Tuesday, May 17, 2011
CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
It would be easy to dismiss “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as an earnest relic of a bygone era.
The story contains 1930s-era backroom politics with clear-cut corruption and an “aw shucks” hero who doesn’t seem real even for the time. He has a wide-eyed love of country that takes flag-waving patriotism to new heights. All that’s missing is an “I (heart) USA” tattoo across his forehead.
But the director is Frank Capra, who turned out film after film during the 1930s that championed the common man against the rich, the powerful and the corrupt. And it worked every time, because these films contain hope, with characters at times desperately clinging to it. That portrayal of hope is universal, which is why these movies hold up so well today.
People may start watching “Mr. Smith” with a contemporary cynicism but feel it melt away as the hero goes from wide-eyed naïf to earnest fighter of good, someone we can cheer for and feel good about doing so.
It certainly helps that Capra found the perfect actor for the role – James Stewart, who came to represent such goodness to many of his fans. His career steadily built steam during the 1930s, but it exploded with this role. Not only is he the personification of who we want leaders to be, but he personified the people themselves while delivering a tour-de-force performance highlighted by the climactic Senate filibuster.
The film opens with the death of Senator Sam Foley. News flies from Washington D.C. back to the unknown state where corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) confers with current senator and possible future presidential candidate Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) to determine who should be appointed as the new senator. They will give the word to Gov. Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to make the announcement.
But the man chosen is universally panned as nothing more than a puppet of Taylor’s. At home for dinner, an agitated Hopper is accosted by his children, who want him to pick Jefferson Smith (Stewart), leader of the Boy Rangers and a man with no political experience. The kids are hilariously both politically naïve and savvy – after all, one tells his dad, every boy who likes Smith has two voting parents.
Hopper sees possibility with the green Smith, and Paine and Taylor agree. With a seemingly ineffective Smith in office, they can push through, without much notice, their bill that contains a dam project that will benefit Taylor.
In addition, Smith’s late father and Paine once knew each other, and Taylor believes that Smith’s reverential feeling toward Paine can be used to good advantage.
Smith comes to Washington and is immediately in a state of euphoric awe, puzzling his new Washington-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) and a slew of reporters who decide to have fun with this hayseed.
Paine diverts the attention of an inquisitive Smith by encouraging him to pursue his dream – a bill that would create a national boys camp. But Smith’s location for this camp is exactly where the dam is to be built, which leads to growing tensions between the two.
“He’s honest, not stupid,” Paine tells lackey Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette) in trying to decide how to handle Smith.
Meanwhile, Saunders thaws toward Smith and begins to question her own cynical outlook on life.
“I wonder if it isn’t a curse to go through life all wised up like us?” she tells press buddy Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell).
It’s at this point that the audience is clearly thawing toward Smith as well, as he slowly transforms from wide-eyed innocent to an unwitting champion for democracy.
Sidney Buchman wrote the screenplay from a story by Lewis Foster (longtime Capra collaborator Robert Riskin had left Columbia Pictures the year before). For research, Capra and Buchman took a trip to Washington and did the tourist thing, mingling with the people and experiencing their awe and joy at seeing the national monuments. They also had the chance to sit in on a presidential press conference with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Capra did hesitate about proceeding with the film, thinking his approach would be seen as simplistic when compared to the complexity of running the government. But upon visiting the Lincoln Memorial, he encountered a young boy reading the Gettysburg Address to his blind grandfather, and Capra – who was an immigrant and loved America – was touched enough to proceed.
Indeed, as an ode to this moment, the movie contains a scene with a boy reading the address to his grandfather.
But when the film had its world premiere in Washington D.C., the good people of the nation’s capital almost ran Capra out of town. They felt Capra had made a laughing-stock out of the government by showing rampant corruption, particularly with the darkening political situation in Europe. The story is that the Senate voted unanimously to denounce the film and to begin looking at muting the power of movie studios. The studios, in response, banded together to try and buy the film and keep it from release.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and both the critics and the public loved the movie. The very darkness of the corruption and cynicism – much more disturbing than in previous Capra films – made the redemption of Smith more emotional.
And Stewart is simply magnificent. If the original plan was to get Gary Cooper and team him again with Arthur following “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” I’m thankful it was Stewart who Capra got on loan from MGM. Smith’s impassioned filibuster is everything the audience needs to both understand the depth of political deceit and the courage it takes to stand up against it. Stewart infuses it with such intense emotion that impossible not to be riveted. Stewart’s raspy voice toward the end was supposedly the result of a doctor painting his vocal chords with a mercury solution.
Matching Stewart is Arthur. She’s the person who the audience identifies with initially, a go-between between the overly earnest Smith and the corruption. She’s wise enough to be wary of both sides until she realizes that she’s been cynical for too long. One of Arthur’s best scenes is when Saunders gets drunk with Diz and proposes to him. Arthur said a woman playing drunk must be handled carefully, and she nails the scene.
The supporting cast is a roll call of greatness, including many familiar faces to Capra films – Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Smith (she would play Stewart’s mother again in “It’s a Wonderful Life), Mitchell (who was everywhere in 1939, including “Stagecoach” and “Gone With the Wind”), H.B. Warner as Senate majority leader, and Arnold. Then add in Rains, Pallette, Kibbee and Harry Carey as the president of the Senate and you have a crackerjack cast.
The film was nominated for 11 Oscars, including picture, director, actor, and supporting actor for both Rains and Carey. It won only for Foster’s original story.
No matter. This film is beloved by Capra fans. And think about this: When Germany invaded France and gave theater owners 30 days to switch to German-only movies, a number of owners showed “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” during these final days. Audiences packed the theaters and cheered for Jefferson Smith, a man fighting for liberty and freedom.
That’s the true power of film and this one in particular.
My thanks to Becky and Page for organizing this wonderful blogathon. Check out the Classic Movie Blog Association web site to read about the many other films from 1939. I’m still trying to get through them!