Tag Archives: Jean Arthur

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

220px-Smith_goesAfter watching Meet John Doe and The Miracle Woman, I was struck by one (of many) themes that Frank Capra seemed repeatedly interested in exploring: whether or not something is still true –  faith, an ideal, a principle – even when it is exploited, ignored or corrupted. I had a dim memory that Frank Capra also explored this theme in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so I thought it was time I revisited it.

The first time I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I was still in my phase of resisting Frank Capra. On the surface, he seemed simplistic and contradictory. I’ve been rethinking that assessment, however, and warming to his films. And this time I around I was greatly impressed by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a senator from an unnamed state dies, the governor must appoint a temporary senator until the next election. But the governor (Guy Kibbee) and all the politicians are beholden to party boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt man who ensures that certain people stay in power, all the while lining his own pockets. The governor chooses Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the young leader of the Boy Rangers, who they believe will be too ignorant and naive to interfere with Jim Taylor’s little projects in the senate.

Jefferson Smith is awed to be chosen an honorary senator and is especially honored to become the colleague of the revered Senator Joseph Payne (Claude Rains), who used to work with his father fighting for justice for “lost causes.” Jefferson Smith thinks of Payne as a saint, a man who has done well for his state and who looks very likely to make it to the White House. He’s even called the Silver Knight. But Payne, it turns out, is just as beholden to Jim Taylor as all the rest of the politicians of the state.

Jefferson Smith is also assigned a secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), a tough-egg, knowledgeable, smart and cynical, who is initially convinced that Jefferson Smith is just a stooge, until she realizes that he’s actually sincere and no man’s patsy, at least when he realizes what is really going on. He wants to introduce an inoffensive bill to create a national boy’s camp, but it turns out that it conflicts with a bit of pork in an appropriations bill that will benefit Taylor. When Smith discovers this (with Saunder’s help), he refuses to go along with it and sets out to expose them, only to have Taylor and the “saintly” Payne frame him for the exact crime they committed.

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart - ironic image

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – iconic image

Thus begins the filibuster to end all filibusters, with Saunders coaching him all the way; one man standing against the party machine. It’s epic.

My first thought was, “What a cast!” Frank Capra always seems to assemble the most marvelous collection of actors. Edward Arnold (in a similar role to Meet John Doe), Eugene Pallette, Porter Hall, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, William Demarest, Thomas Mitchell (drunk, as usual). Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the sincere and naive junior senator who, by all rights, ought not to be in politics, but on finding himself in that position, is willing to fight for what is right. He’s a modern-day nearly-martyred saint.

Jean Arthur is also fantastic. I’ve been watching her in some of her comedies, like Easy Living, where she is a bit of a scatter brain, but not in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her character actually shares a lot of similarities with Barbara Stanwyck’s in Meet John Doe: hard-boiled woman who had to go to work young because her father was so philanthropic and ethical that he couldn’t provide for his own family, yet still retains the values of her father deep inside. Her affection for Jefferson Smith hovers between mothering solicitude and deep admiration.

But for me, it is Claude Rains who really gets the best role. He manages to show both the vestiges of the idealism he felt as a young man and the well-schooled, ambitious politician of today. The admiration Jefferson Smith feels for him and the genuine affection Payne has for Smith as the son of his friend makes his denunciation of Smith one of the more effective betrayals I’ve seen in cinema. You can see the hurt confusion in Smith’s eyes and how Payne hates himself for it. Claude Rains also demonstrates perfectly the dichotomy between the private man and the public one, switching between publicly denouncing Smith without batting an eye to being privately ashamed of himself and almost sick to his stomach.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

The central question Jefferson Smith must ask himself is, “are the American principles he believed in still true, even though he was pilloried and the government is mired in corruption and ambition?” The answer, Saunders urges him, is yes. And it’s worth fighting for. But the irony is that although Jefferson Smith expects the people of his state to rise up and vindicate him, the state party machine is too strong and manages to suppress his defense. He doesn’t exactly convince anyone. All that happens is that the war inside Joe Payne (a la Darth Vader) finally comes to a head and his guilt nearly pushes him over the edge and Payne himself vindicates Smith.

Perhaps the message here is that hope is not necessarily to be found in groups of people or the press or the political system, but simply in the consciences of individual people, which is still alive despite all. The most unexpected people can both disappoint, but also support you. The other message, perhaps, is that right is always worth fighting for, win or lose. Or perhaps it’s a story of rediscovery: Joe Payne, Clarissa Saunders, even Jefferson Smith to a certain degree, must rediscover their ideals that have been buried or obscured by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe would make, I think, an revealing double feature. There are many similarities – the martyred public man who ambitious and corrupt men attempt to use as a tool, then destroy when they refuse to be used, the smart, tough-talking woman who is softened by the man and rediscovers the principles of her youth, the self-doubts, the media wars, the exploitation, the fickleness of people in following their hero, the rapidity in which a hero can fall or rise, the struggle to maintain one’s personal integrity. They are films that reward repeat viewings.


Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Movies


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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-miss-jones-robert-cummings-jean-arthur-1941I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this movie. I knew I’d like the actors, but sometimes movies about unions and business men can be a bit preachy and ridiculing the businessman has been a Hollywood sport for so long that it can get a little grating if not handled right. But I shouldn’t have worried; The Devil and Miss Jones is delightful.

Charles Coburn is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), a reclusive businessman who isn’t even aware that he still owns Neeley’s Department Store until he is burned in effigy outside the store. He’s tried his whole life to keep his picture out of the papers and considers even an image of his effigy to be an invasion of his privacy.

But when he meets the detective hired to infiltrated his store and root out the malcontents, he is unimpressed by the detective and gets the idea of taking his place, hearing what it is that the employees really want and exposing the people who are causing the trouble. The idea is somewhat prompted by his musing on how the agitators must be morons who’s arguments he could instantly deflate.

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Sure enough, despite the protests of his flustered butler, George (S.Z. Sakall), he reports for work the next morning in the shoe department under the name of Tom Higgins. There he meets the condescending floor manager and small time despot, Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), who must be called “sir” and belittles J.P’s IQ as being the lowest in the department and puts him in charge of selling slippers (J.P. makes a note to get rid of the IQ test for employees). In the shoe department, he also meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who instantly adopts him as her special charge and tries to help him settle into his new job. When he says that he doesn’t eat lunch (because he has a delicate digestion) she believes it’s because he does not have enough money to pay for it and gives him 50¢. When he meets fellow employee, Elizabeth (Spring Byington), she also takes an interest in Higgins/Merrick and makes him eat some of her lunch (tuna fish popovers – her own recipe). Since he’s generally on a diet of graham crackers and milk, this is quite a revelation for him.

And while he is experiencing for the first time what it is to be an employee – one of the crowd, obliged to be polite to Hooper (Mary and Elizabeth are always giving him advice on how to behave and keep his temper or interact with costumers, and who watch over his work like two mother hens) – he is also invited to the meeting organized by Mary’s boyfriend, Joe (Robert Cummings), who was fired for being the ring leader of the effigy incident, but has not given up trying to organize a strike protesting the company’s policy of firing people after years of service so that they can hire people with a lower salary. They want more company loyalty. J.P. is not initially impressed.

At Coney Island

At Coney Island

But gradually his attitude begins to change and the reasons are not cosmic reasons of justice or right and wrong, but simple friendship. He cares about Mary, Elizabeth and Joe and wants them to be happy. He doesn’t realize it at the beginning of the film, but he is a lonely man and they recognize it and go out of their way to make him one of them. It’s a friendship that is very well portrayed in the film. It begins simply with kindness from Mary and Elizabeth. As he spends time with them, it develops into caring. He doesn’t initially like Joe, but comes to see him as Mary sees him simply because Mary loves him.

When they all go to Coney Island (hilarious contrasted to his cavernous house where he lives alone – people are so squished together like sardines on the beach that they’re practically in each other’s laps) he gets lost and his three friends don’t give up until they find him…even braving the police and arrest to do so (he nearly gets arresting for trying to sell his gold watch for one dollar so he can make a phone call; they think he’s stolen it).

Jean Arthur gets her name billed above the title, but the film is more carried by Coburn and we see the story mostly from his perspective. But Arthur is excellent in the role, both warm and funny. She’s the heart of the film; the person who knows all the employees, who cares about all her friends and engages in a little matchmaking of her own between J.P. and Elizabeth, and is the person whose kindness initially thaws J.P. Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur were a great team on screen. In The More the Merrier, Coburn played the business man who stays in Arthur’s apartment during the WWII housing shortage in Washington DC, becomes fond of her and begins to play matchmaker. They play well off each other well and can convey genuine friendship. There is an adorable scene near the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, when Mary thinks that J.P. is a detective and has betrayed them. She gets him into the stock room and is going to hit him over the head with a shoe because she wants to get back a list Joe had of all the people in the store who are willing to strike. But even when she thinks he’s betrayed them, she still can’t bring herself to hurt him. He sits, oblivious, looking at shoes, while she stands behind him and tries to get herself psyched up to bean him over the head. 

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

I always enjoy Spring Byington in all her movies. She usually played mothers, but in The Devil and Miss Jones she is J.P.’s love interest – though he must compete with the loathsome Hooper. I am used to Edmund Gwenn as the kindly Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street, but he’s about as un-Santa Claus-like as possible here. One totally shares J.P.’s dislike. Robert Cummings as Joe is perhaps not particularly shining (Arthur had better romantic chemistry with Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier), but he’s supposed to be just a regular guy. He’s not a hero, just a man who rises to heroism when he stands against injustice, despite being immature in his private life.

It’s an extremely satisfying movie, a comedy with heart, where friendship can overcome any prejudice or class barrier and where human relationships are more important than anything else.



Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Movies


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