When I watched Senator Jeff Flake’s speech a few days ago, it reminded me of Frank Capra’s movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Like Senator Flake, Frank Capra and his collaborators were worried about the threats to our democratic traditions during the 1930s. Though Capra was a conservative Republican, he worked with left wing collaborators in his movies on issues that were of common concern to both liberals and conservatives. Robert Riskin (the screenwriter of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Meet John Doe) was a New Deal liberal and Sid Buchman (the screenwriter of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) was an American communist.
Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success about Capra’s respect for divergent views:
The auteur theory… did not recognize the degree to which a filmmaker such as Capra could be influenced by conflicting points of view and incorporate them into his work, nor the degree to which a filmmaker might be expressing his times as much as he was expressing himself. And though there was much controversy in the 1970s about how much credit Robert Riskin deserved for Capra’s success, not even Riskin’s supporters ever pointed out that the crux of the problem was that Capra and Riskin did not have identical sociopolitical views, or that their films could have been a volatile fusion between two conflicting viewpoints rather than a smooth and unified expression of one man’s ideas. Nor was there any cognizance of the degree to which Capra in the 1930s acted as a relatively passive sounding board for the political views of his diverse brain trust, which included the far-right Myles Connolly, the Roosevelt liberal Jo Swerling, and the left-liberal writer and associate producer Joseph Sistrom…. Capra in the prime of his career liked to surround himself with colleagues who were not yes men, and his ability to listen to and absorb such a range of viewpoints ‘made him an interesting guy’, contributing to the complexity of his films.
Frank Capra collaborated with his more left wing screenwriters because liberals and conservatives were both concerned about protecting America’s democratic traditions in the face of a Great Depression, threats from Hitler, Mussolini and imperialist Japan, and demagogues from both the Left (like Huey Long) and the Right (like Father Coughlin). Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and Meet John Doe deal with themes like how the wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor, how the community should help those who are struggling and marginalized, how we have to be vigilant to protect our liberties, and how important it is to protect the individual’s right to speak out even if his or her opinion goes against the group.
Capra was able to collaborate with his more left wing screenwriters because the Republican Party of the 1930s had much more common ground with the Left than the Republican Party has with Democrats today. Capra was a Republican at a time when the Republican Party was still close to a progressive Republican tradition that was embodied by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert LaFollette. Progressive Republicans had fought for the regulation of corporations, fought for the rights of African Americans and minorities, and lobbied for a greater democratic process in the elections of public officials. This progressive Republican tradition eventually faded as the more conservative business-friendly part of the Republican Party took control of the party, but it still had some sway among some Republicans during the 1930s. As late as 1924, progressive Republican Robert La Follette ran as a third party candidate for the U.S. presidency and garnered 17% of the vote. Progressive Republicans were eventually absorbed into Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition in the 1930s.
Though the American Left and Right had many philosophical differences, they both share a deep love of America’s democratic traditions and individual freedoms.
Here is a video of Senator Jeff Flake’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection and his critique of President Donald Trump.
Here is a scene from Frank Capra’s movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, where Senator Jeff Smith talks about the necessity of fighting for lost causes.
In this scene from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Senator Jefferson Smith points out that liberty is too important to be buried in text books. Capra emphasizes the necessity of teaching to younger generations the democratic values that make our democratic republic possible.
In this scene from Frank Capra’s movie Meet John Doe, John Doe tries to speak out against the corruption of a potential fascist movement but is shouted down by a crowd. It depicts the necessity of protecting the individual’s right of free speech, even if it goes against the prevailing opinions of the group. Without this protection, powerful interests can steamroll individuals who try to confront them.
In this scene from Frank Capra’s movie It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey decries the wealthy bankers’ lack of empathy for the poor and defends the right of working class people to live a decent life.