If Congress and the Washington boys don’t solve this debt problem by Tuesday midnight- just the fear alone of what could possibly happen is going to rattle our economy. Many feel the dollar will be so devalued, the tooth fairy will have to leave I.O.U’s under kid’s pillows! There’s one film, in my opinion, that properly reflects what is going on in Washington this very second, and would be an excellent eye opener to those fighting back and forth on Capital Hill. That film is Frank Capra’s still fresh and smart Mister Smith Goes To Washington, and it’s available at most Long Island supermarkets.
This film, hereafter referred to as Mr. Smith, was considered radical, and by some as “Anti-American” when it was first released in 1939. The film begins with the death of a “puppet” senator. The powers-that-be need to appoint a new senator who will “perform like a trained seal” for local wealthy CEO’s. Jefferson “Jeff” Smith, a naive, good-hearted Boy Scout leader gets the job. As brilliantly played by a young James Stewart, “Jeff” is at first bewildered and honored by his sudden important job, and holds the senior politicians who “guide” him through his first days as senator with the high reverence. Soon, Jeff tries to use his political authority to build a National Boys Camp, but this act conflicts with some corporate money-mad giants. In one scene, Paine, a corrupt senator who loves young Jeff like a son, explains why he only listens to the wealthiest men in his state: (Paine is played by Claude Rains, that amazing velvet-voiced actor)
“Jeff, thirty years ago, I had the same ideals as you. I was you. I had my own ideas. But, this is a man’s game! I had to compromise.”
Soon, other politicians, their wealthy cronies and their goons try to demonize Jeff by making it seem he is using the Boys Camp as a cover for a moneymaking scheme. Jeff tries to defend himself with a climatic filibuster where he speaks for nearly twenty-hours straight!
During the 1930’s, Oscar winning director Frank Capra was one of Hollywood’s shining artistic beacons. His comedies, such as American Madness (1932), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938) celebrated the humor, decency and strength of the common man. With “Yankee Doodle Dandy” playing over the opening credits, and many of Jeff’s “Gee-golly, Washington is such a wonderful place” ramblings, Mr. Smith feels more dated than Capra’s previous comedies. But, it’s overall tone and several key moments if viewed today, while Congress, Obama, and all are fighting, will make even you most jaded moviegoers gasp. For example- in one scene, the Senate Majority Leader leads the Senate in a morning prayer, asking God, “in these dark times”, to give the Senators wisdom and honest judgment. (Oh, if only!!) In another scene, Jeff’s love interest and secretary (Played by the delightful Jean Arthur) sarcastically explains the complications and hopeless quagmire a bill must go through to get passed. She smirks “Want to quit?” Jeff, without batting an eye, responds with “Want to get dinner? Let’s continue with the bill.” A corrupt tycoon (Edward Arnold, great as always) uses the media in his pocket to slander Smith. Most of all, Mr. Smith accuses that voters with bottomless bank accounts control Washington, making puppet politicians place millionaire gain over the working man needs! This 72-year-old film really makes you think. Upon release, political insiders denounced Mr. Smith, saying it falsely depicts the Senate and Congress as an entity run by corrupt alcoholics. (Several real senators stormed away from the film halfway through a pre-release screening!) Fascist dictators also denounced Mr. Smith; they felt it showed that democracy works!
If you live on Long Island, or in Brooklyn, or Queens, for some reason, Mr. Smith can be purchased at almost any supermarket DVD section for about seven dollars. Seven bucks well spent! I picked my copy up at the Dix Hills Stop and Shop. I picked up a copy of the film at a Brooklyn Path Mark and showed it to a friend of mine as a sure-fire movie bet for her.
One of things that help to make Mr. Smith a compelling and insightful film is the golden supporting cast working with James Stewart. Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Porter Hall, Eugene Palette, and Harry Carey are the powers rattling Smith’s breakthrough bill. Thomas Mitchell and Charles Lane are perfect as snake-like members of the press. For the first time, we see James Stewart as a great comedic actor and a compelling dramatic actor with a brewing dark side (that directors Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann would later feast on!) Stewart was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar playing Senator Smith, but lost. Stewart would take home a Best Actor Oscar the next year for The Philadelphia Story. Many feel it was an “Apology Oscar” for being overlooked for Mr. Smith.
Final Note- According to Frank Capra in his autobiography The Name Above The Title– Capra had an almost exact reproduction of the Senate Chambers built on the Hollywood Soundstages at Columbia Pictures. While Capra was filming, a Capital Building adviser screamed, “Cut”! “That big clock on the wall is all wrong! Where is the lock? Senators used to creep their hands in and move the clock forward- so they could go home early. Now there’s a big padlock on that clock!”
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