Capra’s last great movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, was made in 1946. Shortly before making it, he said, “There are just two things that are important. One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.” This movie, he wrote, summed up his philosophy of filmmaking: “First, to exalt the worth of the individual; to champion man—plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit or divinity.” Capra understood that Hollywood would be changing, because the culture and society had begun to change. The historical and personal categories of class and race had become political, and self-expression and self-indulgence had replaced those civic virtues that require self-restraint. In his 1971 autobiography—imagine what he would think today—he wrote that “practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates.”
In 1982, when he was in his 85th year, Capra was awarded the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. In his acceptance speech, he touched on the things that had been most important in his life. He spoke of celebrating his sixth birthday in steerage on a 13-day voyage across the Atlantic. He recalled the lack of privacy and ventilation, and the terrible smell. But he also remembered the ship’s arrival in New York Harbor, when his father brought him on deck and showed him the Statue of Liberty: “Cicco look!” his illiterate peasant father had said. “Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.” Capra remembered. In his speech to the Hollywood elite so many years later, he revealed his formula for moviemaking. He said: “The art of Frank Capra is very, very simple. It’s the love of people. Add two simple ideals to this love of people—the freedom of each individual and the equal importance of each individual—and you have the principle upon which I based all my films.”
It is hard to think of a better way to describe Frank Capra’s view of the world, and America’s place in fulfilling its purpose, than to turn to another great American who made his living in the world of motion pictures. Ronald Reagan was a friend and admirer of Frank Capra. They were very much alike. The inscription that Reagan had carved on his tombstone could have been written by Capra: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” Both Capra and Reagan looked to a benevolent and enduring Providence, and the best in man’s nature, as the ultimate grounds of political right. For them, as for Lincoln, America was more than a geographical location or a place where citizens shared a common blood or religion, or belonged to a common culture or tradition. America was a place where an enlightened understanding of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” had made it possible to establish those principles of civil and religious liberty that gave “purpose and worth to each and every life.”
Capra was aware that the moral foundations established by those principles, as well as belief in God, had become endangered by the transformations in American life following World War II. He saw the necessity of reviving the moral education necessary to preserve the conditions of freedom, because he understood that in a democracy, the people must not only participate in the rule of others, they must also learn to govern themselves.
In his last and most personal tribute to his adopted country, Capra recalled his family’s arrival at Union Station in Los Angeles after their long journey across America in 1903. When they got off the train, his mother and father got on their knees and kissed the ground. Capra’s last words to his assembled audience were these: “For America, for just allowing me to live here, I kiss the ground.” Capra did not believe that he had a right to be a citizen of America. Rather he was grateful for the privilege of living in America. He understood that freedom not only offers economic opportunity, but establishes a duty for all citizens—a duty to preserve the conditions of freedom not only for themselves, but for their posterity. Only those willing to bear the burdens of freedom have a right to its rewards.
For Capra, the real America was to be understood in terms of its virtues, which are derived from its principles. In his view, his art was dedicated to keeping those virtues alive—by making those principles live again in the speeches and deeds of that most uncommon phenomenon of human history, the American common man. It was the simple, unsophisticated, small-town common American that Capra celebrated in his films. But for Capra, as for his friend John Ford, no one epitomized this phenomenon better than Abraham Lincoln.
For American elites today, and for too many of the American people as well, the past has come to seem no longer meaningful to the present, and the celebration of the heroes of the past, like Lincoln, has come to seem naïve. Looking ahead, I’m afraid, the moral regeneration of America that Capra had hoped to bring about will require more than a Capra. It will require a Lincoln.