Caring for the Poor: Frank Capra and Elizabeth Seton - Seton Shrine

Caring for the Poor: Frank Capra and Elizabeth Seton

The mid-twentieth century immigrant film director and the early-nineteenth century saint born into Manhattan’s elite shared a deep concern for society’s poor and outcasts that was grounded in their Catholic faith.

What could the film director Frank Capra and the saint Elizabeth Ann Seton possibly have in common? A great deal, in fact. They were both thoroughly American, but more important, the storylines of Elizabeth’s life and Capra’s films each illustrated the key themes of the Christian drama: the Cross, Christ’s Resurrection, trust in God’s Providence, and the theme I’ll explore here—the blessedness of the poor and meek.

Several of Capra’s films focus on the plight of the “little guy”— and often the evils of the powerful rich. Think of his most famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where the malevolent robber baron Henry Potter is outsmarted by the relatively poor but generous George Bailey. Even one of Capra’s earliest sound films, Platinum Blonde (1931), depicts an ordinary guy, reporter Stewart Smith, who is drawn into the upper-class world (not evil here, just garish) but then rejects it in disgust at its snobbery and inherent selfishness.

But I want to focus first on one of Capra’s Depression-era films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Longfellow Deeds is a twenty-eight-year-old ordinary man from the fictional town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, where he is much loved. His pleasures: playing the tuba and writing poetry on commission for a holiday postcard company. Out of nowhere, sleazy lawyer John Cedar shows up with the news that Deeds is the sole heir of a 20-million-dollar fortune left him by an uncle he barely knows. Deeds replies, off-handedly: “I wonder why he left me all that money. I don’t need it.” Then he picks up his tuba and plays a few notes. Cedar, trying to get power of attorney over the inheritance (and take a big commission for himself), says Deeds must come with him to New York City. On the train, instead of musing about all he can do with the money, Deeds is concerned about where the town band will find another tuba player.

In New York, newspaper reporter Louise Bennett gets the idea of pretending she’s a poor outsider trying to get a job; calling herself Mary, she plays this role with Deeds in order to win his confidence, hang out with him, and then write stories mocking him as a country bumpkin. Her editor loves what she’s doing because her articles are selling lots of papers. Of course, Deeds has no idea who’s writing these humiliating stories, and he gradually falls in love with her, and she with him.

Though “as naive as a child” (as Cedar puts it to his colleagues), Deeds is sharp enough to catch on to all the New York rich folks who are trying to get hold of a chunk of his inheritance. (Of Cedar, he says after they’ve shaken hands, “Even his hands are oily.”) He just wants to go back to Mandrake Falls—so he can think about what good he could do with the money—especially after he discovers that it’s “Mary” who has been writing the demeaning newspaper stories.

But just then, at his lowest ebb, a poor man barges into the garish mansion where Deeds is living and berates him for wasting his money: “I want a chance to feed my wife and kids. I’m a farmer but I lost my farm. You never gave a thought to all those starving people waiting in bread lines—not knowing where their next meal is coming from.” (Remember, the film is set during the Great Depression.)

The film immediately switches to newspaper headlines: “Longfellow Deeds to Give Fortune Away”; “Huge Farming District to Be Divided into 10 Acre Farms Fully Equipped at a Cost of $18,000,000”; “Thousands of Unemployed Storm Deeds’ Home.”

Next we see Deeds, unshaven and in shirtsleeves, screening the mob of applicants for his farms. But suddenly during this, he’s arrested for insanity (a ploy concocted by Cedar). The court agrees to hold a hearing; after all, no one who’s giving away $18,000,000 to poverty-stricken people could be sane.

At the hearing, Deeds refuses counsel and refuses to speak at all when addressed by the judge. So the prosecution (Cedar) holds all the cards, even using Louise to testify unwillingly against Deeds. But just when the judge is about to declare that Deeds is indeed insane and must be committed to a mental hospital, Louise stands up shouting “No! No! No!” Re-taking the stand, she confesses her part in falsely portraying him as a crazy fool. She also admits her love for him. Hearing this, Deeds begins to speak eloquently in his own defense and even gives Cedar a punch in the face for good measure. The farmers filling the courtroom cheer Deeds, and the judge declares “In the opinion of the Court, you are not only sane—you are the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom. Case dismissed.” The movie closes with Deeds sweeping Louise into his arms with a kiss.

Five years later, Capra made a film in which his concern for the poor takes on a Christian dimension: Meet John Doe (1941). Newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell invents a “John Doe”: an ordinary man who’s going to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof on Christmas Eve in disgust at society’s disregard for people in need. Ann’s fake story captures the popular imagination, so her boss decides to keep it going by finding a “real” John Doe. They choose ragged, beaten-down John Willoughby. Ann writes for him a national radio speech which includes: “You’re probably thinking: ‘I’m just a little punk. I don’t count.’ But you’re dead wrong: … the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks. So look out for your neighbor: if he’s hungry, feed him. The meek can only inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors.”

After this first Gospel allusion, there are more. Inspired by John’s radio address, “John Doe Clubs” spring up all over the country. At their first national convention, John has barely begun his remarks when the film’s villain (of course a rich, corrupt man) has newsboys hand out a newspaper claiming “John Doe is a fake.” People start booing John and throwing things at him, while Ann cries out, “They’re crucifying him.”

Then in the film’s finale, John, thoroughly disillusioned about any good he can do, is indeed on the City Hall roof on Christmas Eve. Ann, by now in love with him, dashes to the roof to stop his suicide. Throwing herself in his arms, she cries: “You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that idea alive for nearly 2,000 years… and he’ll go on keeping it alive forever and always.” John silently lifts her in his arms and walks away from the edge of the roof.

I’m pretty confident that Elizabeth Ann Seton would have found in Capra’s vision of the poor and needy a reflection of her own.

While still a Protestant in her early twenties, Elizabeth showed her compassion for people in need by joining the newly formed Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children—one of the nation’s first female-run groups devoted to charitable works. The Society raised funds for families in need and helped them to find housing and educate their children. As Mother Seton, Elizabeth led the community she founded, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, in educating the poor, caring for the sick, and feeding and clothing orphans. As news of the good work of her Sisters spread, Elizabeth received a request to run a Philadelphia orphanage. She sent three Sisters on this mission, and the orphanage thrived. Because of the Sisters’ success in Philadelphia, Seton received a similar request to set up an orphanage in New York City, and she responded by sending three Sisters.

I love that a mid-twentieth century immigrant film director and an early-nineteenth century saint born into Manhattan’s elite have something so important in common. But maybe that’s not surprising since their concern for society’s poor and outcasts was grounded in their Catholic faith.

PEGGY ROSENTHAL has a PhD in English Literature and has published many books and articles on the intersection of poetry and spirituality.

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Image: Public Domain