MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON – FRANK CAPRA
While Frank Capra’s critical reputation was comparatively low during the 1960’s, his excellence as a director is now properly recognized. This delay was in part brought about by Capra’s own withdrawal from the post-television cinema of the 1950’s; in that era of director-stars he preferred retirement to the rejection of his own edict: “One man—one• film.” This delay also was caused by a critical and academic prejudice against popular and successful movies. In Capra’s case this prejudice is exceedingly inappropriate since his populism and democratic empathy are exactly at the heart of his great creative gift. Indeed Capra, perhaps more than any other director, loves America, especially as it is embodied in its people. For him the American Dream, the Horatio Alger story of the triumphant individual, was a reality.
The youngest of a totally illiterate Sicilian family of seven children, Capra came to the United States in 1903 when he was six. By selling newspapers as a boy he both supported his family and began his involvement with the common man. Despite his education at California Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer, he continued his door-to-door contact with the proletariat as an itinerant post-World War I photography salesman. He avoided the inherent drudgery of both jobs by celebrating and even mythologizing the workaday world. It is this celebration and love which forms the kernel of his greatest films.
During the Golden Age of .cinema, from the advent of sound to the onslaught of television, Frank Capra’s films between 1932 and 1939 were nominated six times for the Academy Award of Best Picture of the Year. The first of his Columbia comedy series, It Happened One Night (1934), won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director) and remained the only film to have done so until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. By combining a small stable of attractive stars with the grand themes of the American political experiment, Capra annually brought a humane yet self-critical awareness to an enthralled public.