Although the little-man fable is a late invention, Hitler did become Capra's point of reference by sometime in the late 1930s. "I never cease to thrill at an audience seeing a picture," he told the reporter writing his 1940 New Yorker profile. "For two hours you've got 'em. Hitler can't keep 'em that long. You eventually reach even more people than Roosevelt does on the radio." But whereas the director presented himself as the answer to Hitler-the role he would soon assume in the Why We Fight documentaries-Mr. Smith and John Doe are taken over by a more troubled intimacy with the master manipulator of popular feeling.
In the decade of "the people's front," the political valence of the
symbol of the people may seem to lie on the Left. But that association
was not unproblematic. The little man himself, introduced into the United
States in Hans Falluda's 1932 book, Little Man, What Now? was a figure
for the anxious petit bourgeois who had turned to Hitler. …. Thanks to
World War II, Why We Fight could challenge Hitler head-on. But Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe occupy the juncture where
the dream of the people as the counterforce against the machine of
authoritarianism meets the media that created it, and the film medium
overwhelms its message. (222)
To be sure, popular aggression takes the form of telegrams rather than physical bodies. But Capra had already shown he was a master of mob creation in such films as Rain or Shine (1930), American Madness (1932), and The Bitter Tea if General Yen (1933). Provoked by a strike in one film, creating a bank run in another, making revolution in the third, Capra's mobs showed the other face of the people, Hitler's face, fascism. When the" 'little people ... come together" in a Capra film, as Joseph McBride puts it, they so often "resemble a lynch mob." Mr. Smith's boys remain loyal, if overmatched. But the little people in Capra's next film, the members of the John Doe clubs, are easily turned by the Edward Arnold character into an anti-John Doe mob. Powerless to incarnate themselves as a force for good en masse, Capra's people act collectively only as the crowd.
Capra's alleged populism is thus undercut by his splitting-exaggerated innocence on the one hand, mass aggression on the other. In print Capra celebrated "'We the People' ... to whom weary souls can return again and again to commune and to draw, like Antaeus, another tankful of their courage and faith.’"The people are right, never wrong," Capra said, but that is not what his films show. Because the good people are beyond political reach in Mr. Smith, authorities who are not beyond moral reach make the crucial interventions. (224)
Richard Griffith has famously described the typical Capra movie as a "fantasy of goodwill" in which "a messianic innocent, not unlike the classic simpletons of literature, pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His experience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls forth the goodwill of the 'little people,' and through their combined protest, he triumphs." Mr. Deeds may fit that formula at the beginning of Capra's little-man cycle and Meet John Doe, more desperately, at the end; among all Capra's other films there is only one other possible candidate--namely American Madness. Griffith's account as a plot summary of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is demonstrably false. The people are powerless to save Smith. Capra's failed recourse to the people within the film, however, enables his appeal to the people outside it. (227)
Although it presents itself as a film pitting the little man of the people against the political boss, as we have been arguing, what actually drives Mr. SmithGoes to Washington is the question of who gets to constitute, speak for, and control the people. As Charles Wolfe has observed, Mr. Smith counterposes the three 1930s dominant mass media forms--radio (Hitler's and FDR's instrument), newspapers (William Randolph Hearst's), and motion pictures--to show the superiority of film. Newspapers, dominated by Jim Taylor, are powerful and evil. Radio, present in the instantly recognizable accents of H. V Kaltenborn, is well-meaning but impotent. Kaltenborn's fifteen-minute nightly radio broadcast had made him by 1939 the most famous radio voice in the United States. Reporting Jeff's filibuster as "democracy in action," Kaltenborn is the movie's third redemptive patriarch. Unlike Senator Paine and the vice president, however, he makes nothing happen within the film. When he attempts to speak for Mr. Smith, he cannot reach the people; Taylor's newspapers overwhelm his radio. Those of us in the film audience are in a different position, however. For us, watching Jeff Smith as we listen to Kaltenborn, the motion picture carries the day. It is Capra, not the radio reporter, who has the power to create mass audience sympathy for Smith by making visible Taylor's disruption of "democracy in action." (227)
The plot runs John Doe's ambivalence about the people through the birth of its hero. Mr. Smith may speak, against itself, to the symbiotic relationship between the little man and the culture industry, but small-town, prepubescent, founding-father, and maternal support all sustain Jeff within the motion picture plot. With his political heroes and monuments, Jeff preexists the mass media; Capra's job is to make us believe in him. Far more radical than Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe deprives the little man of any innocent origins.62 Unlike Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith, the John Doe figure of heartland moral virtue is a sham, a creature of the culture industry within the plot of Meet John Doe, as if this film reflected back on, and thereby called into question, Capra's entire little-man project. The question posed by Meet John Doe is whether a little-people's movement spawned from within the bowels of the mass media can be transfigured into political innocence. Can John Doe, made into social movement leader through the Hollywood method of playing a role, become what he was only pretending to be? (235)
Michael P. Rogin and Kathleen Moran, “Mr. Capra Goes to Washington,” Representations 84, In Memory of Michael Rogin (2003): 213-248