Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes To Washington is very very similar to his 1936 Mr Deeds Goes To Town. The plot is incredibly similar, the main difference is that this time Capra gets explicitly political. But as with Mr Deeds Goes To Town what is really interesting is that he deals heads-on with the failures of the political system and the failures of democracy without actually committing himself politically. You can watch this movie and at the end of it not be sure whether it’s a movie made by someone who is a registered Democrat or a registered Republican (in fact Capra was a lifelong registered Republican).

It’s a movie that exposes Washington as a cesspit of lies and corruption but it’s pretty obvious that as far as this movie is concerned it doesn’t matter which party they belong to, they’re all crooks.

It starts with the death of a U.S. Senator. A replacement needs to be found. The entire political machine of the state in question is corrupt and the only question is whether the deceased senator should be replaced by an obvious crook or by an incompetent time-server who can be trusted not to ask questions. Then the governor gets a brainwave. Why not appoint a man with popular appeal but who is so dumb that he can be manipulated with ease? He has a man in mind, the leader of a youth organisation called the Boy Rangers.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the man in question and he’s almost a carbon copy of Mr Deeds. He’s incredibly naïve and he actually believes everything he was taught at school about freedom and democracy and the Constitution and he’s so innocent that he thinks the U.S. Senate is a body of honourable men serving their country. But he’s like Mr Deeds in that his innocence is balanced by a certain clear-eyed common sense. When Jefferson Smith thinks he’s been lied to he starts to ask awkward questions and to think awkward thoughts. He puts two and two together and even when his senior colleague and mentor Senator Paine (Claude Rains) assures him that it makes five (and that it would be very much to his advantage to believe that it makes five) he knows it makes four and it’s always made four.

Senator Jefferson Smith has no ideological barrow to push, he has no ambitions, as the junior senator from his state he really is content just to do what the senior senator, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), tells him to do. Senator Paine and Jefferson’s dad had been crusading newspapermen years ago and Jefferson hero-worships Paine.

To keep Smith happy he is given a bill of his own to present. It’s a thoroughly harmless bill to set aside a very small amount of money to establish boys’ camps, this being one of Smith’s harmless obsessions. The bill is so innocuous and so unimportant that no-one would ever have noticed it except for one unfortunate accident - the boys’ camps are to be established on land that has been earmarked by Senator Paine and his crooked cronies for a dam that will divert a large amount of taxpayers’ money into their own pockets.

Suddenly Senator Jefferson Smith is a very real danger that must be eliminated. He’s such an innocent chump that destroying him politically should be child’s play, except that Smith has a useful ally in his private secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) who happens to be a shrewd political operator. However the main reason Smith is so hard to destroy is that he’s absurdly determined and doesn’t know when he’s beaten.

The scenes in the senate, with Smith facing removal from office, are an exact parallel to the sanity hearing endured by Mr Deeds in Mr Deeds Goes To Town. Once again it’s the underdog fighting for survival against overwhelming odds.

One of the things that is intriguing about Capra is that according to his son (as related on the audio commentary to Mr Deeds Goes To Town) he was obsessed with editing and with what he saw as the excessively slow pacing of American movies. This is intriguing because the pacing of Capra’s movies is atrocious. They are much much too long and scenes just go on and on and on. Frank Capra Jr does make the point that his father was not interested in the established rules of film-making and preferred to make his own rules. This can be a dangerous practice. Sometimes the rules exist for a reason. If you ignore the rules you can fall prey to self-indulgence and Frank Capra was perhaps the most self-indulgent of all the major directors of golden age Hollywood (although he was self-indulgent in an interesting and even fruitful way). The senate scenes are very effective but the effect is dissipated a little since they go too long. Overall there’s not really enough plot to just a running time of 129 minutes.

Capra’s idea in both Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington was to combine good-natured comedy with social commentary. This was hardly an original idea but what makes it interesting is that Capra’s social commentary has unexpected oddities and subtleties.

In Mr Deeds he has a hero who is a rich man and he’s also the only truly virtuous man in a corrupt town. There’s nothing startling about hero-worshipping the rich but in an American film you’d expect the rich man to be a self-made man, one who earned his wealth in a manner demonstrating the truth of the American Dream. But Mr Deeds did nothing whatever to deserve his wealth. He represents inherited wealth. He also represents the virtuous man as a paternalistic figure. This is pretty much anathema to true believers in the American Dream.

Capra does something very similar in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Senator Smith is the honest folksy down-home hero who takes on the task of confronting corruption in Washington. This should surely play out as a triumphant vindication of American democracy. There’s just one little problem. Senator Smith was not democratically elected. He was not elected at all. He was simply chosen by a thoroughly crooked state political machine to fill a casual vacancy. The senator who really was elected democratically, Senator Paine, is the crook. So the movie can just as easily be seen as suggesting that democracy simply doesn’t work.

What makes it intriguing of course is that Capra did believe in democracy. But he obviously didn't believe in it in a naïve way. In this movie the people chose wrongly in choosing Senator Paine. The people were hoodwinked by the press. The manipulation of public opinion by the media is a major theme of the film. When ruthless cliques control the media and corrupt machine control the electoral process democracy can be in really big trouble. When the movie came out the Washington press corps was enraged. Many powerful political figures were enraged as well. This is clearly a movie that successfully hit its targets.

The trouble with political movies is that almost invariably they try to bludgeon the viewer into accepting a particular political program or political ideology. That’s what makes Mr Smith Goes To Washington so refreshing. It isn’t trying to convert the viewer to a political position, it’s simply trying to provoke the viewer into thinking about weaknesses in the system.

Capra was a director who had zero interest in making realistic movies. The plots are contrived and they’re deliberately contrived and that’s the only way the outrageous stories could work. In spite of this though his movies are very very realistic in portraying the psychological realities of power, or corruption, of ambition and of avarice. While you’re not going to believe for one second that a man like Jefferson Smith could exist and could get to Washington, he’s more an allegorical figure than a human being, you will believe absolutely that this is the way political corruption works, this is the way ideals get corroded, this is the way once honest men get compromised.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a movie that even someone like myself, with an absolutely deadly loathing for message films, can enjoy. It’s a strange movie by one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors but it’s fascinating and entertaining and it’s highly recommended.

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