Elevating the Art of Storytelling: Frank Capra’s Rare Achievement
By Ignatius F. Makarevich
The transformation of a man’s psyche is one of the most powerful events to witness. The methodologies available to convey such a message properly are myriad. There are a few select works where the various disciplines come together in magical ways. Our featured film rises above the surface of the vast sea of mediocrity in a luscious tale capable of true inspiration.
True storytelling genius is gloriously apparent in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a feature film by the renowned director, Frank Capra. Fortunately, for us all, the film is in black and white. Yes, fortunately, because the sumptuousness of the film’s remarkable sensitivity to light allows Mr. Capra to guide his lighting director to design exceptionally powerful images, allowing expression of nuance that color film cannot capture. Quick shots open the film, many in close up to enhance the urgency of the news of a senator’s death. Stark, business-like scenes follow to reveal a corrupt political machine to the intrigued audience. Viewers swoon with delight as the subsequent light, bright, airy scenes full of joy, depict the young, innocent youth counselor, Mr. Jefferson Smith, played to perfection by the talented Jimmy Stewart, gaining recognition for his accomplishments and elevation to senator-elect. The bumbling, inexperienced Smith travels to Washington, D.C. on a train with his childhood hero. What follows the fast-paced arrival is a remarkable, powerful montage of all the symbols of American ideals and values as Smith tours the city. The remarkably naïve Smith gets together with his assistant, Miss Saunders, exquisitely characterized by the very attractive, and appropriately independent, Jean Arthur. Saunders tries to hint at the realities of political life, but it is too soon for the overwhelmed Mr. Smith.
The scenes then start to grow darker and darker as the bill that the junior senator proposes becomes the focus of the vicious forces bound and determined to maintain their iron grip. The scenes close in and become quicker as Smith’s worst nightmare plays out. Quick pacing maintained, and gradually increased, as the antics of the evil forces get more and more dramatic. Saunders, exasperated, gives up and then returns as she realizes the quality of Jefferson Smith’s character. Rescuing Smith from a decision to leave in disgrace, Saunders is well and truly in love. A full rescue then becomes the audience’s greatest desire as this feisty, increasingly desirable woman guides Smith through the intricacies and eccentricities of American political protocol. As the end draws near, the scenes back away to create a sensual understanding of the grand importance of the message. A final flurry caps off the epic, with dramatic, rapid events resulting in exactly what the audience so deeply desires. All is now right in the land. The promise of that powerful montage now a given, the viewer is left relieved and satisfied that the system works, even in the face of extraordinary evil.
Mr. Capra, in concert with some of the greatest actors and technicians ever assembled, has used imagery in ways that effectively drive the emotions and desires of the viewer. Masterful editing, able to control the very heart rate of those lucky enough to see, complements perfectly the beauty of the imagery. This seamless integration, along with wonderful dialog, produces a rare, visceral experience that is worthy of savored repetition.