Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Dir. Frank Capra
Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold

Senator Joseph P. Kennedy disliked the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington intensely, arguing that it would damage America’s prestige in Europe. Coming from a self-serving dynastic patriarch who unsuccessfully tried to keep the USA out of the Second World War I regard that as a glowing tribute to Frank Capra’s 1939 look at American politics. The film was actually banned in those countries controlled by Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin. I’m starting to like the sound of this movie even more…

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shows the best of American democracy in the person of young, idealistic rookie senator Jefferson Smith (a tousled, boyish James Stewart). But it also shows the worst of American democracy in his fellow senators who are disinterested, easily led, or just plain corrupt. It is a film about graft, about political machines and puppet-masters, and about how good men who stand against either are targeted for destruction.

The film starts with the announcement of the death of a senator near the end of his term of office. When this occurs in the U.S. – unlike in the U.K. when a by-election would be called – the governor of the state that senator represents gets to appoint the replacement. In this case the governor is firmly in the pocket of political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) – as was the deceased. Taylor wants a placeman appointed to support his graft scheme of building a dam at Willett Creek. The local citizens’ committee want a crusading reformer instead. Torn between these two conflicting demands the governor (at the urging of his huge family of Hollywood moppet children) appoints instead the leader of the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith. This wholesome all-American face is designed to placate the crowds while being easy enough to manage in support of the dam scheme.

And sure enough, Smith is over-awed by Washington and what it represents. He idealises his colleague Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (a perfectly modulated performance from Claude Raines), who was once firm friends with his father. Which is a pity, because the urbane Paine is also firmly in Taylor’s pocket and has included the dam scheme as part of an appropriations bill. To keep him out of trouble Paine suggests that Smith author a bill of his own; to the exasperation of his cynical and sassy secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) Smith drafts it in one long evening, proposing that a national boys’ campsite be established in his home state with a governmental loan. It’s a popular and inoffensive plan except for one small detail – the location chosen for the campsite just happens to be Willett Creek, the same location as Taylor’s dam. When he refuses to drop his bill in favour of Taylor’s proposal (the pay-off being a guaranteed twenty years in the Senate) the machine moves to crush him, framing him as corrupt by claiming that he already owns the land in question. Paine at first tries to avoid attacking Smith, whom he likes, but Taylor insists that the senator do his bidding or else lose his support for a mooted presidential bid. Paine calls for Smith to be expelled from the Senate.

Meanwhile Saunders, the experienced and hard-bitten Washington veteran who admits she is only in the game because “I need the job and a new suit of clothes”, has started to see American politics through Jeff’s eyes, as a source of hope and idealism. She instructs him on how to play for time until they can refute the accusations and gather support in his home state. This means filibustering. As long as he can hold the floor of the Senate Chamber his expulsion cannot be put to the vote. Thus he embarks on a marathon session of speechifying, hoping that his Boy Rangers will be able to spread the truth more successfully than Taylor’s machine and newspapers.

The Bluffer's Guide to Washington: Smith (James Stewart)
& Saunders (Jean Arthur) - but who is learning from whom?

That the good guy wins has little to do with the American democratic system, which studiously turns its back on Jefferson. Nor has it much to do with the wisdom of the electorate – in the most crushing scene Paine brings in to the Senate mailbag after mailbag of post from electors, the very people Smith is relying on to support his cause; they unanimously call for his expulsion from the chamber (this is just as Taylor had predicted: “I’ll make public opinion out there within five hours! I’ve done it all my life.”) Instead Smith only wins because of a crisis of guilt on the behalf of Senator Paine who confesses all. Had he been a worse man, graft would have prevailed. But the film plays to that inbuilt shred of decency in all Americans. Paine sees in Smith his former best-friend when he was young and idealistic. Saunders has her love for D.C. reawakened by Smith’s admiration for all that it could and should represent (Jeff learns from Saunders the way politics really works, she learns from him how it should work). It is she who urges him to put up a fight rather than accept his fate in a stirring speech when she finds him downcast at the Lincoln Memorial: “Your friend Mr Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. Not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.” Even the press corps, as drunken and jaded a group of sharks as one could hope to meet, come to take up Jefferson’s cause (and not just for the story either). Capra’s film says that, yes, the Senate is composed of place-fillers, time-servers and hired men (unanimously men), but there is still something golden and special about American democracy, American democratic institutions and American democratic ideals. And an ounce of idealism – or naivety – can sweep out the graft and restore it to what it could be. All that needs to happen is that the American people believe. Smith argues that “this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!” It is this message that stuck in the throats of the Hitlers, Stalins… and Kennedys.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reminded me of the famous quote by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is a very bad way to runa country. But, it is better than all the alternatives.” As a rallying call to the side of democracy and against the tide of dictatorship that was by 1939 sweeping the world it was perfectly judged and perfectly timed. It restated the American belief that their political system was somehow charmed, somehow a torch held up before all the people of the world. In many ways it can be seen as a precursor to 1942’s classic Casablanca. Here Jean Arthur plays the Humphrey Bogart role, a world-weary cynic who comes to fight for what is right through love of someone who does believe in a better future. Indeed, it is notable that Arthur gets top-billing in the movie, over Stewart.  

What have I learnt about D.C.?
That it can be controlled. Political bosses and monopolous capitalists can ‘buy’ politicians, either with money or the support of their organisations and newspapers. Spinning public opinion they can control the electorate too. But they can be defeated by those who believe in right and decency. The monuments of the District speak to man's higher ideals.

Can we go there?
Why would one not want to? Arriving at Union Station Jefferson is so entranced with the golden dome of the Capitol gleaming in the sunlight that he takes an unauthorised bus tour of the city. He is forever running away to the Lincoln Memorial or George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Though the latter is never shown the former has a starring role and for my money is home to the best scene, where Saunders talks him into fighting the forces leagued against him.

Most of the movie was filmed on set back in Hollywood however; those background shots of Washington, the Capitol building, the Lincoln Memorial and Union Station are rarities. The recreation of the Senate on set was faithfully done however, only a very little under the scale of the real thing.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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