A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jefferson Smith: James Stewart
Clarissa Saunders: Jean Arthur
Sen. Joseph Paine: Claude Rains
Jim Taylor: Edward Arnold
Gov. Hopper: Guy Kibbee
Diz Moore: Thomas Mitchell
Chick McGann: Eugene Pallette
Ma Smith: Beulah Bondi
Senate Majority Leader: H.B. Warner
President of the Senate: Harry Carey
Susan Paine: Astrid Allwyn
Mrs. Hopper: Ruth Donnelly
Sen. MacPherson: Grant Mitchell
Sen. Monroe: Porter Hall
Himself: H.V. Kaltenborn
Nosey: Charles Lane
Bill Griffith: William Demarest
Sweeney Farrell: Jack Carson

Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman
Based on a story by Lewis R. Foster
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art direction: Lionel Banks
Film editing: Al Clark, Gene Havlick
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Perhaps only James Stewart (or Gary Cooper, who turned down the role of Jefferson Smith) could have made Frank Capra's preposterous, sentimental, flag-wavingly patriotic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington into what many people still regard as a beloved classic. But now that we've spent some time being governed by probably the most corrupt man ever to hold the White House, a president elected on populist promises to "drain the swamp" in Washington but who instead has spent his time wallowing in it and stocking it with still more alligators, maybe we can take a harsher look at the Capra film's politics. The people who elected Donald Trump seem to have thought they were voting for Jefferson Smith but instead elected the movie's Jim Taylor (played deliciously by that fattest of character actor fat cats, Edward Arnold). David Thomson, among others, has cogently observed that the film celebrates Jefferson Smith's bull-headed integrity, but that democracy necessarily involves the kind of compromises that Claude Rains's Senator Paine has made, and which have made him a popular and successful politician. True, he's under the thumb of the viciously corrupt Jim Taylor, who is even a manipulator of "fake news," but Thomson questions whether the people of Smith's state wouldn't have benefited more from the dam Taylor wants to put on Willett Creek, presumably one that would supply power and other benefits to the state, than from Smith's piddly boys' camp, which would benefit at best a few hundred boys. (No girls need apply?) Smith's dramatic filibuster also seems to be holding up a bill that would provide funding for some essential services. As it happens, I rewatched Mr. Smith on the night after the Senate reached an impasse on funding the entire federal government, and there could hardly be a better example of political stubbornness undermining the public good. Which is only to say that the merits of Capra's film -- and there are some -- transcend its simple-minded fable. Among its merits, it's beautifully acted, not only by Stewart, Rains, and Arnold, but also by Jean Arthur, that most underrated of 1930s leading ladies, and Thomas Mitchell, who appeared in no fewer than three of the films nominated for the best picture Oscar for 1939 -- this one, Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming), and Stagecoach (John Ford) -- and won the supporting actor award for Stagecoach. And just run down the rest of the cast list, which seems to be a roster of every great character actor in the movies of that day, all of them performing with great energy. Capra's mise-en-scène is sometimes stagy, but Lionel Banks's great re-creation of the Senate chamber gives Capra a fine stage on which to work.

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