Sunday, October 19, 2014

'Mr. Smith' Was Capra-Corny

"It's a 40–foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it."

Saunders (Jean Arthur)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the seventh of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Back in February, Peggy Noonan wrote a column in which she mentioned the Netflix series "House of Cards." Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I have never seen an episode of this series, but, according to Noonan, the show "reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there."

She could have been describing "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which premiered 75 years ago today.

Jimmy Stewart gave a lot of great movie performances during his career, and, while it would be hard to pick out the very best, I'm usually inclined to pick the one he gave in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In so many ways, it was a great civics lesson. It was a fictional story, of course, like The West Wing TV series of which I was so fond, and, like The West Wing, it dealt with real–life matters — like filling legislative vacancies and filibusters and things like that.

But it was also a Frank Capra story — which means it was made with a heaping helping of feel–good idealism. Because of that, Capra movies were often called "Capra–corn" — and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" certainly was corny.

Well, Stewart's role was, anyway. He played a fellow named Jefferson Smith, a leader of the Boy Rangers in his state, truly a babe in the woods when it came to the ways of the world and Washington, a starry–eyed idealist who quoted American heroes like Jefferson and Lincoln and idolized his state's corrupt and thoroughly undeserving senior senator (played by Claude Rains). He was appointed to fill a vacancy left by the death of one of his state's U.S. senators.

But this wasn't entirely your standard "Capra–corn" fare. Nearly everyone else in the movie seemed to have a healthy dose of cynicism. Just not Jeff Smith. You probably couldn't find a more naïve individual. That was what his legislative aide, Saunders (Jean Arthur), loved about him. Pretty Capra–corny, huh?

"Did you ever have so much to say about something you just couldn't say it?"

Jeff Smith (James Stewart)

As a journalist, I have to say that I appreciated the comeuppance Smith got from the Washington media. I didn't think the press in that movie behaved in the way real–life reporters would under similar circumstances. They were a little rough on Stewart's clearly guileless character.

But they reached a point where they asserted that they could afford to be honest because they didn't have to face the voters to keep their jobs.

That's really a throwback to a bygone era. Far too many members of the modern press have compromised their principles — even though they still don't have to face the voters.

In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," many of the politicians were presented as being more virtuous than they almost certainly were in 1939. (It is beyond dispute that they were infinitely more virtuous than the politicians of today.)

Rains' character, caught up in the corruption Stewart was trying to defeat, confessed his sins on the Senate floor even though he had the upper hand against Stewart, whose voice was nearly gone from his filibuster.

"I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust."

Jeff Smith

And that is precisely the kind of corny–beyond–belief stuff that I'm talking about. For Capra–corn to work, there has to be a certain amount of plausibility there, however farfetched the story may be.

But the very notion that a politician, entrenched in a position of power, would behave so nobly is, well, hopelessly naïve. Perhaps it wasn't seen that way in 1939, but today, it is simply too farfetched.

Even if you tell yourself — if you stumble upon it while channel surfing — that "Mr. Smith" truly was Capra–corny, if you're like me, you'll watch it, anyway. It's entertaining, even if you've seen it several times before.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" received 11 Oscar nominations, second only to "Gone With the Wind." Lewis R. Foster took home the Oscar for Best Story.