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Mr. President, I stand guilty as framed!

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(1939)

(SPOILERS) I’m by no means a die-hard Frank Capryte. His particular taste in earnestly extolled values can easily rub one up the wrong way, and when that blends with his later more cynical tack, the results are sometimes alarming (It’s A Wonderful Life is justifiably esteemed as a classic, but it’s also a deeply warped picture that finds cause for celebration in a man being resoundingly shat upon and manipulated by everyone he knows). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington saw the inception of this modified approach in the director’s work, where impossible goodness is pressed into service against the unvarnished corruption that lies at the heart of America. As a result, the viewing experience tends to swing wildly according to just how undiluted each side is being at any given moment.

Because James Stewart’s small-town, apple-pie country boy Jefferson Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers – a position ripe for aspersions these days, and perhaps should have been then too – thrust into Washington politics as a junior senator and finding himself up against a loaded system, is just too good to be true. Stewart gives a sterling performance of course, wholly believably committed and upright. But everything Capra throws at him is pure unvarnished naïve cheese, from his aw-shucks nervousness around senator’s daughter Susan Paine (Astrid Allwyn) to his really believing a bill in favour of a national boys’ camp is a valuable or meaningful notion.

Indeed, at this point in the proceedings, one might find oneself leaning towards Michael Lehmann’s scathing take in Trailers from Hell. Lehmann was then living in dread of a potential Vice President’s winning ticket and consequently saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as “a dangerous piece of political mumbo jumbo that has particular relevance in the day of Sarah Palin”. Essentially, Lehmann professed terror at the thought of traditional American values – which for him means flag waving patriotism and every concomitant negative he associates with the same – unleavened by political savvy proving the actual making of anyone in politics. And when you’re witnessing Stewart waxing lyrical about a boy’s camp, you are pretty much in agreement that this sap shouldn’t be let anywhere near the legislators and lawmakers.

Journalist: You’re not a senator. You’re an honorary stooge.

Except that isn’t the be all and end all of it, and Lehmann is way off in the conclusion he reaches, basically because his wish to make the movie all about the peril of a Palin is so thin. He went as far as expressing the view that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s “message is tremendously misleading and off target. It frightens me. It scares me to death. I don’t want anybody to ever see this movie”. Ironically, he’s effectively forwarding a reactionary position, one supporting the status quo. Lehmann, who made three great, unruly movies before conspicuously losing his verve, is attempting to deny what everyone knows. Not least the homespun Capra, who tended to push the positives. Of course, he doesn’t say that. What he says is doublespeak, suggesting that because Smith – who is, at any rate, a totem, and embodiment of a value, rather than a real person, designed as an equal and opposite contrast to the other side – is shining a light on the system, that means the message is that system would be better if he was its embodiment. You know, treating the movie literally. As if The West Wing were actually a reflection of reality in the remotest way.

Governor’s Son: He’s the greatest American we’ve got too, dad!

Now, while Stewart’s Smith can be frequently insufferable, I don’t think that remotely earns the movie Lehmann’s doomsaying. Further still, his viewpoint is all the more alarming for what he leaves out when he comments “The message of this film is that our government is run by corrupt cynics and that if we only had sort of down to earth, real, solid American values and patriotism then everything would be better. I don’t really believe that. I don’t believe that at all”. Let’s take that apart a little. Because Lehmann conveniently ignores addressing the “corrupt cynics” bit.

Is he saying it isn’t true (I mean, just look around)? If he is, well, his absurd innocence makes Smith seem a corrupt cynic. And that being the case, one is left with the natural conclusion of “Well, what could be worse?” His wheeling out Palin as reasoning is glib in the extreme. Anyone can brandish faux values as a means of attempting to appeal to the electorate while remaining utterly insincere beneath. Indeed, that’s exactly how all but the most naïve understand the system to work. If Lehmann objected to Smith because his populist honesty might inspire the dishonest to present themselves that way, I might understand it. But that would be assuming they weren’t wont to play that card anyway.

It’s because of the way politics works that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s treacly protagonist remains brutally on point and relevant. It’s no wonder there was discussion of the film’s suitability, due to its “generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government”. Smith’s hero, Senator Joseph Paine (a typically note-perfect Claude Rains, and for me the highlight performance) is an entirely bought man, his status secured by businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). In Capra’s movie, Paine’s a bad apple, representing just one corrupt state, but we all know the implication. That no politician may enter office unless they are controlled by the elite (however you may wish to characterise “elite”).

The idea of a Smith, one who is untainted, is thus an evergreen and attractive one. It’s the reason anyone on board with Trump may be easy to mock, but they shouldn’t be. Because millions of voters respond to the idea that they might just get a politician for once who isn’t owned (he might not have been an aw-shucks yokel, but neither was he career politician, albeit a non-career politician mentored by the likes of Roy Cohn and Richard Nixon). One might take that further and suggest that, if QAnon is an AI programme (as some hold), then the entire design was banking on precisely that, on feeding the same appetite that turned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington into a huge hit nearly eighty years before. But in contrast to Lehmann’s take, there’s no fault here with problematic traditional values. Rather, the issue is starkly those corrupt cynics he chooses to let off the hook.

Would Smith have responded so strongly had his fight not hit so close to home (a dam being built on the land earmarked for the boy scouts)? Of course, he would, but it’s a weakness of Capra’s picture that it settles on both a yokel and a yokel-y mission. At the point Smith tells Paine he plans to study the bills he’s expected to vote on, there’s a slender hope this might become something actually politically versed. Alas, that potential is sent packing when Paine, a lawyer by profession, tells Smith even he doesn’t read them, and that “When the time comes, I’ll tell you how to vote”.

Smith: Why don’t you tell the people the truth for a change?

There’s also bile reserved for the press, but their fake news is more about opportunism than outright corruption in the corridors of power. Maybe eviscerating them would have been taking on too much. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did, after all, come out a couple of years before Citizen Kane so did a number on Randolph Hearst; given the tycoon’s response, Capra was probably wise to pull his punches.

It’s also notable that, aside from the sacrificial Paine, very conveniently confessing through his troubled conscience – great as Rains is, the idea of a morally conflicted senator, one who has habitually made morally suspect decisions daily for years, is a stretch – the villains get away at the end. Or at least, Capra fails to show justice explicitly served. This is also true of It’s A Wonderful Life, and it might be the most realist element in his later movies.

There are some very enjoyable performances here. Jean Arthur continues her Capra collaborations and makes you believe she’d actually fall for a sap, which is an achievement in itself. Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life) plays the comic relief (“I got to go out and drink this over”). Harry Carey is the undisguisedly sympathetic President of the Senate, on Smith’s side while all around there are walkouts.

Pauline Kael offered Capra’s skillset a grudging respect even as she delivered some zinger put downs. She noted that Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonhas more of the heartfelt in it than is good for the stomach, and it goes on for over two hours”. Which is definitely true; Capra’s pictures tend to favour making life difficult for themselves by outstaying their welcome. She also commented “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humour the way Capra can – but if anyone else should learn to, kill him”. Wise words there. As for Lehmann, it looks like he didn’t need worry. There never was any doubt the corrupt cynics would win out.


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