Posts Tagged ‘Frank Capra’

I was working in the studio yesterday with the television on, set to one of the news channels.  After a while, the constant drone of bad news from every corner of the world- unstable economies, Wall Street panic, oil spills. floods, terrorist bombings, wars and on and on-became more than I could bear.  I flipped over to a movie channel and there it was.  Meet John Doe, the Frank Capra classic from 1941 starring Gary Cooper and the great Barbara Stanwyck.

Meet John Doe is one of Capra’s visions of American idealism wherein the main character hesitatingly fights the malevolence and greed of those in power for the rights of those with little power.  Think Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life.  In these movies, the hero often has the very people he champions turn on him, usually as the result of those in power twisting the truth to suit their own dark agendas.  But in Capra’s world, the hero perseveres and is vindicated by the truth.  Sure, it’s naive but it’s a wonderful place to let your imagination rest for a spell.

The hero here is Cooper who plays a drifter who is enlisted by a newspaper  to play the part of John Doe, a character in a publicity stunt who threatens to kill himself on Christamas Eve because of the state of the world.  This was 1941, folks.  Europe was at war with the Nazis marching and we were on the verge of entering the fray. We were still reeling after a decade of the Great Depression.  It was not a pretty time. 

The John Doe character was supposed to disappear after Christmas but it hit a note with the common note and a populist movement grew from it, funded by the newspaper mogul (played to perfection by Edward Arnold who I will someday highlight in this blog) who seeks to usurp and mold it to suit  the political agenda of his powerful cronies and himself.   Sound familiar?  The mogul tries to destroy the movement and Doe, who has come to believe in the ideals that he is supposed to represent as John Doe,  by turning the movement against, portraying him as a fraud and an opportunist. 

Eventually, right prevails, of course, and Doe overcomes the powerful and the people’s movement continues.  I know it’s a fantasy but after day after day of watching newcasts filled with nothing but darkness and dire pessimism, I’ll choose this fantasyof hope and possibility anytime.  I never fail to be moved by these movies from Frank Capra, and the day that I’m not,  I will truly be worried because that means I will have lost all optimism.  And that is a dark day for anyone.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes with the great Walter Brennan, who plays John Doe’s traveling companion.  Here, he gives his theory about heelots

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In a recent New York Times article, columnist Matt Bai wrote about the current outrage in the American public against the influence of lobbyists is our halls of government.  He makes a case that perhaps the lobbyists themselves are not wholly to blame for the power they now wield but the current state of affairs is a result of a system that has made most politicians view any critical decision as being a matter of them either choosing  what is truly right for their constituents and the country or choosing what best protects and serves their own position.  It comes down to a matter of self-preservation, looking out for themselves, over looking out for the people they represent and supposedly serve.

As a result, we are left with a government designed and built with good intentions for all but operated by the few for their own often selfish ends.

It brings to mind director Frank Capra‘s classic film,  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Everyman Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith who is chosen by the governor of some vague western state to replace a recently deceased senator.  Smith is chosen for his wholesome image in the state, as head of the Boy Rangers,and for a naivete that those in power feel will allow him to be easily manipulated.  In Washington, Smith is faced with corruption and graft from special interests and is soon the target of these groups as they attempt to destroy him when he finds out what he is up against and tries to do what is right.

Sounds familiar.

The film is a very simplified, maybe overly naive,  object lesson for our democracy.  But beneath this layer of naivete there is the simple truth that our government is based on those in power doing what is just and right for the people and when this power is usurped, our voices are ignored and the power of our democracy is diminished.  We lose something essential to our character as a people.

What’s the answer?

I’m not sure.   Perhaps we should change our system in a way that very much limits a person’s term in office, maybe one four year term so that there is no pressure for running a campaign while they are in office.  Do away with career politicians.  Fund all campaigns with public funds and return to a true citizen government.

Could such a system do much worse than the way things are currently done?  Some will say that we would be losing our best minds by having term limits but does the current system really encourage our best minds to serve in government at this point?

As it is, I am without a congressman of any sort at the moment.  I am unfortunately part of the congressional district  ( the 29th New York) represented until last night by Eric Massa, who is bailing on his constituency because of a recurrence of cancer and a sexual harassment scandal.  I am disappointed.  In the sheer stupidity of his actions.  In his quick, unceremonious exit.  In his unwillingness to finish his term and fight for the people that chose to vote him into office.  He claims he was at odds with the Democratic party over his refusal to toe the party line on health care but instead of staying in the game and trying to work out solutions, his choice was to try to punish the party by leaving the citizens of his district without a voice in Congress for several months until a special election can be held.

He was obviously not our Mr. Smith.  I don’t think Mr. Smith would give up so easily on the people of this country.


Addenda: As I was finishing the end of this, there was a local news report on the TV about a local longtime mayor who was being urged to seek Massa’s abandoned seat.  In a statement the mayor said that the environment in Washington was toxic and that they needed honor and dignity.  For that reason, he would not run.  It struck me as a very funny line.

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george-baileyIt’s that time of the year  when you hunker down on a cold, snowy night and watch a holiday classic.  One of the most beloved is It’s a Wonderful Life from director Frank Capra.  It has long been one of my favorites and it would be easy to go on and on about its message and how the final scene with the redemption of George Bailey makes me tear up just thinking about it.

But yesterday David Terrenoire  wrote in his great blog, A Dark Planet, about how he secretly preferred Potterville, George Bailey’s bizarro world version of his hometown, to the original Bedford Falls.  Potterville was a rockin’ town.  Strip clubs.  Hot music.  Bedford Falls was, by contrast, a real snore.

George Bailey Close-upHe cited an article by Wendell  Jamieson in the NY Times that made his case for the same thought.  Jamieson even goes so far as to state that George Bailey would be facing prison time for the loss of the 8000 dollars, regardless of restitution.  

Just before I had read these two articles I had come across a video entitled Bad Bailey.  It’s put together as a movie trailer and using eerie music and a drastic realignment of the movie’s actual scenes make for pretty disturbing viewing, especially for lovers of the movie.  It made me realize how much darkness there was in the film which, I think, probably made it so powerful.  Just shows what a little editing can achieve…

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