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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.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Great McGinty (1940) – Political Satire by Preston Sturges

greatmcgintyposter2My predominant impression of The Great McGinty is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I had a very bad stomach ache when I watched it, though it had nothing to do with the movie. I’ve been trying to watch all of Preston Sturges’ films and when one has a stomach ache it seems like a better idea to watch comedy than drama. Though I will note that laughter does not necessarily ease the pain.

Ironically enough, The Great McGinty is actually a comedic treatment of dramatic material: biting political satire with an ending that is funny, but really quite sad.

Preston Sturges had been writing screenplays throughout the 1930s, his most famous being The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler), Easy Living and Remember the Night (both directed by Mitchell Leisen), but he always felt that the directors were changing his scripts and that the only way to preserve them was to direct them himself. The first movie he both wrote and directed was the 1940 The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and William Demarest.

The film opens with the caption: This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country. Though it’s really the story of the man who had only one crazy moment of honesty. His name is Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and he relates the story of his rise and fall in politics to the other man.

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy - McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy – McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

His story begins on election night, when the party faithful are mustering the vote. Soup is being handed out and a party worker (William Demarest) is giving out two dollars to whoever will vote for Mayor Tillinghast…especially several times. As he explains, just because people are too lazy to go out or because they die unexpectedly is no reason for Mayor Tillinghast to be deprived of his voters.

McGinty is a tramp who happens by and votes thirty-seven times and when the party worker (who never does get a name – I think of him as William Demarest) takes McGinty to meet the party boss (Akim Tamiroff…who also never gets a name) the Boss is impressed by McGinty’s pugnacity and unwillingness to be pushed around. He gives him a job, first as an enforcer, but slowly moves him up the political ranks. McGinty goes from tramp to thug in a gaudy suit to polished and well-groomed alderman.

And when the Boss decides that he needs a fresh face in politics he chooses McGinty to run for mayor on the reform ticket (the Boss is the boss of all political parties in the area, reform or otherwise). But first, the Boss tells McGinty, he must get married. Since women have the vote, he says, they don’t vote for bachelors. McGinty’s secretary (Muriel Angelus) talks him into marrying her. She likes him and sees an opportunity to provide for her two children from a previous marriage. It is to be a marriage strictly of convenience…though of course the two fall in love and he comes to care for her two children. It is a very sweet part of the film and once again demonstrates Sturges’ knack for combining satire with genuine sentiment.

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

The film is not a long film and is built around one great irony. In most movies, a man is rewarded for doing the right thing. In The Great McGinty, it is his undoing. His wife begins to influence him and urge him to break free of the party. She’s like a kind of angelic femme fatale. She has good intentions, but she brings him down just the same.

I am used to seeing Brian Donlevy play villains (Destry Rides AgainUnion PacificBeau Geste), but as Daniel McGinty, although he’s a dishonest man, he’s not fundamentally a bad man and can be quite sweet. He’s just used to working with the way things are. I love the moment when he comes home from his election celebration drunk and falls all over his new dishes (there are the usual Sturges’ pratfall in this film) and his wife comes in to help him to bed. At this point, they haven’t realized they love each other and she is trying conscientiously to keep the kids from bothering him. When the kids do come in while she’s putting him to bed, she apologizes for their intrusion, but all he can think is how sorry he is that they had to see him drunk.

What’s interesting is that Preston Sturges seems to be pretty cynical about everybody, even those who genuinely want to do good. The reform party is just as corrupt as the previous party. One man’s reform is another man’s graft. Bridges that bring employment deplete treasuries and enrich party bosses. There are the parades, the showmanship, the total lack of real principles being expressed in political speeches. And even McGinty’s wife’s ideas – ideas that seem like good ideas, like child labor reform – are treated somewhat doubtingly. After all, as McGinty tells her, he liked being able to work when he was a child. It was better than being on the street and it helped his mother, too.

Brian Donlevy and family

Daniel McGinty and family…with dog

William Demarest, as in all of his roles in Sturges’ films, is possibly the funniest person in the film, though Tamiroff more than holds his own. The Boss and McGinty have a habit of getting into tousles whenever they disagree. Demarest usually referees. As a bit of trivia, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Tamiroff and Donlevy actually make an appearance as the characters they played in The Great McGinty and help to bring about the happy ending in that movie.

By no means Preston Sturges’ best film, The Great McGinty is still a pretty good one. What took me aback is that unlike all his following movies (or like Frank Capra’s movies), there is no convenient occurrence to make everything right at the end. Once McGinty falls, he really has fallen. Sturges plays it for laughs, but it’s actually quite tragic. It doesn’t pay to try to do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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