Capra's work is closely, if
unconsciously, related to that of avowed Method directors like Nicholas
Ray and Elia Kazan. It is not that the work of any of these directors
dispenses altogether with technical or character acting (any more than
Henry James's work dispenses with fixed characters
to give itself over to an exclusive depiction of free characters), but
at crucial moments it gestures beyond what is depictable in that
form of acting. Performances like those turned in by Barbara Stanwyck
in even the earliest of Capra's films and Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart
in the later ones have a passionateness and an imaginative intensity in
search of an adequate form of social expression (which can never bequite
attained) that directly anticipates the performances of Montgomery Clift,
James Dean, and Marlon Brando in their best work of the fifties. Stanwyck,
Stewart, and Arthur demonstrate that it did not take Lee Strasberg
to bring the emotional inwardness, strangled intensity, and smothered
hysteria of the Method to America. In fact, the reason Strasberg's seeds
took such immediate and firm root in American soil was that it was already
so well prepared to receive his doctrines. The Method is an interesting
side path not opposed to, but parallel to, a vast highway of Romantic
expression in American art that existed in this country long before the
birth of Stanislavski in Russia and at least a century before Strasberg's
creatively all-American misreadings of An Actor Prepares. If Strasberg
had not come across Stanislavski, he could have gotten the same performative
doctrines out of the pregnant silences, the charged glances, and the imaginative
unappeasability of the characters in a novel by Henry James, characters
like Isabel Archer or Lambert Strether, searching for, but never quite
finding a way to speak their deepest, most authentic selves.
Having said that, it needs
to be emphasized that although a capacity to play with a situation and
to be able generously to encourage playing in others is necessary to a
Capra hero (or director), it is not sufficient in itself, or Capra would
never have gone beyond the buddy-boy films. For all of Carey's Capra-like
geniality, good humor, and charm, he is virtually inarticulate and institutionally
almost powerless. While Carey is nodding and mugging, winning the hearts
of the crowd in the Senate as well as the one in the movie theater, Smith
is dying on his feet and the Deficiency bill is moving hour by hour closer
to passage. However charming, Carey is a man with neither principles nor
a vision. He is not a leader but merely a bureaucratic functionary, just
as equably tolerant of the corrupt opponents of Smith's filibuster as
he is of Smith. A Senate chamber filled to the brim with such blandly
encouraging, quietly charming old biddies, who believe that there are
two equally valid sides to every question and (in what can only be called
their moral, passional, and imaginative castration) always can find mitigating
arguments all around every issue would be just Taylor's cup of tea.
Let me be clear why I am being
so hard on everybody's favorite charmer. In another film, by a director
with an entirely different sensibility (say, Jean Renoir's The Rules
of the Game), Carey could be a mild–mannered, slightly bewildered,
admirably modest modern hero. He could be Octave, with his conviction
that everyone has his reasons. Even in an earlier film by Capra–say American
Madness–much of what Capra is condemning in Carey's performance here
is presented favorably in the figure of Dixon. Capra, however, is no longer
satisfied with the poised, well-meaning master of ceremonies, the Rotarian
as hero. Carey, whatever his apparent virtues, must be judged in comparison
with Smith, and Smith represents imaginative possibilities that begin
precisely where Carey's stylistic reach ends (both as an actor and as
a character). The similarity between Gary Cooper, in Deeds, and
Carey in this film, and yet the difference between one's feelings about
the two characters is indicative of a significant change in Capra's work.
Charm is just not enough. There are alien entanglements–repressive systems
of understanding and, expression–for personality to negotiate in this
film that it did not have to face in the earlier one. Smith himself represents
an imaginative intensity and passion that indicates the limitations of
Carey's performance in his film as Deeds's performance was not similarly
"placed" in his.
