Unless you’ve been hiding under the deep sea floor, you’re aware that we Americans have an election upon us.
And you also must know that in the air are big lies, corruption, arguments about public lands and grave fears about the environment. But not much in current politics is really new.
The terms of the debates (if we can call them that) may smell new, but much of this stuff has been with us for a long time, and a film from the era of The Great Depression, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — an 84-year-old movie — gives a fresh slant on these struggles. Put it in the category of “the more things change . . . .”
In the 1930s, film director Frank Capra and his movies were household names in America. “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Lost Horizon,” and more. He and the films won tons of Oscars, and they were beloved by the movie-going public. The pictures were less successful though, with critics who sometimes referred to “Capra-corn,” meaning Capra’s corny sentimentality and his uncritical affection for things “homespun.”
What audiences and critics of the time often missed was the streak of doubt and uncertainty that run through those movies. Zaniness can also be a cover or a reaction to hopelessness. The nutty extended family in the depression-era “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) dance and cavort their way through life, knowing deep-down that the bank can put them out of their home any time it wants.
These contradictions run through Capra’s one overtly political film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), which in spite of its fatuous moments and its full dish of “Capra-corn” still speaks powerfully about how cynicism, greed and outright lying undermine the glorious and sometimes hypocritical American ideals.
It’s a good film for right now, and, frankly any time you get to watch James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains, backed by a horde of the great characters of the ‘30s, grab it.
The story centers on Jefferson Smith (Stewart), a sweet aw-shucks guy in a small town in a nameless state (Montana in the original story). When one of the state’s two senators dies suddenly, Smith winds up with an appointment to fill out the term. The political boss Jim Taylor (the wonderful villain Edward Arnold) and his obedient Senator Paine (Rains) figure that Smith is enough of a patsy that he won’t cause trouble.
But he’s not named Jefferson for nothing, and naive Jeff Smith actually believes in the mouthings of American democracy. He proposes a camp for boys of all races, religions, creeds and financial means — right where boss Taylor and Senator Paine want to build a dam and collect a boatload of graft.
It leads to a fight with those big bad guys, a fight through which Jeff learns what those platitudes really mean. So Capra made a movie about actual patriotism in practice as opposed to the empty patriotism of slogans.
Capra came to America as a 6-year-old immigrant from Sicily. He learned early about bigotry, and he lived his life and career with a chip on his shoulder. He grew into an odd mix of conservative Republican, and pro-labor progressive, but always with sympathy for underdogs. (Screenwriter Sidney Buchman was a communist, which didn’t much bother Capra, although he was cagey about when he knew of Buchman’s party affiliation.)
Many of Capra’s films are finally about little guys bucking the system. He was not a complex political thinker; he worked from his gut, and his feelings for the struggle of little guys usually take his films into corners he doesn’t know how to escape. So he had trouble with endings and often turned to fantasy to get his characters out of the jams he’d built for them.
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Capra made what’s now maybe his best-known picture, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in 1946. He was one of five major Hollywood directors (with John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens and William Wyler) who gave up their careers to make films for the military during World War II.
They all suffered for their choice — they were changed personally by their wartime experiences and they had to reclaim their places in the Hollywood studio system. It’s telling that Capra’s first post-wartime film is about a man in profound despair who believes he has no place in the world and that human life would be better if he had never been born. What saves George Bailey (James Stewart again) is typical Capra fantasy — an angel makes George believe in himself again.
In rough terms, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is about the conflict between American ideals and actual political practice. Senator Paine and boss Jim Taylor concoct a big lie that Smith is going to profit from the boys camp. They forge deeds and contracts; they control the newspapers and the radio (no TV yet). They trumpet their big lies loud enough and often enough that the rest of the Senate believes them and so does the public. The dilemma for the movie is how to get a babe-in-the-woods to defeat people so cynical that they spout their fabrications with straight faces, full of phony reverence for the truth, and the integrity they claim for their long experience representing the people of America.
The famous part of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is Jeff Smith’s filibuster in the Senate chamber. Capra gets the audience to feel for Smith’s agony. Jeff weakens; his voice grows hoarse; Stewart’s lanky posture starts to crumble. At the same time, Jeff is funny. He undermines the pompous, self-righteous (and self-serving) senators and bosses with good humor — so Capra gives us a funny victim, an emotionally unbeatable combination for the audience.
And there’s a love story. Saunders (Jean Arthur), the once-cynical political operative in Sen. Paine’s office, cannot bear to watch what the crooked liars do to Jeff. She finds despairing Smith at his favorite place, the Lincoln Memorial, where they fall in love as they talk about ideals and courage.
Cinematographer Joseph Walker sets them against a blank gray background; it’s dark and they’re nearly in silhouette, as if talking about such things can’t happen in the world of actual human life. Saunders tells him, “You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness.”
This is what Capra offers against remorseless political power.
In the real world of government and politics, “everyday common rightness” may not always win out. But like the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a magical force rescues Jeff, along with American democracy. Corrupt Sen. Paine recovers his once-courageous, moral and idealistic self and tells the world that Jeff is blameless, honest and wonderful.
Of course it’s a fatuous ending. But to see what many American films are about, you sometimes have to put endings aside because they sell out the core of the picture. On its way to that silly ending, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” pictures the harm to the country caused by lies, corruption and greed.
In Jeff’s struggle, the movie imagines a country on the brink between honest government and a government that despises its average citizens. Capra’s feel-good solution ends the movie, but if we’re paying attention, in its heart, the film knows the fight goes on.