Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Long Overdue Post #2: Does the Wind Get Tired Out There?

This post also got started and lost in the shuffle a good while ago.

I watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost every time I run into it. There's a lot to admire in this 1939 Frank Capra classic, notably the acting from almost everyone involved: Jimmy Stewart as the idealistic young Jefferson Smith; Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders, the hard-boiled secretary who's transformed by Smith's sincerity; Claude Rains as stately, silver-haired, but corrupt Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine; and Edward Arnold as smooth-talking political boss Jim Taylor; not to mention Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Harry Carey, and Jack Carson. The dialog by screenwriter Sidney Buchman is snappy and often very funny, as when drunken urbanite Clarissa tries to repeat what Smith has told her about the plains she's never seen.

In outline, the plot is simple. Naive young publisher Smith is appointed as an interim senator for his state, in the expectation that he won't get in the way of the Taylor machine. In the person of Sen. Paine, the machine is trying to engineer passage of a bill to construct an unnecessary dam on land owned by a Taylor advocate that will (somehow) enrich Taylor, Paine, and others. By chance, Smith decides to sponsor a bill asking the government to buy that same land to sponsor a boys' camp (you know it's 1939 when all the sincere speeches about kids growing up to respect each other never consider that some of them could be, you know, girls). Taylor tries to buy Smith; when that doesn't work, he decides to smash him by showing that Smith, not Allen, owns the disputed land. With coaching from Saunders, the disgraced Smith provokes a confession from Paine, brings down Taylor, and clears his name.

It's fine, rousing stuff. But despite my recognition of its good qualities, I've never loved the movie the way so many other people do, and it's taken me a long time to figure out why. I think it's a series of three interlinked problems. First, Smith does a terrible job of defending himself. Sure, the Taylor syndicate blindsides him with the forged contract, but if there is enough time for a trial with three different handwriting experts, there's enough time for Smith to try to expose the connection between the landowner and Taylor. But it looks like he doesn't even try; nor does he try to tell his story and ask for time to prove his allegations when he has the chance and it might do him some good.

That failure leads directly to his desperate filibuster, which is the second problem. For most people, I think, this is the highlight of the film: a lone man, battling the forces of corruption arrayed against him, with nothing but his voice and ability to stay on his feet. And I must admit it's genius when, hands deep in the negative telegrams Paine has trucked into the Senate chamber, an all-but-spent Smith turns to him and rasps, "I guess it's just another lost cause, Mr. Paine." But the whole idea falls flat for me. Smith really does nothing with his opportunity except assert his innocence again and again. It's no wonder his fellows turn their backs on him, if he can't summon up a shred of proof. He says he's trying to reach the people in his state, but again, what does he offer them except hollow assurances without evidence?

The third and biggest problem, though, is that he wouldn't need much evidence if he simply applied a little logic. Taylor's whole scheme depends on the fact that owning the land on which the dam will be built will bring in a huge profit. Would that not be equally true if Smith owned it? Why would he bother trying to con schoolboys out of nickels and dimes for a camp if he could sell the land to the Government for an enormous amount? It's so OBVIOUS, yet neither he nor anyone else ever points that out.

Honesty and bravery and patriotism and good intentions are all great qualities in their place. But I like my heroes, and my elected officials, to have a few smarts as well.

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