The Sicilian Immigrant Who Dramatized the Ideals of Liberty and Justice for All
What is lost is the only common good that matters, the one central to America’s founding principles. If Americans (and humanity) were simply united around defending natural rights, equal justice under law, and free trade, then there is no need for any other unifying goals. Poetic Justice Warrior Francesco Rosario Capra (Frank Capra) knew this and cherished it. According to political science professor John Marini, “Capra understood America in terms of common good – a good established by the principles of equality and liberty as the foundation of individual rights.”
In the 1920’s, Capra was able to help the Poverty Row studio known as Columbia Pictures compete with established ones and transition it to sound. This was because of the engineering education he had acquired at Caltech. His well-known productions include It Happened One Night (1934) and You Can’t Take it With You (1938). In fact, Capra expresses a primary goal of the Poetic Justice Warrior Society through his character Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), from the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington:
Boys forget what their country means by just reading “the land of the free” in history books. Then they get to be men, they forget even more. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day and say, I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can. And my children will.
According to Marini, Capra believed “America was to be understood in terms of its virtues, which is derived from its principles. It is the simple, unsophisticated, small-town common America that Capra celebrated in his films.” Capra celebrated entrepreneurs and their customers, the talented parents, teachers and artists, and even some economists. Everyone having their own unique values and goals. Their voluntary exchange needs no common purpose other than mutual benefit, their defense of personal liberty and equal justice. So what about the George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) character in Its A Wonderful Life?
Entrepreneur or Altruist?
Capra’s last great film, released in 1946, is considered by many to exalt selflessness, and this is anti-American. Life, liberty and property do not require self-sacrifice, they demand self-reliance. For the movie’s critics, Bailey gives up on his dream of becoming an architect, takes over his father’s bank upon his father’s death, enters an ambition-killing marriage, and becomes a pillar of the community by helping the “little people.” But lets consider what Capra was trying to do in the context of the time in which he lived. As he wrote about his filmmaking philosophy, the goal is “to exalt the worth of the individual, to champion man, to plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit, or divinity.”
As his circumstances changed, the Bailey character adjusted, voluntarily pursued his values, and anticipated the needs of his customers while doing his best to keep the bank profitable. To a fault, the movie doesn’t exalt the nobility of earned profit, but instead features a crooked businessman adversary of Bailey’s. Capra was not an Austrian school economist, he was a grateful Italian immigrant.
The movie is set in a charming small American town with optimistic residents who solve problems. To critics, it is a sentimental, illusory, and unrealistic setting. If you consider that an angel from heaven was also running the story, so what? This was an idealized and intentional creative device. Like Capra’s contemporary Poetic Justice Warrior Garet Garrett, Capra realized that Hollywood (and America) was gradually decivilizing itself. Instead of the ideals of self-reliance and long-term thinking, the culture was abandoning its respect for self-creation in favor of politicized categories of race, gender, ethnicity and class. Its doubtful that Capra or Garrett foresaw the insanity of today’s intersectional grid of victimhood.
Mr. Capra Goes to Washington
While Frank Capra was in Washington to film Smith’s descent upon the capital, he attended a President Roosevelt press conference, during which the President outlined the great problems facing America. But in the movie, Capra makes no mention of the Great Depression or the imminent threat of World War II. During this time of postmodern catastrophe fueled by soft money and government power, Capra wanted to focus his movie on something that really matters:
The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals. The soul of our film should be anchored in Lincoln. It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.
While President Roosevelt was accusing “economic royalists” of corruption in order to mask his corrupt and incompetent government, Capra pointed his cameras and dialogue toward the government and union officials who were engaged in political warfare against the private sector. He dramatized and humorized what authoritarians always do – flaunt a villain other than themselves for a naïve public. Capra showed on the big screen how self-serving politicians were deceiving America and rewarding their special interest voting blocs. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a very popular success in America, and then France, despite the objections of Washington elites. As Marini relates,
In 1942, a month before the Nazi occupation of France was to begin, the Vichy government asked the French people what films they wanted to see before American and British films were banned by the Germans. The great majority wanted to see Mr. Smith. One theater in Paris played the movie for 30 straight nights.
This is identical to the popularity of Poetic Justice Warrior Ayn Rand‘s unauthorized movie version of We the Living in Mussolini’s 1942 Italy.
Why We Fight
Frank Capra arrived in New York Harbor 23 years before Rand, and had a nearly identical experience, except he was not alone. His illiterate peasant father cried to him as they gazed upon the Statue of Liberty, “Cicco look! Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.” Capra remembered, and in 1942 began the production of seven documentary films for Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. They were intended to counterbalance and crush the effects of the Nazi propaganda directed by Leni Riefenstahl titled Triumph of Will. A film described by Capra as a “terrifying motion picture.”
Riefenstahl, and the Soviet propagandists of the 1950s and 1960s (described eloquently by Czeslaw Milosz in his book The Captive Mind) knew what they were – tools. Capra never considered his documentaries, known collectively as Why We Fight, as propaganda. His singular goal was to recognize right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice. That’s what Poetic Justice Warriors do. Capra said that these films “embodied the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled into an ort of mass conformity.” That’s why we fight.
Photo by Lisa Vanthournout on Unsplash