Friday Foto Follies: Frank Capra’s Americanness

He has been referred to as the “American dream personified.”

This week’s Follies showcases a few patriotic moments from Frank Capra movies as my 4th of July celebration on Once Upon a Screen.

“Innate Americanness is seen to be so central to Capra’s films that the subject of “America” is not indexed.” – Elizabeth Rawitsch, Frank Capra’s Eastern Horizons 

Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.”

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John Doe, Meet John Doe (1941)

“A free people can beat the world at anything, from war to tiddle-de-winks, if we all pull in the same direction.”

Martin Vanderhoff, You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

“Americanism. Let ’em know something about Americans. John Paul Jones. Patrick Henry. Samuel Adams. Washington. Jefferson. Monroe. Lincoln. Grant. Lee. Edison. Mark Twain. When things got tough for those boys, they didn’t run around looking for -isms.”

Lionel Barrymore as Martin Vanderhoff

Longfellow Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

“It’s like I’m out in a big boat, and I see one fellow in a rowboat who’s tired of rowing and wants a free ride, and another fellow who’s drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr. Cedar – who’s just tired of rowing and wants a free ride? Or those men out there who are drowning? Any ten year old child will give you the answer to that.”

Average, small-town joe, Longfellow Deeds inherits $20,000,000 and decides o give it all away to poor people

Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”

In Capra’s 1928 The Power of the Press you get the fourth estate as the balance between political morality and political corruption.


Longfellow Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

“From what I can see, no matter what system of government we have, there will always be leaders and always be followers. It’s like the road out in front of my house. It’s on a steep hill. Every day I watch the cars climbing up. Some go lickety-split up that hill on high, some have to shift into second, and some sputter and shake and slip back to the bottom again. Same cars, same gasoline, yet some make it and some don’t. And I say the fellas who can make the hill on high should stop once in a while and help those who can’t. That’s all I’m trying to do with this money. Help the fellas who can’t make the hill on high.”

Martin Vanderhoff, You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

“Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity to all.” Nowadays they say, “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights outta you.””

Life magazine did a spread on Capra on September 19, 1938. The director was at the top of his game and the focus was his latest picture, You Can’t Take it With You

Narrator, Prelude to War (1942)

“For this is what we are fighting: Freedom’s oldest enemy, the passion of the few to rule the many. This isn’t just a war. This is the common man’s life and death struggle against those who would put him back into slavery. We lose it, and we lose everything. Our homes; the jobs we want to go back to; the books we read; the very food we eat. The hopes we have for our kids; the kids themselves. They won’t be ours anymore. That’s what’s at stake. It’s us or them! The chips are down. Two worlds stand against each other. One must die, one must live. One hundred seventy years of freedom decrees our answer.”

Martin Vanderhoff, You Can’t Take it With You (1938)

“Maybe it’d stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.”

John Doe, Meet John Doe

“I know a lot of you are saying “What can I do? I’m just a little punk. I don’t count.” Well, you’re dead wrong! The little punks have always counted because in the long run the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.”

John Doe speaks for the people

The Capraesque ‘We the people’

All of these characters and words represent a distinct Americanism as many have come to recognize it through the years. The hopes and dreams that every man, woman and child aspire to are (supposed to be) held close in the bosom of an inclusive country. That’s what my father believed, felt deeply and instilled in me.

The words from the movies I’ve included represent a warmth that should be the world order. What we need to add to the images is diversity as there is not one person of color represented. Still, the message is one I want to focus on today, spread today and hold onto for all our sake. Every single one of us – regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, lot in life or any other label used to divide us.

Happy birthday, America!

James Stewart and Frank Capra during the filming of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

5 thoughts

  1. Beautifully realized films from Capra, and a wonderfully put-together series of images and quotes to stir the imagination.

    An observation: It seems to me that some people (MAGA) believe there was a time when “America” was set in stone as an accomplished ideal, when it truly is an ever-evolving and striving force of energy. Indeed, it is a goal of liberty and humanness worth striving toward. Happy Independence Day!

  2. Never met a Capra film I didn’t like. There’s a quote on the Wiki about him that says something along the lines of, maybe there never was an Americana; maybe it was all just Frank Capra.

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