Frank Capra: Spokesman for the John Does of America?
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 25, Numbers 1-2, 1995
- p. 71
- Additional Information
Frank Capra: Spokesman for the John Does of America? | Yates Michael D. Yates University of Pittburgh at Johnstown Frank Capra: Spokesman for the John Does ofAmerica? Wes D. Gehring. Populism and the Capra Legacy. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995. ($49.95) The author of this interesting little book defines populism as the quintessentially American belief"that the superior and majority will of the common man is forever threatened by the usurping, sophisticated, evil few." This idea, he states, is one of the central values upon which our nation was founded, and, as such, is fundamental to the maintenance of our democracy. It is natural, therefore, that populism has been a recurrent theme in our literature and in our cinema. Gehring argues persuasively that the films of director, Frank Capra, best exemplify (and champion) populism. A careful analysis offour Capra films from the 1930s and 40s (MeetJohn Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life) forms the core ofthe book. In the classic populist film, an undistinguished but politically aware individual finds himself (only rarely is the protagonist a woman) in a situation in which he discovers the "evil few" are subverting the will of the people. He is compelled by his populism to fight against the elite, and, with the support (not always automatically given) of the common people, he defeats them. Then, with characteristic modesty, he returns home to the anonymity of rural or small town family life. These films, especially the four mentioned above, replay for each generation the nation's commitment to the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of "citizen-farmers" acting as our ultimate bulwark against the subversion of democracy. They teach us that "eternal vigilance is the price ofliberty." Gehring ably defends film populism against the modernist critique that it is simple-minded, politically reactionary, and sexist. He does this primarily through a close "reading" of three films "in the Capra tradition" (The Electric Horseman , Field ofDreams and Dave) and three films which push "the Capra envelope" (The Milagro Beanfield War, Hero and Grand Canyon). While it may be true that the Capra films, themselves, do not resonate as powerfully with modern audiences as they did originally, modern films in this tradition are not, as critics would have it, intent on returning us to a "precrisis, reactionary, patriarchal world of old, traditional values." For example, the values implicit in Field of Dreams—optimism about ordinary people, teamwork, the importance of family, the significance of the land and nature, the desire for a second chance—may be "traditional" but they are not reactionary, at least not to the vast majority of people. In addition, this film makes a strong critique of the corrupt elite, symbolized by baseball owners who exploit the players and scapegoat the innocent country boy, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. What is reactionary about this? In The Milagro Beanfield Wars, populism shows itself capable ofencompassing collective rather than individual struggle against the elite as well as using people of color as protagonists. In this and other modern populist films, such as The Electric Horseman women are often portrayed as strong and independent. And even in the classic populist movies, women may act behind the scenes, so to speak, but they are not usually made out to be the servants of men. I found this book to be both well-written and thoughtprovoking , and I am sure that it will be ofinterest to both film buffs and historians ofpopular culture. However, I do have two criticisms, that films are both reflections and shapers of what we are. First, the author might have connected these films with actual populist political movements during American history. These movements have uglier features than does film populism. By ignoring these elements ofactually existing populism, could it be argued that the film versions encourage a certain political naivete in their viewers? Who better reflects our reality: Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life or Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark in All t/ie King's Men? Second, even on their own terms, are populist films somewhat manipulative? Gehring quotes with approval Ma Joad's speech which ends the movie...