Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Elaine and I watched Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) last night — it seems an appropriate movie to go back to in an election year. No, we haven't mistaken Jefferson Smith (James Stewart¹) for Barack Obama; there's a world of difference between the wide-eyed Boy Ranger from parts unknown and our senator. But there's much to ponder in the story of a man who stands on principle while those who hold and seek to continue holding power engage in, well, the politics of personal destruction. Here's what aide Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells Smith as they sit in the dark in front of 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. You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cock-eyed world, a lot of it."
And how.

There's plenty of Capra-corn in this film (think of Harry Carey as the president of the Senate, smiling and chuckling at Smith's boyish ways, or the Boy Rangers and their printing presses). But the "big shadows" are real and dangerous: a press that shapes opinion by manufacturing reality (reality is Taylor-made), a political machine that employs any means necessary to defeat its enemies, and politicians who are unapologetically cynical. "You can't count on people voting. Half the time they don't vote anyway. That's how states and empires have been built since time began," says the Silver Knight, Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains).

And there are several scenes of utter emotional desolation. This image of Smith, a drunk Saunders, and Saunders' also-drunk would-be husband Diz (Thomas Mitchell) in Smith's barely furnished office looks more like Gregg Toland's deep-focus than Capra:

And this shot of Saunders and Diz weaving down the hallway (and abandoning Smith) makes me think of the Empire Hotel (Judy Barton's building) in another Stewart movie, Hitchcock's Vertigo:

Okay, you can go rent the movie if you like.

¹ James, not Jimmy? Yes, that how he's billed.

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