The equation of Capra and Populism is perennial but distorting. The most direct link involves Meet John Doe , where the montage of the growth of the John Doe clubs emphasizes—via maps and musical cues—the South and the Midwest, regions where Populism was most influential, thus lending chilling credibility to the "iron hand" third party presidential ambitions of media tycoon D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). In view of Norton's ersatz Populism, it should be remembered that the "pastoral" is itself an urban genre or fantasy. Deeds finds his farmers in New York City, after all, and it is only in Washington, D.C. that Jefferson Smith finds his mature populist voice.

That aside, Capra's "populism" has less to do with the Populist Party than with the "American Dream" version of the Agrarian Myth and its anxious, highly charged belief in the benevolence of Nature and of human nature. To the extent that "Capraesque" and "populist" are synonymous post-Capra, the Capra legacy involves a volatile combination of cosmic benevolence and go-for-broke political idealism.

The political strain is evident in the "neo-Capra" movies of the Clinton era— Hero (Stephen Frears, 1992), The Distinguished Gentleman (Jonathan Lynn, 1992), Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1994), The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995), and Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)—which self-consciously appropriate narrative situations and democratic iconography from Capra's "Populist Trilogy," though rarely with as great a sense of consequence as Capra and his writers (chiefly Robert Riskin [1897–1955]) derived from their circumstances.

The "cosmic benevolence" feature, obviously, derives from the guardian angel framework of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Though Capra's was not the first 1940s film to employ an angelic guardian or mentor— Here Comes Mr. Jordon (Alexander Hall, 1941) and A Guy Named Joe (Victor Fleming, 1943) come to mind, each of which was eventually remade, the former by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry as Heaven Can Wait (1978), the latter by Steven Spielberg as Always (1989)—it is probable that the "fantasy of goodwill" phrase stuck to Capra because only heavenly intervention could save James Stewart's George Bailey from himself and also because such narrational sleight-of-hand, for which Wonderful Life 's "heavenly projection room" conceit is so wonderfully apt, emphatically confirms the sense in which all of Capra's political morality fables require breathlessly miraculous conversions to arrive at their variously problematic conclusions.

The subjunctive mode of It's a Wonderful Life , in which a given life is depicted as being haunted or redeemed by an alternative existence, is also basic to Capra's political fables—in each his populist hero is effectively kidnapped from his ordinary life into some other one—and the dreamlike aura, always on the edge between nightmare and wish fulfillment, rarely dissipates. Hence the frequency with which "time travel" fables like Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) or Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989) are described as "Capraesque," and the appellation can as readily be applied to "ghost stories" like Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990) or The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), or to sci-fi films like Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) or Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), or to The Majestic (Frank Darabont, 2001), where cinema is depicted as a source of individual and communal, even political, renewal after a period of personal and cultural amnesia.

It has been claimed that cinema's photographic capacity to "naturalize" fantasy marks the medium itself as "populist" in the regressive sense. It is equally as true that cinema's capacity to haunt our present life with a picture of another world that seems uncannily like our own yet just beyond reach marks it as "populist" in the best sense, as appealing to the better angels of our nature. An American Dream, indeed.

SEE ALSO Great Depression

Brass, Tom. Peasants, Populism, and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth . London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass,2000.

Clanton, Gene O. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890–1900 . Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Dighe, Ranjit S., ed. The Historian's Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum's Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory . Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2002.

Gehring, Wes D. Populism and the Capra Legacy . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Richards, Jeffrey. Visions of Yesterday . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Sklar, Robert, and Vito Zagarrio, eds. Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America . New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Stanfield, Peter. Horse Opera: The Strange History of the 1930s Singing Cowboy . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Leland Poague

Also read article about Populism from Wikipedia

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