Mr. Smith and the Republican Myth

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonI really don’t like Frank Capra. This is strange, because he directed one of my very favorite films: It Happened One Night. Even though I am a total softy and I love films that have a nice, gooey center, I find it hard to take Capra’s sentimental style. Add to that, Jimmy Stewart—an actor who diminishes any production he is part of (think: Philadelphia Story)—and you really have trouble.

The film that immediately comes to mind is that plague on all our house, It’s a Wonderful Life. I swear to you, if it comes down to having to watch this exercise in sentimental extremism and gouging my eyes out, I will start looking to Homer as my artistic ideal.[1] But there is another Capra masterpiece (I do not mean this ironically) that is just as awful: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. After all these years, I had managed to miss it, so I sat down last night to watch it.

When looking at Frank Capra as a director, it is easy to see that he succeeds despite technique. His films are filled with bad blocking, clunky editing, passable camera work, and uninspired art direction. He seems to do okay with actors, but generally, they do better with other directors. Where he succeeds is in storytelling; he has a knack for it, even when dealing with a problem script. So it isn’t surprising that he is at his best when Robert Riskin is writing for him. Riskin did not write Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Sidney Buchman did, a poor job from an otherwise good writer.

What makes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so painful to watch is that it is a desperately earnest civics lesson pitched at a second grade level. And the main character played by Stewart isn’t a character so much as the personification of the American spirit. We first see him directing a marching band inside his house. Unfortunately, this is the last time we like him.

At the dramatic peak of the film, Senator Paine (played brilliantly by Claude Rains[2]) asks Smith if the corruption to Jim Taylor isn’t made up by all the good Paine has done. Smith, with the intellectual maturity of a dull pollywog thinks not. But I disagree, which probably just proves how cynical I am. Politics is a messy business and it always has been. This brings us to the most pernicious aspect of this film for modern audiences.

It puts forth the conservative lie that legislation is easy: anyone with a true heart can go to Washington and change the place. This goes right along with the conservative myth that there was some glory day of our country when everyone was true and just. It ain’t so.

Frank Capra was politically liberal. He cared about social justice. He cared about people! I generally agree with his world view that good will out. I accept that people are basically good. But in modern America, those who don’t give a damn about social justice and individual rights use the Capra world to sell their hateful policies. I think the United States is in the bad state it is because there are too many Mr. Smiths who have their naive beliefs in “liberty and justice for all” used against them to elect politicians who want only to redistribute wealth upward.

And that’s hard to watch for an hour and a half.

[1] Get it? Because Homer is often thought to have been blind. I suppose Oedipus Rex would have been more direct. “Call me Oedipus.” But now that I think of it, most people don’t think “gouging eyes out” when they think of him. So a footnote was required.

[2] Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell (the drunk doctor in Stagecoach and Scarlett’s father in Gone With the Wind) are really good too.

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