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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

July 29, 2020: Great Movie Speeches: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

[On July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on its way back from delivering the components of the atomic bombs. That wartime tragedy became the basis for one of the great speeches in American film history, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy that monologue and four other knockout cinematic orations!]
On what the concept of “Capra-esque” misses, and how an iconic speech embodies the director’s genuine vision.
It seems to me that one central reason why a great many AmericanStudiers and scholars embrace filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers—all directors of whom I’m not always the biggest fan, as I highlight in those hyperlinked posts—is that their visions of America and the world are consistently dark and violent (to be clear, another reason is that they’re all talented filmmakers and storytellers). [For whatever reason, Francis Ford Coppola’s darknesses work better for this AmericanStudier.] If that’s the case, it would help explain the frequent dismissal and even disdain implied by the adjective “Capra-esque,” a description often used to convey in shorthand the idea that a film or filmmaker is overly saccharine, creating a fairy tale vision of society that fails to grapple sufficiently with its darker realities and truths. Exhibit A for that definition of Frank Capra’s works would likely be It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), not just because of its feel-good title and its unquestionably happy ending, but also because of its idealized depiction of small-town Bedford Falls (as opposed to the—gasp—night clubs and other horrors of Pottersville).
As a critical optimist, I’ll admit to being a sucker for happy endings, and as I wrote in this post I find the ending of Wonderful Life quite moving and profound. But I would also connect that ending to my overarching concept of “hard-won hope,” as for much of the film Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has been anything but happy and life has seemed anything but wonderful (a storytelling choice Capra apparently made in part because he saw the darker side of Stewart that the actor’s World War II experiences, like Capra’s own, had brought out). As with so many of the happy endings in great American stories, that is, the conclusion of It’s a Wonderful Life not only doesn’t erase the darknesses which the story has consistently featured and explored, but it depends precisely on such engagement with those darker sides of life for it to have any meaning and power. From what I can tell, that dynamic far more accurately reflects Capra’s films and perspective—and thus what we might mean if we call a story “Capra-esque”—than does a simplistically saccharine tone.
The same can be said for the most famous Capra speech (and another classic Jimmy Stewart moment and character), Senator Jefferson Smith’s filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Yes, Smith concludes his marathon speech by emphasizing another idealized concept, contained in what he calls a “plain, simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’” But he recognizes full well that his fight for that rule might well be “a lost cause,” which are (quoting another Senator and Smith’s icon who has turned his back on the idea) “they are the only causes worth fighting for.” The ending of this speech and scene is just as fraught and dark as those middle sections of Wonderful Life, as reflected by the transcript: “I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these…Somebody will listen to me. Some—[Smith collapses].” As Smith has noted, a person can “even die for” lost causes, and it seems quite possible in this moment that he has given his own life in service of this one. If that’s an ideal (and it is), it’s one with a painful and dark side, which, as Frank Capra consistently depicts, is how we always find our ideals, in Washington or in Bedford Falls.
Next movie speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other movie speeches you’d highlight?

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