Robert Brent Toplin
Part 2: This Notion That the Little Guy Has Dignity
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We also see a theme in many of the Capra movies which represents this notion that the little guy has dignity. It's a staple in his storytelling and interestingly it's very familiar to us in modern day Hollywood pictures. Go back for example to It Happened One Night. In that show you see the handsome commoner—a journalist struggling without a job and trying to make something of himself—Clark Gable. And on the bus he meets Claudette Colbert, who is the wealthy socialite, the
Clark Gable teaches Claudette Colbert a thing or two about life in It Happened One Night.
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heiress, who learns a lot of the tricks about real life from Clark Gable. Last year, James Cameron gave us a similar story about that great commoner, Jack, who encountered Rose on the Titanic—Rose who came from the family and friends of effete snobs. It was Jack who showed her that her mother's family were essentially phonies from Philadelphia and that there was essence in those immigrants down in the hold of the boat.

But look back, then, at the trilogy, the famous trilogy of Frank Capra—Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe. There you see the humble people played by Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. People who reflect decency and wisdom and a sense of moral superiority over those big town folk that they encounter. The villains? They are the media moguls, deceitful lawyers, and corrupt politicians in those movies. Now lets think of 1990s Hollywood. Remember, for example, the recent film The Rainmaker, in which Matt Damon is the poor back-office lawyer facing up against the team of very rich and villainous looking lawyers. Or in the case of Armageddon where we have some tattooed oil drillers, who express pretty bad grammar, showing a thing or two to the nerds from NASA. Or in You’ve Got Mail, a recent motion picture with Meg Ryan in which she owns a tiny bookstore, and she puts up a humble but noble fight against the powerful megastore of Tom Hanks. It’s a familiar theme, this notion of the little person going up against the big and powerful. We can't say that Frank Capra invented this, that he's solely responsible for this notion, but it's clear as we look back on the thirties movies that he probably did more than any director to promote this notion—that we can celebrate the humble masses, and their work and ask some questions about the rich and famous who were so often celebrated in the early movies of Hollywood.

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Robert Brent Toplin
Part 1: A Stunning Example of Success
Part 2: This Notion That the Little Guy Has Dignity
Part 3: The Women Were Usually Strong
Part 4: Some Critical Questions
Introduction | Toplin | Levine | Carter | Multimedia Index | Credits | JMMH

Frank Capra's America
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