With its patriotism and lone-man-against-the-system theme, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) is a popular favorite among conservatives. But, although directed by conservative populist Frank Capra, the script was in actuality penned by a then-member of the Communist Party named Sidney Buchman.
It is difficult to believe in our era of flag-burning and bomb-throwing leftism that once upon a time American Communists promoted patriotism, which depending upon your point of view, was either authentic or a pose to meet the needs of Moscow. But Buchman may have been the real deal, as evidenced by his clashes with director Frank Capra and his later abandonment of Communism because it wouldn’t fit the democratic conditions of his country.
The argument centered around how each man viewed the American government, and it is interesting to note in our era where conservatives mistrust government and liberals laud it (and want more), that with Capra and Buchman, the sides flipped. Capra, an immigrant, accused Buchman of being a communist because the screenwriter expressed what we would call today a libertarian streak by stating the Jeffersonian view that the American government should be constantly watched for any power-grabs. Capra, by contrast, supported the American government en mass, which led Buchanan to accused Capra of fascism.
Buchman’s view made it past Capra because, as the blacklisted screenwriter once wrote, “I really believe he never knew what Mr. Smith was actually saying.”
There is a sprinkling of leftism in the film, as when it is revealed that Jefferson Smith’s father was murdered by a mining syndicate for defending a lone miner’s claim. And the chief villain of the film, Jim Taylor, is an arm-twisting capitalist who owns politicians and a considerable part of the media.
But there the leftism ends. Smith, played by conservative actor Jimmy Stewart, who was certainly intelligent enough to detect any Stalinism in the script, runs afoul of the capitalist villain’s bill designed to spread graft by disguised under the project of building a dam. Smith’s bill, which would be built on the land set aside for Taylor, is patriotic; he wants to build a boy’s camp, funded by contributions from citizens, and designed to teach boys woodcraft and patriotism.
The conservative themes are obvious in the film, and not just Smith’s one man fight against big government. By controlling all the media outlets and muzzling Smith, Taylor unleashes on Smith what we today call the “mainstream media” on Smith. Taylor could be George Soros, who today uses his money to influence, if not buy off, politicians, as well as fund violent protests movements. Senator Paine, Smith’s previous sponsor in the Senate, who turns on him and then defends him, by being in the pocket of Taylor affirms Thomas Jefferson’s warning about special interest politicians –ruling not for the common good but for their wealthy benefactors.
Smith would be Capra’s final moment in the sun, and the director would spend the rest of his career trying to duplicate its success. Meanwhile, Buchman would leave the Communist Party after World War II because he no longer believed communism could be applied to American conditions.