The Honest Man: The Every Man: Frank Capra
Today marks the birthday of one of the greatest directors to ever make a movie: Frank Capra. What makes nearly every Frank Capra film impactful is his adherence to his belief that each individual life matters and has true importance and impact on the lives of others. Frank Capra believed whole heartedly in the power of one. (Back in November, I blogged about The Power of One- see here.)
It’s easy to get discouraged from time to time. I know I have my negative moments when I think nothing I’m doing with my life matters. I’m sure that you all, dear readers, have had similar thoughts. That is why movie makers like Frank Capra are so important. During the times when we hit a wall and believe everything we’ve been working toward isn’t worth a hill of beans, it is tantamount to step back from our roiling emotions and remind ourselves that even if it’s small, our impact is big to someone. We each have our own unique fingerprint to leave on the pages of history.
That is what Frank Capra did with his films. Critics might call his Pollyanna outlook a little too happy-go-lucky for the realism touted today. But in a world where snarky, caustic commentary is the thing, I think we can all use a dose of Frank Capra’s beliefs.
I couldn’t let Mr. Capra’s birthday pass without giving honor where honor is due. Today I’m writing about a few of his films. These movies are about character and honesty. And they are about the power of one.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
This one’s a classic, and its truths echo even today. A film of greatness is one that maintains its integrity and applicability throughout the generations. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just such a film. It chronicles the story of Jefferson Smith, a young man tapped to fill the vacated shoes of his state’s Senator’s seat. He’s not a politician. He’s an idealist. He goes to Washington with a pure heart. He knows all the Founding Fathers’ speeches and believes every word. Jeff is intent on representing the people of his state by following the examples of Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, etc.
Deemed naive by his erudite Washington colleagues, Jeff doesn’t play the political game. That’s fine with everyone until he steps in it, inadvertently bungling the well laid, nefarious plans of one of the most powerful men in Washington- James Taylor. Taylor isn’t a politician. He’s a wealthy man who utilizes the press- which he controls- to sway public opinion to his side so that he can make a boatload of bucks through political graft.
Single handedly, Mr. Smith stands up to the Taylor Machine. In the face of bad publicity. In the face of unfair coverage. When he’s being misrepresented, misquoted, taken out of context. When his words aren’t being relayed to the people in the spirit which he speaks them. When the people rally against him. In the face of the injustice, in the face of being labeled the bad guy, in the face of insurmountable odds, Mr. Smith makes his last stand on the Senate floor. He’s booed. He’s heckled. But he stands. He stands because he believes in truth, justice, and the American way. And it is this righteous stand which shifts the tectonic plates under the political foundation of Washington D.C. Mr. Smith is an earthquake that shakes those foundations. And when he’s through, only the truth stands tall amidst the rubble. That’s the power of one.
Another film in the same vein, though without all the political context, is Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It’s the small town, little guy who goes to the big city and encounters the jaded, cynicism of the modern man. When he’s targeted for his wholesome corniness, Mr. Deeds sticks to his guns and, in the end, champions the cause of the honest man who prizes truth and integrity.
You Can’t Take It With You
Now for something completely different, I give you You Can’t Take It With You. It’s a little screwball. Okay, fine. It’s a lot screwball. However, don’t let the seeming lightness of the film deceive you. This movie is chock full of heavy truths. And, one of those truths is that one person can change the world he lives in. That one person is Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the Sycamore family. He’s eccentric to say the least, but in his charming way, seasoning hard truths with humor, Martin Vanderhof effectively disarms Tony Kirby, the wealthy son of Anthony P. Kirby, real-estate tycoon. Tony Kirby is in love with Vanderhof’s granddaughter, free-spirited Alice Sycamore. Embraced into her family, Tony encounters a way of thinking he’s never seen before. According to Grandpa Vanderhof, life’s not about making money. It’s about doing what holds your heart whether or not it’s lucrative. Life’s about the relationships one builds. Life’s about cultivating love for others rather than money in a back account. Life’s about being happy. I think this excerpt from the film says it best:
While this sort of thinking seduces Tony, his father is another matter completely. Anthony P. Kirby worships at the altar of the almighty dollar and anyone who doesn’t understand his devotion is a fool. Furthermore, he’s rich enough to prevent anyone from telling him otherwise. He runs roughshod over his competition, focusing on the numbers, not the lives of people he’s harming. In fact, Anthony P. Kirby puts the brakes on Tony and Alice’s burgeoning romance but quick when he finds out that Martin Vanderhof is the one man standing between him and the most lucrative real-estate deal of his life. Because Vanderhoff won’t sell his house, Anthony P. Kirby can’t move forward with his deal. Where all of Wall Street stood inept, Vanderhof stops Kirby, which only infuriates him. Then one day, all the seeds Anthony P. Kirby has sown bloom and the stench is terrible. There’s no escaping his dark deeds. With no one else to turn to for empathy and advice, Anthony P. Kirby gets down off his high horse and seeks out Vanderhof. With the simple wisdom of the ages, Vanderhof effects such an intrinsic change in Anthony P. Kirby, the man is thoroughly reborn. Again, that’s the power of one. One honest man who sticks to his beliefs, regardless of how outlandish and backward they may seem. If those beliefs are honest, then they will effect change.
