As we lift the pay gate on Michael Kazin’s contribution to the Masters at the Movies series, I’m reminded of how deeply the public mind has absorbed Frank Capra’s masterfully crafted image of the heroic filibuster from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As readers are no doubt aware, the US Senate is in the throes of an unprecedented number of filibusters. President Obama and others have remarked that a simple majority is no longer sufficient for legislation to pass—that the only vote count which really counts is the supermajority required to break a filibuster.
Before the start of the current congressional session, many of those suggesting reform of the Senate rules insisted that if we returned to the “talking filibuster,” rather than allowing senators to block legislation from the comfort of their seats, things would improve. Mr. Smith was present throughout this debate. The image of Jimmy Stewart grandly holding up Senate business for the benefit of the common man is the icon of the talking filibuster (rather than, say, Strom Thurmond’s filibuster of the 1957 Civil Rights Act). And when Senator Rand Paul embarked on his talking filibuster earlier this month, even those who did not agree with him sympathized with his tactics. After all, he stood up, literally, for what he believed.
As pressure mounts, again, to reform the Senate’s rules, the talking filibuster is back on the table, and those who are convinced that a more fundamental reform is needed must contend with the image of Mr. Smith’s noble crusade and the uncanny ability that Frank Capra had to touch public nerves.
Michael Kazin’s essay on four Frank Capra films locates the director’s appeal in a form of populism that skirted partisan issues. Introducing Kazin’s essay, Robert Brent Toplin further discusses Capra’s career and his own encounters with his son, Frank Capra Jr. We are pleased to open these articles, previously available only to AHA members, to the public. We also encourage readers to visit the March issue of Perspectives Online for articles on MOOCs, teaching transnational history, and more.