Hollywood director Frank Capra directed many classic films including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, he thought his best work was the Why We Fight series of films that he directed for the Army during World War II. Sicilian born Capra was the son of Italian immigrants and was an American patriot to his fingertips. He served in the Army during World War I as a Second Lieutenant. Immediately after Peal Harbor he enlisted in the Army. He was put to work making films explaining to American GIs why the US had to fight and win World War II. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall explained to Capra the importance of this task:
Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting … You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and the cause of freedom. Are you aware of that, sir?
The films he produced are widely considered to be masterpieces today. Continue reading
Hard to believe, but there was an FBI report in 1947 that deemed It’s a Wonderful Life as Communist propaganda:
To: The Director
COMMUNIST INFILTRATION OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY (RUNNING MEMORANDUM)
There is submitted herewith the running memorandum concerning Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry which has been brought up to date as of May 26, 1947…. With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
>In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.” [redacted] recalled that approximately 15 years ago, the picture entitled “The Letter” was made in Russia and was later shown in this country. He recalled that in this Russian picture, an individual who had lost his self-respect as well as that of his friends and neighbors because of drunkenness, was given one last chance to redeem himself by going to the bank to get some money to pay off a debt. The old man was a sympathetic character and was so pleased at his opportunity that he was extremely nervous, inferring he might lose the letter of credit or the money itself. In summary, the old man made the journey of several days duration to the bank and with no mishap until he fell asleep on the homeward journey because of his determination to succeed. On this occasion the package of money dropped out of his pocket. Upon arriving home, the old man was so chagrined he hung himself. The next day someone returned the package of money to his wife saying it had been found. [redacted] draws a parallel of this scene and that of the picture previously discussed, showing that Thomas Mitchell who played the part of the man losing the money in the Capra picture suffered the same consequences as the man in the Russian picture in that Mitchell was too old a man to go out and make money to pay off his debt to the banker. Continue reading
When the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeared in 1939, many intelligent observers were predicting that the age of Democracy was at an end and that the age of Fascism and Communism was dawning. Democracy, perhaps, was a lost cause. In the face of a tide of totalitarianism that seemed to be destined to engulf the globe, Frank Capra made this film celebrating Democracy.
It is a very odd sort of celebration. The film starkly presents one of the key problems in any Democracy: the political corruption that mocks the ability of the people to rule themselves.
Jefferson Smith, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in his first leading man role, is a grown-up boy scout. He has never surrendered his belief in this country and its ideals, because he has always lived in a sort of never-never land that he has created. He is the head of the Boy Rangers (the Boy Scouts foolishly refused to allow their name to be used in the film), and he looks at the world with the idealism of a boy who simply wants to do what is right. One of the senators from his state, Sam Foley, dies in office. The governor of his state, an indecisive man, decides to appoint Smith to the Senate based upon the recommendation of his children and because he realizes that he will not be criticized for appointing this do-gooder. The man who actually controls the state, political boss Jim Taylor, unforgettably portrayed by Edward Arnold, goes along with the choice after being assured that Smith is a babe in the woods and will be easy to manipulate.
The senior senator from the state, Joseph Paine, is surprised to learn that Smith is the son of an old friend of his, a crusading small town newspaper editor, who was murdered in the course of one of his crusades. Paine was a crusading attorney, but he has long since sold his soul to Jim Taylor: a senate seat in exchange for Paine serving as Taylor’s man in Washington.
Jefferson Smith does seem initially to be a very poor choice to fill a spot in the Senate. He is filled with idealism, but has almost no knowledge about what a senator does. He does have one big goal however: the establishment of a camp in his state where the Boy Rangers may have a camp. He drafts a bill to this effect with the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, played by Jean Arthur in her finest role. Saunders is in many ways the opposite of Smith. She is a paid agent of the Taylor machine, and is filled with endless cynicism. However, she is also filled with practical knowledge about how the Senate operates. She finds herself, against her will, falling in love with Smith and his idealism.