October 19, 2022 by Cary O’Dell
Eighty-three years ago, on October 19, 1939, the Capra classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had its debut in–where else?–Washington, DC. Named by the Librarian of Congress to the Library’s National Film Registry in 1989, “Mr. Smith” is, for better or worse, as timely today as it ever was. In the essay below, the late film scholar Robert Sklar looks back at one of America’s greatest films.
In the late 1930s, more securely atop the pinnacle of American cinema than the Hollywoodland sign, Frank Capra could afford to be bold. Over a five–year span he had won three Academy Awards as best director, for “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938). The First and last of these titles had also been picked as best picture. In 1939 he ended a four–year term as Academy president and assumed leadership of the new Screen Directors Guild. Ambitious and apparently unassailable, he was able to launch a project that others had tried but failed to get off the ground: a controversial story involving corruption in the United States Senate, released in 1939 as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Years later, in his 1971 autobiography “The Name Above the Title,” Capra related a tale about a visit he supposedly received, when he had fallen ill follow[sic] his first Academy Award, from a mysterious “little man … completely bald, wearing thick glasses” who admonished him to his artistry for higher purposes than screwball comedy. “Mr. Deeds” was the first of the more serious endeavors that followed. Then came, among others, “Mr. Smith,” “Meet John Doe” (1941) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). These are among the most honored and cherished works in America’s film heritage. Yet they also strike many viewers as ambiguous and troubling.
Among Hollywood’s most significant filmmakers, Capra’s reputation is surely the most contested. His four major titles on political and social themes – “Deeds,” “Smith,” “Doe,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” – are instantly recognizable for similarities of style, story, and character that, taken together, add up to a unique signature. What some call “Capraseque,” however, others not so flatteringly label “Capricorn.” The films feature naïve, small–town idealists fighting against the ruthless power of political machines, media barons, capitalist predators, and urban elites. Defeated and humiliated, these over-matched innocents are rescued by the moral might on an aroused community, but the otherwise powerless little people whose united support acclaims the downcast heroes as natural leaders. Uplifting and sentimental, Capra’s political films seem to offer a consoling myth of national character that has captivated audiences over generations. At the same time, they’ve been attacked as conformist, demagogic, manipulative, phony.
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The late Robert Sklar was a member of the National Film Preservation Board as well as a film scholar and author of the 1975 book “Movie-Made America.”
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The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Congress.