Capra's story of a good man in a bad town
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Directed by Frank Capra.
Written by Sidney Buchman.
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.
LSC Friday Classic.
Tonight in 10-250, 7:30 p.m.By Stephen Brophy
Leni Reifenstahl lives in infamy because she propagandized for the German Nazi regime, but America's greatest propagandist, Frank Capra, still holds a special place in the hearts of his fellow citizens. The creator of Hollywood classics like It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life, Capra raised schmaltz to a high art and created intoxicating idealizations of American life, emphasizing good old virtues like common sense, fair play, and equal justice for all. One of the most perfect of his propaganda pieces will play at LSC Classics tonight - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
An achingly young James Stewart plays an idealistic young man appointed to fill out the term of a recently expired senator. He's been chosen by the political machine of his state because they think that in his naivete he will be too swept up in the glories of the nation's capital to notice the slick deal involving an unnecessary dam they are trying to slip into an appropriations bill. Whitewater, anyone?
Unfortunately for them, Senator Smith wants to found a boys' camp on the same site the grafters want to inundate. And when he threatens to expose their machinations, they retaliate by trying to slime him with the reputation of grafter. What they don't take into account - what the bad guys in Capra movies always overlook - is that you can only pull the wool over they eyes of the little people for so long. And when they wake up and smell the coffee, they will overflow their banks like a flooding river and clean up everything in their path.
That string of cliches might give you a pretty good idea of the content of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it will not prepare you for the style. Because the truth is that Capra is a master filmmaker, and at his best he put together stories that sweep you up in their sentiments no matter how much cynical armor you wear. With Mr. Smith he is at the very top of his form. He gives our cynicism a voice by making Mr. Smith's secretary, Miss Saunders, a caustic witness to the Washington scene, then melts us as he lets her fall in love with her boss. He gives us a great idol with clay feet to look down on by making a regal Claude Rains the senior Senator from Mr. Smith's home state and showing him in the pocket of the machine.
Then he uses several of the finest character actors available in Hollywood to bring his idea of the common people to life. Beulah Bondi plays Mr. Smith's mother with her patented worried smile; Thomas Mitchell and Jack Carson are two newsmen who know too much but are still capable of being inspired. Edward Arnold plays the machine boss with oily conviction, and Eugene Pallette and William Demarest are two of his more able henchmen. Special notice has to go to Harry Carey, a silent movie cowboy star, who plays the President of the Senate. Capra uses him very effectively to make us still trust the system even as he exposes corruption within it.
Capra uses montage more effectively than anyone since Eisenstein to get across complex political emotions, having hired Slavko Vorkapich, Hollywood's pre-eminent montage artist, to create two minute condensations of the inspiring sites of Washington and of people uniting to do a big job. He also makes judicious use of cross-cutting to jack up the tension during some climactic moments. And he gets Dmitri Tiompkin to forego his usual bombastic European musical themes to use American patriotic hymns and folk songs to stirring effect.
The result of all this is an insidiously great movie that sweeps us along on an entertaining two-hour ride while convincing us that the way things ought to be is the way they actually are. Unfortunately, we know better. Still, Capra's immigrant view of America as the land of opportunity for all is not a vision we should reject just because America doesn't actually live up to it. One clear message of the movie is that only when people stand up for what they believe in are they able to change things for the better. We can't any longer swallow the movie's rosy platitudes, but we should still accept its challenge.