Another Capra film of this ilk is It Happened One Night. It’s the same understanding. The little man finds the essence of life, and it is his conviction that influences a wealthy woman for the better.
Meet John Doe
As I seem to be running out of room, this is the final Frank Capra film I’ll talk about. This movie follows Ann Mitchell, a journalist for the Bulletin, which has been newly acquired by D.B. Norton. Deemed lavender and old lace, Ann’s been axed. However, she needs a job to support her mother and two kid sisters. So, what does she do? She decides she’ll show these new mucky-mucks what’s what. In her final column, she gives them the fireworks they’re looking for. She forges a letter from John Doe; in it she makes commentary on the current civilized world, bashing the unemployment issues and the lack of sympathy from those who could help. At the end, she has John Doe write that he’s going to jump off the roof of City Hall in protest on Christmas Eve. It’s her swan song. But the letter makes too much of an impact to be ignored.
What’s Ann to do? Well, she searches high and low for a John Doe who she can pay to be her John Doe. She finds him in the vagrant, John Willoughby. While Willoughby makes appearances and does interviews, Ann keeps writing her column, now titled I Protest, by John Doe, in which she highlights the issues facing the average man, or as she says, the John Does in the world. Ann fans the flames of this John Doe movement, writing against all the evils in the world- The greed, the lust, the hate, the fear. All of man’s inhumanity to man. Her motives are purely lucrative, but as the movement grows and her John Doe interacts with the everyday man, and begins to sympathize and believe his own hype, Ann’s perspective changes. She has a conscience, after all. She can’t keep using the people for the purpose of a paycheck. Some things are too costly to sacrifice. John Doe resonates with the people because he’s a man who has faced discouragement, a man who wants to see a better tomorrow, a man who believes in helping his neighbor, building community, living an honest, charitable life.
But the D.B. Nortons of this world don’t care about her conscience. They don’t care about the people. They care about circulation because circulation means money. And the John Doe movement is taking the wind out of their sales. So, they decide it must be destroyed and subsequently pull out all the stops to undermine it. There efforts work. John Doe, the beacon of hope for the John Does of the world is unveiled as a fraud. Discouraged, because he had started to believe in the John Doe movement, John Willoughby goes to the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve to throw himself off. That’s where Ann finds him. And, this is what she says:
Ann Mitchell is the every man. She is the every woman. She is one of the John Does. She’s faced discouragement. She’s tasted the bitterness of life. However, in the face of corruption and all the other ills of the world, she soldiers on, suiting up to battle for good. Whether she planned it or not, in the end, she championed it. And, isn’t that what heroes are? The ones who step up to the plate to champion good, whether they planned to or not?
Capra’s films are a celebration of the greatness of humanity. They were made during a time when the world was a very dark place. World War II was raging, and no one knew whether the forces of evil would vanquish the good. The world stood on the cusp, staring into the great unknown. Yet, in the face of evil, Frank Capra championed righteousness. He championed honesty. How did he do it? Not with the fanfare of grandiose heroic individuals of epic acclaim. His works were not filled with Hectors or Achilleses or Odysseuses. No, his movies chronicle everyday men and women. The heroes next door, if you will. The people who stood up and did what was right, who championed truth and justice, who believed in a better tomorrow, and knew that that better tomorrow started with them. Those were Capra’s heroes. And, here’s the greatness: those are our heroes, too. They’re you and me. We each have that power. The power of one.