The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 3, 2015, during a conference on the films of Frank Capra sponsored by the College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives.
Filmmaker Frank Capra was not an American by birth or blood. Consequently he did not understand America, as many Americans do today, in terms of personal categories of identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. He understood America in terms of its political principles—the moral principles of America that can be shared by all who understand them and are willing to live up to them. This was Abraham Lincoln’s understanding as well. In a speech in Chicago in 1858, Lincoln noted that many citizens of that time did not share the blood of the “old men” of America’s Founding generation. But, he continued,
. . . when they look through the old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principles in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
Frank Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and came to America in 1903. Yet by the 1930s, his movies—movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe—were said to embody the best in America. Capra’s films were nominated for 35 Academy Awards and won eight, including two for best picture and three for best director. But Capra’s star faded after the Second World War, and by the end of the revolutionary decade of the 1960s, the actor and director John Cassavettes could say: “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.” By that time, Capra’s films were widely viewed as feel-good fantasies about a country that never was. But is that view correct?
Capra, like Lincoln, believed that our inherited political edifice of liberty and equal rights is a fundamental good. He believed that if our treasure is in the ideas of our fathers, it is the duty of each generation to make those ideas live through the proper kind of education—including through literature and art, including his own art of filmmaking. Accordingly, he believed it is important to celebrate the deeds of those ordinary individuals who continue to exercise the virtues necessary to maintain those ideas.
In celebrating these deeds in his movies, Capra rejected social or economic theories based on progressivism or historicism—theories in which the idea of natural right is replaced with struggles for power based on categories such as race and class. Such theories had taken root not only in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but elsewhere in the West—especially in the universities. As political theorist Hannah Arendt observed during World War II:
Among ideologies few have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to obtain state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries in which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept any presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with these views.
It is not surprising, then, that Capra’s films came to be viewed by critics, especially after the 1960s, through the lens of those economic or social theories.