Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pantheon movie of the month - MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

I've spent much of the Bush-Blair era in despair as the values I so admired - liberal democracy and the rule of law - were flushed down the toilet. MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is, then, a timely reminder of the proper response to bleak times: not despair, but continued struggle. I didn't think that when I started watching the film, mind you. It struck me as hopelessly glib and unrealistic. I was watching the film out of a sense of duty. After all, I claim to be a cineaste, but here was a film, universally acclaimed by critics, that I had never watched.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was released in 1939, as the US resisted being pulled into a war fought between fascists, communists and democracy. This wasn't the marginal bickering of modern-day centre-right versus centre-left, but real, fundamental, political choice. Director Frank Capra chose to make a film that explored the American political process and held it up to the world - tarnished, sullied, and yet fundamentally decent, fair and resilient. He was, therefore, accused of being unpatriotic and playing into the hands of America's enemies. This is, I think, a fatal misunderstanding of the powerful impact this film still has on cynical audiences.

As the movie opens, a naive but decent hick called Smith has been appointed to the Senate by a corrupt cabal who want to build a dam for personal gain. When Smith gets to Washington he visits the monuments and in a sequence often pastiched is inspired by their grandeur and their message - in particular, the Lincoln Memorial, and its inscription of the Gettysburg address, speaking of freedom and self-government. Smith is a man who believes passionately in liberty, duty and democracy for all, regardless of race, colour or creed. We are openly invited to mock his naivety, just as his fellow senator and the political reporters mock him. Upon entering Congress, Smith freely admits that he's out of his depth, but decides that it's his duty to not vote blindly but informed, and to try to legislate himself. Surprised at his independence, the cabal that nominated him frame him for corruption. But before he leaves, Smith, ably aided by a cynical polical hack - Clarissa Saunders - stages an historic fillibuster to prevent them from getting their hands of the land for the dam. So, just like the Senators and newsmen, we are convinced that Smith is no boob, but an intelligent, decent man who has the courage to defend what we cynics long ago gave up on.

Jimmy Stewart is perfectly cast as Smith. He has that air of straight-forward decency as well as being adept at the physical comedy that playing a clumsy fool requires. Jean Arthur also convinces as Saunders, the battle-hardened cynic and pioneer career-woman whose heart is melted by Smith's innocent hope. I particularly love the fact that in a film about corrupt men it's a savvy woman who out-manoeuvres them all. I also liked Claude Rains* as the crooked but smooth Senator Paine, even if I found the end of his character arc unconvincing. However, the real winner in this movie is the script and the sheer dramatic tension during the fillibuster. Sidney Buchman gives Smith some powerful lines about the values that a democracy is supposed to espouse - words that are inspiring and seem relevant today.

The real trick is that Frank Capra never lets his movie feel like a sermon, even though it is. The central dramatic tension - the accusations against Smith - the fillibuster - the central love story - all involve us on a human scale, sugaring the pill of the big ideas at the heart of the film.

MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was originally released in 1939. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It lost to GONE WITH THE WIND for Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Art Direction. James Stewart lost to Robert Donat for GOODBYE MR CHIPS, Harry Carey and Claude Rains lost to Thomas Mitchell for STAGECOACH. DP Joseph Walker lost to Gregg Toland for WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

*Incidentally, Rains delivers my all-time favourite movie dialogue when he asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. "For the waters." He replies: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert." To which Rick says, "I was misinformed."

No comments:

Post a Comment