Blog Directory CineVerse: Capitol ideas

Capitol ideas

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"They don't make 'em like that anymore' is certainly a cliche that can be applied to Frank Capra's 1939 standout "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a picture that can still deliver an emotional wallop and utterly impress with its performances and craftsmanship. We feted this 80-year-old national treasure last evening at CineVerse, giving it the full "Cineversary" treatment. Here's a roundup of that discussion:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It matters because, even though it can play as overly sentimental, corny, naïve, or wildly outdated, it was made with true heart, sincerity, and genuine good intentions by Frank Capra and company. This genuineness and honesty of emotion are felt in virtually every frame.
  • It matters because it’s one of the very few American films that feels unabashedly patriotic – a political movie that isn’t cynical, snarky or ironic. This is the textbook definition of a feel-good picture, one that put you through the emotional ringer and makes its protagonist particularly suffer in order to achieve those good feelings honestly.
  • It has stood the test of time based on the bravura performance of James Stewart, the sheer star power of its knockout extended cast, the strong female lead courtesy of Jean Arthur, the emotionally propagandistic power of Capra’s visuals and montages, and the fact that it’s one of the extremely rare movies that shows how our system of government and the passing of laws works – a system that has pretty much remained unchanged.
  • It also remains timeless because it refuses to date itself; Smith’s home state is not named, we hear no mention of Republicans or Democrats, there are no scatological references to the impending second world war, the rise of Nazi-ism, the recent Great Depression, or other political or sociocultural events or issues.
  • Mr. Smith continues to resonate because 21st-century viewers know how corrupt the world can be today; nowadays we constantly hear about dishonest, self-serving, unethical politicians and leaders. Many of us want to believe that each of us can exercise political power, stand up against political injustices, and effect change – even if merely at the ballot box or by writing a letter or demonstrating. Jefferson Smith continues to stand as the patron saint of the idealistic Everyman and Everywoman.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • It has been cited as one of the first examples of a conspiracy theory film, in which moviegoers are given the notion that there may be powerful machinations influencing the way the country is run; in this case, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington suggests that graft and corruption they be prevalent in the U.S. government.
  • As mentioned, it’s one of the very first examples of a feature film that takes the lid off the Capitol Building and realistically depicts how the federal government functions, looks, and presumably acts.
  • It established James Stewart as an A list breakout star in one of the finest film actors of his or any generation. Without this movie, it’s doubtful that Stewart wins a best picture Oscar the next year or goes on to become the widely beloved Tom Hanks of his day.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

  • David versus Goliath: the struggle of the common man to stand up against oppressive forces and challenge the system to make the world a better place.
  • Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. Chock-full of idealism, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington inspires with its underdog story of someone will likely lose in the fight against a powerful political machine, yet doesn’t back down from this seemingly impossible task.
  • Maturation, and transitioning from childhood into adulthood without losing the enthusiasm and idealism of youth. We see how Smith has a boyish innocence and childlike naïveté, and how he is associated with the boys camp and the youngsters who follow and champion him. By the end of the film, Smith outgrows his “aw-shucks” simplicity and immaturity as a politician by choosing to stand up and above those who use to tower above him figuratively and literally: he uses an eloquent adult voice in the last act and filibustering scenes that contrasts with how he spoke and carried himself earlier in the movie. Consider, too, how Capra continually frames Stewart often as lower in stature, subservient, and smaller than his fellow politicians and Taylor throughout the film until he chooses to fight back at the end, when he looms larger in height and respect.
  • Idealism versus cynicism. It’s easy to chuckle at the unintended corniness built into this film, the flag-waving romanticism, and unabashed moral righteousness. It’s easier to gravitate to today’s more widely accepted pessimism, skepticism and sarcasm, which are continually pitted against Smith’s optimism. Yet, it’s hard to be unmoved by Smith’s earnestness and simple values, which make people feel nostalgic for a bygone time and mindset. Fortunately, Smith’s idealism is balanced by the cynicism we see in Clarissa and Diz the reporter. Consider, as well, that the ending is ambiguous-- there is no clear victory, and we don’t know if Taylor is truly defeated.
  • Martyrdom. Smith serves as a somewhat Christ-like figure representing good and righteousness who is politically betrayed and crucified by Payne’s Judas figure.

Who do you think this film appealed to initially when it was released in 1939, and who do you think it appeals to today? 

  • The film struck a chord with audiences in 1939, becoming a box office hit and earning 11 Academy Award nominations – so it likely had very widespread appeal.
  • Today, the movie-watching public is more cynical and arguably smarter. Many may find this picture hopelessly dated and drowning in sentimentality and propaganda. Nevertheless, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continues to be highly revered, as demonstrated by high marks from fans and critics on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. It likely speaks more to classic movie buffs, scholars, historians, and the unapologetically patriotic.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Showing how the Congressional sausage is made – how legislation works, how the Senate chamber operates, and how a filibuster can be effective in Washington – remains fresh.
  • However, there are some over overdramatic and sappy elements in this movie – such as Smith fainting from fatigue at the end, inspiring Payne to change his mind; socking people in the kisser as comeuppance; Smith witnessing a young boy reciting the Gettysburg address; precocious kids as “Our Gang” type caricatures who run a printing press and try to out-hustle Taylor and the big newspapers – that remind you that this is an 80-year-old film.

This is a birthday celebration, after all, and birthdays are all about presents. Except it’s the fans who continue to get the gifts. What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • James Stewart’s performance, arguably his best, and particularly memorable for how it shows a gradual transformation from folksy young innocent to a beaten-down but roused patriot, thanks to Steward’s impeccable ability to display a wide array of believable emotions. We feel what Smith feels, and that’s a testament to the power of Stewart’s acting and Capra’s direction.
  • It’s a movie that makes it feel acceptable to be patriotic. Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Young Mr. Lincoln, Sergeant York, and a few others from Hollywood’s golden era, this film celebrates Americana in the best that this country has to offer.
  • Another gift that keeps on giving: the stellar extended cast. This is one of the deepest rosters ever assembled, with Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, Eugene Pallette, H.B. Warner, William Demarest, Porter Hall, and Jack Carson on board.

Other movies that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reminds us of

  • Bulworth
  • The Candidate
  • The Contender
  • The Seduction of Joe Tynan
  • Lincoln

Other essential films directed by Frank Capra

  • It Happened One Night
  • Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
  • Lost Horizon
  • You Can’t Take It With You
  • Meet John Doe
  • It’s A Wonderful Life

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