15/03/2010

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)


Frank Capra relaxing on the set of Mr Smith Goes To Washington with his stars Jean Arthur and James Stewart (check out those killer socks!). All too easily mocked these days as "Capra-corn" for its patriotic idealism, Mr Smith actually contains one of the most biting portraits of Washington's political elite ever filmed. Everyone bar Stewart's naive whistleblower and Harry Carey's kindly President of the Senate is compromised, corrupt, cynical or complacent, from Claude Rains' heartbreaking Joe Paine to Thomas Mitchell's soused hack. Hays Office censor Joseph I. Breen objected strongly to the source material, Lewis R. Foster's short treatment 'The Gentleman From Montana' (1937), and advised Columbia against using it, while the banker and film tycoon turned diplomat Joseph P. Kennedy wrote personally to Harry Cohn during production, warning that the project could damage America's prestige in Europe with war on the horizon. It's easy to see why both men were worried so hats off to screenwriter Sidney Buchman for causing them sleepless nights. Washington, however, would soon take its revenge on Buchman, a member of the Communist Party between 1938 and 1945, via the House Un-American Activities Committee, which handed him a suspended sentence and a hefty fine when he refused to name names. Buchman was blacklisted despite a close friendship with King Cohn but would finally return to his Hollywood desk in the early sixties.


Mr Smith's concerns about the corrosive influence and vested interests of lobbying machines like that of Edward Arnold's James Taylor are surely as relevant today as they were 71 years ago. Taylor's bullying, bribing, smear tactics and manipulation are certainly as much a part of everyday political mud-slinging in the 21st century as they were at the time. Perhaps party activists don't run boy scouts off the road any more but that's primarily because they've discovered subtler means of shushing dissent. While Jefferson Smith's quixotic tilt at the hearts and minds of wayward Capitol Hill fat cats might seem more than a touch fanciful to modern tastes, I find it impossible not to cheer him on all the same. Any work of art that dares hold an establishment Goliath to account and demands that it take a long, hard look at itself deserves applause. For me, Capra's films always provide a timely antidote to knee-jerk cynicism, the sort espoused by critic Elliot Stein in his article 'Capra Counts His Oscars' in a 1972 edition of Sight & Sound magazine, in which Stein accused the director of failing to make a significant film after 1935 and instead churning out "fantasies of good will, which at no point conflict with middle-class American status quo values... shrewdly commercial manipulative tracts... [comprised of] philistine-populist notions and greeting-card sentiments". Too heartless. Here we have a conservative filmmaker who unashamedly championed plucky individualism over corporate might, hypocrisy and repressive authoritarianism, which is surely something to be thankful for. And if Jean Arthur's convinced, that's good enough for me.

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