July 12, 2011

#26: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A Yankee Doodle, do or die.

Frank Capra was the first studio director to have his name listed above the title of a film he directed (as seen above). As such, he was a big deal. Think of him as the first Spielberg: he may have been the first director with a real audience appeal. The son of Sicilian immigrants, he came to personify the American dream, winning five Oscars in the 1930s alone and winding up with three films on this list, including his American ode Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life are the other two). At the time, critics dismissed his films as too idealistic, but I think there's something to be said for the immigrant's view of the American ideal.

Company: alone again. It was a dark and stormy night.

Cuisine: off-brand Wheat Thins and "Supremely Spicy" hummus (was this a mistake on a supremely stuffy evening?) ... and maybe a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich ... or two. You guys! Not a big deal! Stop talking about it!

The film opens with the news that Senator Samuel Taylor is dead, and that the governor of this senator's (unnamed) state has been charged with the task of selecting a new senator. The populace wants a reformer candidate, while the governor's corrupt political boss is pressuring him to choose his toadie. At the dinner table, his seemingly endless stream of talkative children weigh in, rooting for the publisher of their kid's newspaper for Boy Rangers, a naive young man named Jefferson Smith (Oscar nominee Jimmy Stewart... it's too weird to write James). The idea of democracy is given a run for its money when, choosing between the reformer and the toadie, the governor flips a coin ... and it lands on its side, next to an article about Smith. "I'll take it as a sign," sighs the defeated leader. Smith is the new senator. Glad to know these decisions are not taken lightly.

"A perfect man, never in politics in his life!"

Smith is a timid guy, hardly able to squeak out two words when introduced at a governor's dinner, but you can see a fire in his eyes, a great love for nature and his country. He's got a good heart, but one that some would hope would make him easily corruptible. He's not the most layered protagonist I've ever seen, but the story is simple and doesn't require him to be complicated. Quite the opposite: Jimmy Stewart plays him as uncomplicated as you really can, with a glimmer in his eye that reminds me of all the reasons contemporary audiences have a similar love for Tom Hanks. He's mannered, but charming.

And then, to make sure you really know he's super patriotic, we are treated to a montage of historical monuments with trumpet-y fanfares. America! Then, a beautiful moment where a young boy holding his grandfather's hand reads aloud the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, while an elderly black gentleman listens. Capra doesn't linger on this moment to prove a point, but simply presents it and hopes the audience will take from it what they will. Lovely.

Smith, fresh from a innocent sightseeing jaunt all over the District of Columbia, is ushered into the Senate Room, where the legislative day opens with a prayer. My, how times have changed. The majority of the senators distrust Smith from the outset, given his wacky photo shoot where he posed doing nature calls and clutching a hatchet, which they all took as an insult to the gravity of their positions. Immediately, it's Smith vs. the senators, a man who wouldn't know any better and who wouldn't know he could be manipulated vs. those who would manipulate him and take themselves oh so seriously. But when it comes out that he's been made a fool in the paper, there's a very out-of-place montage in which Smith punches nearly every reporter in town. Isn't he supposed to be pure and innocent? His true backwoods colors come out.

But his intentions are still pure, as he communicates to his jaded personal secretary (Jean Arthur), who quickly falls for him, as can be evidenced by the Vasoline smeared on the lens at the moment of her infatuation. Love it when that happens in these old movies.

Oooh, it suddenly got so hazy in here.

Through a simple misunderstanding, orchestrated by Smith's mentor, a senior senator named Joseph Paine (Oscar nominee Claude Rains), the entire senate plans to vote Smith out, claiming he has no place in office. But Smith, aided by his secretary, returns to the Senate floor, determined to prove his innocence. The only problem: all the senators walk out on him. When this film was premiered in Washington, several members of Congress were outraged, claiming that it portrayed them as nincompoops. In light of the current government shutdown in my lovely home state of Minnesota, this turn of events in the film strike a deeply resonant chord. Inaction and apathy is their greatest weapon, and it's used to its fullest effect.

The film then takes a strange turn, in which Smith reclaims his innocence essentially through technicality and a dramatic confession by Paine, who cracks under the pressure and summons the wrath on God on himself in an almost Shakespearean denouement. It felt to me like the film was leading to a more spectacular conclusion, but Smith simply wears the senators down by talking as long as he can. Is this democracy? Are our governing officials really this stubborn? Is there no gravity left to factual accounts and logical discussion? Through a contemporary lens, the whole narrative almost functions as satire.

At the time, the Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, was the standard guidelines set up for moral censorship in Hollywood. Think of it as the code of ethics imposed on movies before the creation of the MPAA in 1968. The head of the Hays Office at the time, Joseph Breen, was initially wary of financing a film that was so critical of our democracy, but later said this of the finished screenplay:

"It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it and, in my judgment, it is particularly fortunate that this kind of story is to be made at this time. Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'"

Smith is idealized by Capra, representative of a government of, by, and for the people. It's a particularly rich American allegory, not particularly deep but certainly indicative of government at its simplest and purest. A regular guy comes in and changes the Senate. This guy.

"The senator will make a good orator when his voice stops changing!"
"This is no place for you. You're halfway decent, you don't belong here!"
"You're not a senator, you're an honorary stooge!"
"They're all gonna laugh at you!"

Okay, that last one's actually Carrie.

Smith is haunted in his own way by his inadequacy, but stands up and refuses to sit down, fall asleep or take a break, talking for almost twenty-four hours straight, in the name of America. Ain't that sweet of him? We cheer at the end, and thank God: it would be pretty bleak if it was all for nothing.

Well, this and Yankee Doodle Dandy: it doesn't get much more American than this, folks, and much more optimistic about our government. Maybe it's just a jaded liberal talking but I needed this message just about now. I think the Minnesota legislature could use it, too: inaction will get you nowhere.

3/4 of the way done! Whoopee! Next up: Gregory Peck fights for rights in To Kill a Mockingbird.

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