Saturday, December 20, 2008
It's a Wonderful Film.
Earlier today I couldn't help but feel a wave of satisfaction, and all-is-right-with-the-world as I did my daily cardio workout at the gym. I was happily jogging along on one of those treadmills with the TV attached to it (great invention, that!) watching CNN on mute, reading CNN, I guess as I listened to my mp3 player (I seem to have a disproportionate number of SLOW songs on there. I may need to make an exercise playlist). My first burst of joy came from hearing Andy Kim sing "So Good Together" when I'd not thought of that song in ages. My mp3 version is just a digital recording of my scratchy 45 and so it's very old feeling. Second swelling of the heart came from channel surfing and discovering the start of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Of course, the masses are all out there watching It's a Wonderful Life and why not, it's Christmas time. But this movie. Oh my. It's so dear. I am not sure how to describe it without needless gushing.
And while many focus on the inspirational character of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), I tend to love and adore Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). Saunders plays a slightly jaded, quick-witted, clever sort of woman who is assigned to work for the new senator. She refers to Smith as a boy scout, daniel boone, and any other disparraging name she can summon up as her resentment mounts over the intrusion of this small town, mama-loving, pigeon-toting yokel. Still it doesn't seem to be long before her icy heart melts and she sees something Washington hasn't seen in awhile. Sincerity. Honesty. True values and love for mankind. He's so earnest it makes my heart ache. And it's with her guidance that he is able to write his bill which would provide for a loan to set up a boy's camp in the state of New York. The next day when he presents the bill she tells her pal Diz, to watch because she knows something no one else knows... the location he's chosen for his camp. And she knows what that means to a few other senators and the stir this will cause.
Then later in the film when Jefferson Smith is about as low as he can get and is packed and ready to head home, tail between his legs, Saunders finds him at the Lincoln Memorial:
Clarissa Saunders: I see. When you get home, what are you gonna tell those kids?
Jefferson Smith: I'll tell 'em the truth. Might as well find it out now as later.
Clarissa Saunders: I don't think they'll believe you, Jeff. You know, they're liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say, 'Jeff, what did you do? Quit? Didn't you do something about it?'
Jefferson Smith: Well, what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies...
Clarissa Saunders: Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man whoever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against 'em didn't stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that Jeff. You can't quit now. Not you! They aren't all Taylors and Paines in Washington. Their kind just throw big shadows, that's all. You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, every day, common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah - so could the whole cock-eyed world. A lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right! He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it. That's what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root 'em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.
Jefferson Smith: What? Do what, Saunders?
Clarissa Saunders: You just make up your mind you're not gonna quit and I'll tell you what. I've been thinkin' about it all the way back here. It's a forty foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.
You can watch the 5 minute scene here, if you like.
The film is about one man up against many. It's about corruption in Washington, which Capra wanted to expose. His film did so at a delicate time, on the brink of WWII, but that didn't prevent him from releasing it and letting the film do the talking.
Check out the 1939 response to the film after its release (according to TCM):
On October 17, 1939, the picture was previewed at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The preview was a major production featuring searchlights and a National Guard band playing patriotic tunes; The Washington Times-Herald even put out a special edition covering the event. Four thousand guests attended, 45 Senators among them. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the grumbling began, with people walking out. Some politicians were so enraged by how “they” were being portrayed in the movie, they actually shouted at the screen. At a party afterward, a drunken newspaper editor took a wild swing at Capra for including a drunken reporter as one of the characters!
Several politicians angrily spoke out against the film in newspaper editorials, which, in the long run, may have helped its box office. Sen. Alben W. Barkley viewed the picture as “a grotesque distortion” of the Senate, “as grotesque as anything ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster!” Barkley, who was lucky he didn’t get quoted on the film’s posters, also said, “...it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!”
Senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina suggested that official action be taken against the film’s release...lest we play into the hands of Fascist regimes. And Pete Harrison, the respected editor of Harrison Reports, urged Congress to pass a bill allowing theater owners to refuse to show films – like Mr. Smith - that “were not in the best interest of our country.” And you thought the Dixie Chicks got a raw deal.
I love classic films and Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur... I love clever dialogue... but I also love that this film has a message for today. In a country jaded by politics, politicians, and corruption, slipping deeper into recession, I think this film can speak to us all.