A Capitol idea turns 79
There’s a movie playing Boston-area theaters this coming week that depicts with startling accuracy the fetid cesspool of corruption that is Washington, D.C. It rails against the greed, the cynicism, the outright lies told by politicians who claim to act in our best interests. And it holds out hope for a hero from the heartland — a genuine populist to represent all we like to imagine is good and fair and caring in America.
The movie is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It’s 79 years old.
Still, what better film for introducing your kids to the idealism behind the American experiment? Not to mention our somewhat tricky attachment to outsider politicians who push our emotional buttons? There’s quite a bit going on in this classic if you’re willing to peek under the hood.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” will screen Oct. 14 and 17 at 10 local theaters (including the Regal Fenway, suburban AMC multiplexes, and other sites) as part of a TCM Big Screen Classics program in tandem with Fathom Events. (www.fathomevents.com has further information.) I’m serious about taking the kids. It’ll inoculate them with the radical notions that an old movie can be as entertaining as a superhero film or a Pixar flick and that black-and-white is beautiful, especially when seen on a big screen.
And it’ll introduce them both to Jefferson Smith and to the actor playing him, Jimmy Stewart, each in his way a beacon of humble, thoughtful decency your sons and daughters would do well to have in their wardrobe of role models. Stewart only seemed to specialize in playing America’s best idea of itself; in truth, he had a snappy ornery streak that gives ballast to his roles in such classics as “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Shop Around the Corner” (both 1940), and this film, and which flowered in fascinatingly dark directions after the actor returned from World War II a harder, more mature man.
Which is to say that “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) is a feel-good fantasy of angels and redemption, but it’s Stewart who makes you feel George Bailey’s despair and reminds you that this is a movie about suicide. And has there been a more iconic scene of hope hanging by the end of its exhausted tether than the climactic filibuster scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”?
Both “Life” and “Smith” were directed by Frank Capra, one of the few household-name filmmakers of the classic era. Capra fashioned fables about true-blue bumpkins who end up standing taller than all the sophisticates around them, and he usually pinions them to the rack before pulling out a feel-good ending. There’s a reason such movies as “Meet John Doe” (1941), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” have been called “Capra-corn,” a label both damning and envious.
A beautiful beanpole of a hero like Stewart was made for the role of Jefferson Smith, a boy’s club leader who’s chosen to replace a deceased US senator precisely because his state’s political machine figures he’ll be easy to manipulate. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” assumes the worst of our political system, with august politicians like Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) in the pocket of corrupt plutocrats like Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), and insiders like Smith’s secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur), and bibulous reporter Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) too burned out to do more than make sarcastic wisecracks.
That’s where Smith comes in. He’s averse to cynicism, unversed in horse-trading, too wholesome to be tainted or tempted. When he’s feeling down, he goes to the Lincoln Memorial to have a little chat with Abe. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is Capra’s way of saying that America needs periodic reminders of the democratic values on which it is based. And that only an outsider, an untarnished representative of the “real” America, can do it.
Man, does this movie feel good, even if its greatest strength is also its most glaring flaw. In the movies, putting one’s faith in an outsider who appears to tell the truth gets you Jimmy Stewart. In the real world. . . . Well, it’s more complicated. Sometimes you get a hero. Sometimes you get a strongman. Worst-case scenario, the outsider who seduces an electorate turns out to be Hitler.
Capra wasn’t thinking along those lines, obviously. (Certainly, “Mr. Smith” screenwriter Sidney Buchman wasn’t, since he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party when the film was made.) But Capra, according to biographer Joseph McBride, was an admirer of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Spain’s Francisco Franco, and he loathed Franklin D. Roosevelt with a passion. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine he might admire the current occupant of the White House.
That’s the double-edge of the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” sword — that the movie could be held up as gospel by partisans of any and every maverick on the political scene. I’m sure President Trump’s backers are fans, just as I’m sure the film speaks to everyone rooting for Democratic US Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke down in Texas. The one thing that unites all parties — the secret ingredient in Capra-corn – is disgust with the way things actually are.
If there’s one thing we can agree on, have always agreed on, it’s that Washington is a mess. The system is broken; the people we put there are mendacious nincompoops; someone’s responsible and it sure ain’t us. That “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was greeted with vocal resentment and pushback on Capitol Hill in 1939 was seen as a sign it was doing something right. (As did the film being banned in Italy, Spain, and the USSR, despite Capra’s fondness for the men running the first two.)
But the temptation the movie holds out, that a populist white knight shall cleanse the American body politic and restore us to our Founders’ Eden, has its dangers as well as its charms. So does the fact that Jefferson Smith isn’t even voted into office but gets in on a fluky coin toss. He’s too pure to be elected, but the movie doesn’t stop to wonder if he’d be too pure to govern. The problem, I guess, is that no actual human being will ever be as good as Jefferson Smith. I think even Jimmy Stewart knew that.
See the movie, though, and do take the children. Then maybe have a conversation about the things that politicians and movies promise us and the things we should expect from reality. To take one example, only in classic cinema can you count on a politician like Claude Rains’s “Silver Fox” to crack at the last minute, proclaim his corruption on the floor of the US Senate, and save the day.
In the real world, you’re more likely to find a Flake.