Monday, June 13, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Living in New York, it's been all Weiner, all the time lately. You'd think Congressman Weiner's weiner was the only important news in the world. Anyway, this whole fiasco is enough to leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth, so what better way to cleanse the palate than with a wholesome, idealistic view of what politics and politicians should be, even if it comes in the form of a fictional character, so with that thought in mind I once again visited my local library and brought home this classic.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is a 1939 Frank Capra directed film, which stars James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains, to name a few of the talented actors that comprise the cast, in this tale of an idealistic young man fighting a corrupt system. When Senator Sam Foley dies, the Governor from the unnamed state has to appoint a new Senator. After meeting with Senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains), the senior senator from the same unnamed state, and Jim Taylor, the dirty boss behind the state's political machine, Governor Hopper is asked to name a political stooge that will perform like a trained seal and not ask questions on an upcoming dam project which Taylor wants to get passed. Taylor has been buying up land around the site of the proposed dam and holding them in dummy names, all in hopes of making a bundle off the sale of the land to the U.S. government. Senator Paine has been in Taylor's pocket for the past 20 years, yet he's dubious about having a new guy which might start asking questions about their graft scheme. After Taylor's suggested candidate is vehemently shot down by members of a local committee who instead name their own candidate, Hopper comes home torn by his decision. As he sits to dinner with his family, his young sons instead suggest he name Jeff Smith (James Stewart), the head of Boy Rangers and a local hero who was in the local papers for having helped put out a forest fire. Wrestling with his decision, Hopper decides to let a flip of a coin decide it all. When the coin lands on its edge right on a newspaper with the story of Jeff Smith, he decides to take it as a sign.

Governor Hopper names Jeff as Senator with assurances to Taylor and Paine that he's a perfect choice, a simpleton, naive and never in politics who can easily be manipulated. At a banquet in his honor, Smith speaks of his feeling of honor at sharing the title of Senator with John Paine, a man he respects and admires as much as his father. Smith informs Paine of the fact that he'd in fact known his late father, Clayton Smith, and reminds him that as idealistic young men, one an editor and publisher and the other a lawyer, later a Senator, they had been best friends.

Upon Smith's arrival in Washington, DC, he's quickly lampooned and mocked by the press. Feeling like a fraud, and an honorary stooge just decorating a chair, he turns to Paine, a man he trusts, and asks to become more involved on upcoming votes. In order to distract him from the dam project which is coming up for a vote, Paine suggests Smith instead start a bill of his own. Smith turns to his assistant, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), for help in writing a bill to start a national boy's camp to get kids out of cities and out in nature, unwittingly selecting the same parcel of land planned for the dam. This fact of course brings forth a classic David vs. Goliath battle between good and evil, and right and wrong.

I loved this movie! I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart, so I'm biased in a sense, but it really was a great film. Stewart conveys the character's innocence and idealism so wonderfully, perfectly demonstrated in his simple expression of awe and reverence as he stands before the Lincoln Memorial listening to a small child read The Gettysburg Address as an elderly African-American man stands listening, or his look of bewilderment and hurt at his hero's betrayal. Claude Rains also performs his role admirably, as a man who's given up his ideals for what he wants to believe is an honest compromise and the only way to play ball in a corrupt town, even though he's actually sold his soul to the devil for his own benefit not that of others. A likely excuse probably used by many real political leaders throughout time as a way to assuage their own guilty consciences.

Neither Stewart nor Rains won Oscars for their roles, though Stewart did win the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award (yup, we New Yorkers have notoriously good taste). One note of trivia, if you've seen "It's a Wonderful Life" you'll recognize alot of familiar faces. Actress Beulah Bondi played Stewart's mom in both films, H.B. Warner acted as the Senate Majority Leader in this movie and played the part of Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, in "It's a Wonderful Life"; and Thomas Mitchell was reporter Diz Moore in "Mr. Smith..." and ditzy Uncle Billy, who loses the building and loan deposit in "It's a Wonderful Life".