Friday, August 1, 2014

Classics Revisited: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra.
Written by: Sidney Buchman & Lewis R. Foster.
Starring: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Saunders), Claude Rains (Senator Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (Governor Hopper), Thomas Mitchell (Diz Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGann), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine).

In his excellent recent book, Five Came Back, Mark Harris makes the point (that others before him have noted) that Frank Capra’s personal politics as expressed in his films is murky at best – and that this could be a result of Capra not being overly political at all. Watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time in years, I definitely see that point more clearly than I did when I watched the film as a teenager. Here is a movie about the Senate – that caused an uproar in that body when it was released in 1939 – where no one really expresses a political point of view other than that corruption is bad. None of the politicians are identified by party. The biggest political point in the film almost feels like an accident – that big money and media influence has the ability to compromise politicians who will sell themselves out to stay in power. Capra and his screenwriters needed a villain, so they created one in Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) – who “runs” his home state through his money and his newspapers and never has to hold elected office. Having said all of that, I still must say that I think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a great movie – and it would take a black souled cynic to completely resist the film – and not be won over by it. Yes, Capra could have made a more complex film had he addressed some more political issues, but there is so much here to love that I find I really don’t care that much.

The film opens with the Junior Senator of an unnamed (presumably Mid-Western) state dying unexpectedly. This means that Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) – an incompetent boob who gets no respect from his family, and less from everyone else, needs to appoint his successor. The “Taylor Machine” names a party hack and tells Hopper he better play ball. Taylor, alongside the well-respected Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) have a deal that requires the state to buy up a lot of land for a dam that they own through surrogates – and they need someone who will play along so they can get rich. The citizens group Hopper hates the guy Taylor wants – and say they want another man – someone will rock the boat. Hopper, not knowing what to do, decides to not listen to either of them – and picks the man his kids want him to – Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) – a popular Boy Ranger leader, who has recently become a hero in the state for his efforts to stop a giant fire. Hopper figures that he’s popular enough to please the citizens groups, and dumb enough that he won’t cause problems for Taylor. So just like Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds in Capra’s previous film, the small town boy, with homespun values heads off to the big city – and discovers just how corrupt everything is.

If you were to think of an iconic image of Stewart Jefferson Smith is probably the first character that comes to mind – (if it’s not George Bailey, from another Capra film). Smith is charming, soft spoken and radiates honesty. He represents “simple, hometown American ideals” – so much so that when he arrives in Washington the first thing he does is go on a site seeing tour. Stewart stammers throughout, gets nervous around the girl he has a crush on (Astrid Allwyn) and has the perfect “Aw shucks” charm for the role. Jefferson Smith seems to be exactly what Hooper thought he was – a fool – but underneath that surface is an idealist – and a smart one at that. He hasn’t been corrupted by politics yet. Stewart is perfect in roles like this – it made him a star, and kept him one for decades – and allowed him to explore much darker material – like in his collaborations with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock – in part because audiences liked him so much that they would follow him anywhere – even if, like in Rear Window and Vertigo, that’s basically voyeurism and necrophilia. Stewart is great as the wide eyed innocent in those opening scenes – and when his famous filibuster starts in the last act – after Taylor and Paine have almost successfully destroyed him and he’s ranting for his life – he’s great there as well. It ranks as one of Stewart’s best performances.

Yet, the supporting cast is almost even better than Stewart. Capra favorite Jean Arthur played a similar role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – the street smart, cynical woman who starts out thinking the main character is a dope, but who gradually falls in love with him. But Arthur plays it so well – is so smart, sexy, funny and charming that you hardly care. Claude Rains specialized in villainous roles yet he doesn’t make Senator Paine into a straight black and white villain – he honestly believes that the compromises he has made do not really matter – that they were in fact necessary. It’s just when he faced with the mirror image of who he once was in Smith that he realizes how far he has fallen. Stewart and Rains got richly deserved Oscar nominations for their performances – and so did Harry Carey who played the unnamed President of the Senate – and despite the unnamed part, he deserved it as well. Throughout the filibuster, he sits back at first rather annoyed, and then increasingly amused by Smith, until you feel that even if Smith’s pleas have mostly fallen on deaf ears during his time there, that Smith has actually won him over. It’s a funny, laid back performance. Edward Arnold is the embodiment of greed as Jim Taylor – and even if you wish he was given a more complex character to play, he plays it well. Thomas Mitchell – in the midst of a career year as he would also win an Oscar for playing the drunken doctor in Stagecoach, as well as having supporting roles in Gone with the Wind and Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings – is amusing as a drunken reporter – and Arthur’s sounding board – who finds himself as charmed by Smith as she is. It’s the mark of a great ensemble that a performance like Stewart’s – that in many movies would tower over everyone else, dwarfing them, here is just one note in a larger piece.

The ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is somewhat problematic. Like in his follow-up film, Meet John Doe, Capra and his writers seem to have written themselves into a corner and didn’t really have a way out of it that would still give them the happy ending they wanted. In the case of Meet John Doe, the only logical way to end the film would have been for Gary Cooper to kill himself – and they weren’t going to do that. Here, having set Taylor up as a kind of all-powerful tycoon who could do anything he wanted, there was no logical way for Smith to actually win – so they needed to have one character do an abrupt about face that doesn’t make much sense. It works, but only because the audience wants it to, not because of any sort of logic in the movie itself. And when you think about it, the ending doesn’t really solve anything. Perhaps the film is more cynical than it gets credit for.

Frank Capra was often derided during his career – and is still derided by many today. The term “Capra-corn” was invented to describe his movies. It’s not a completely unfair criticism – films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life (to name but three) are certainly corny in many respects. But Capra, better than most directors, knew precisely what the audience wanted – and was more than happy to give it to them. Yes, you can write Mr. Smith Goes to Washington off as a corny fantasy – an overly idealistic, patriotic piece of rabble-rousing without a clear political agenda if you want to. Me? I’ll just enjoy the film for precisely what it is – and what it does well.

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