In contrast to Paine's polished
language of the upper class and the nineteenth-century stage and Carey's
folksy idiom, Smith's language (and that of Saunders, with whom he
linked in the second half of the film) is that of unsystematic, unformulatable
feeling. More accurately, it is a language attempting to speak the
of imagination and desire in the public expressive forms of the world,
but that is to suggest what a complex and problematic linguistic task
it sets itself. In one of the crucial scenes of the film, Capra summarizes
Smith's expressive problem concisely. Smith and his secretary Saunders
have stayed late one night in the Senate Office Building to draft a
that Smith wants to propose in the Senate for a national boy's camp.
The drafting is not going well. I quote from the shooting script of
which is slightly more complete than the released version:
Smith: Did you ever have
so much to say about something–you couldn't say it?
Saunders: (dryly) Try
Smith: I did–and–and I
got right up.
Saunders: Now, let's get
down to particulars. How big is this thing? Where is it to be? How many
boys will it take care of? If they're going to buy it–how do they make
their contributions? Your bill has to have all of that in it –
Smith: And something else,
too, Miss Saunders–the spirit of it–the idea–the –In his walk
he has come to the window. He points out suddenly.
Smith: That's what's got
to be in it.
She looks in that direction,
and sees the lighted Capitol Dome, seen through the window–with Jefferson
in the foreground.
Smith: (pointing) That.
Saunders indicates that she
sees the Dome, her eyebrows lifting a little.
only a touch of sarcasm) On paper?
Smith: (still looking
out of the window, not conscious of her cynical question) I want
to make that come to life–yes, and lighted up like that, too–for every
boy in the land. Boys forget what their country means –just reading
"land of the free" in history books. And they get to be men–and
forget even more. Liberty is too precious to get buried in books, Miss
Saunders. Men ought to hold it up in front of them–every day of their
lives and say: "I am free–to think–to speak. My ancestors couldn't.
I can. My children will."
And we see a new Saunders
looking at Jefferson with a new expression–listening rather raptly–then
starting to make rapid notes.
Smith: The boys ought to
grow up remembering that.
He breaks off– turns from
the window–collecting himself out of a daze–and a little embarrassed.
isn't the "particulars," is it?
The real language that Smith
and Saunders finally employ, the important presence that they manifest
ultimately in the film, is not conventionally linguistic or syntactic
at all. It is not a verbal language of words and argument, but a visual
and acoustic language of imaginatively charged gasps, pauses, glances,
and gestures. The voice that Smith and Saunders offer as an alternative
to the other voices in the film is at times indistinguishable from
It is a melodramatic language of eruptions of desire, expressible in
a cinematic language not of scripted speech but of high-key-lighting
extreme close-ups, violent actions, agitated gestures and movements,
and powerful musical orchestrations. It is, to put it most briefly,
opposed to everything Paine represents in the language of theatrical
expression, everything Taylor represents in the language of bureaucracy,
the newspapers and radio represent in the language of high-tech journalism,
and everything the Senate and its members represent in the language
institutional legislative procedure and political scripting. Where Paine's
voice is a complete, and completely verbal, speech in which there are
no flaws, gaps, fissures, or failures of expression, Smith's is a speech
that is more nonverbal than verbal and, where it is verbal, is almost
nothing but hesitations, stuttering inarticulateness, elisions, and
Where Paine's speech (as in his scene of feigned moral outrage at Smith's
conduct on the floor of the Senate) translates emotionality into consummately
modulated eloquence and oratorical tones and cadences, Smith's speech–though
ultimately enriched and authenticated by its emotionality–is broken up,
disrupted, interrupted, and frequently completely arrested by his overcharge
of feeling. His speech is a language of melodramatic silences, pauses,
exclamations, gestures, and glances that emphatically is not reducible
to anything that might appear in the script of a stage play.
Capra is suggesting that in
a world devoted to the institutional control and normalization of desire
and imagination, such articulate stillnesses, silences, gasps, and gestures
may be the last remaining expression of personal imagination and desire.
In concert with Saunders and Smith, he offers a new sort of language as
an alternative to the social languages within the film. It is a photographic
language of silent shrugs and glances, an aural language of music and
sound effects, an editorial language of visual rhythms and juxtapositions....
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American
Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this
discussion is excerpted, click