacked “economic royalists,” or the private corruption of corporations and monopolies. For FDR, the solution to corruption was to be found through the government and through the unions, which would combat the economic forces of the private sphere. But in Mr. Smith, Capra located the corruption not in the private but in the political sphere—it was the politicians who had usurped the institutions of government on behalf of their own interests and the special interests. When Smith goes to Washington he reveres a Senator from his state who had been a friend of his father. Smith’s father, a newspaperman, had been killed while defending an independent prospector against a mining syndicate that was likely in cahoots with the union. Capra, like Smith and his father, understood America in terms of a common good—a good established by the principles of equality and liberty as the foundation of individual rights.
The setting of Mr. Smith is deliberately timeless. There is no mention of the Depression or of impending war. There is no indication of partisanship. What Capra hopes to bring to life are the words that have been carved in stone on Washington, D.C.’s monuments, but which are now forgotten. That is Jefferson Smith’s purpose as well. In a central scene in the movie, gazing at the lighted dome of the Capitol, Smith says:
. . . boys forget what their country means by just reading “the land of the free” in history books. Then they get to be men, they forget even more. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. . . . Men should hold it up in front of them every single day . . . and say, “I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can. And my children will.”
What Smith is advocating in the film is the establishment of a boys camp that will teach them about the principles of their country. Moreover, it is not to be paid for by the taxpayers, but with a loan from the government to be paid for by the boys themselves. At the climax of Smith’s battle in the Senate, he says this:
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. . . . You won’t just see scenery. You’ll see . . . what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting . . . for something better than just jungle law—fighting so 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 if that’s what the grown-ups have done with this world that was given to them, then we better get those boys camps started fast and see what the kids can do. It’s not too late. . . . Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here. You just
have to see them again.
For Capra, like Lincoln, the problem is how to make people see the principles again.
The politicians in Washington in 1939 did not like their portrayal in Mr. Smith. Many tried to keep the movie from being shown. Capra thought it to be a ringing defense of democracy—and the people agreed. It was a tremendous success, not only in America, but throughout the world. In 1942, a month before the Nazi occupation of France was to begin, the Vichy government asked the French people what films they wanted to see before American and British films were banned by the Germans. The great majority wanted to see Mr. Smith. One theater in Paris played the movie for 30 straight nights.