Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A charismatic outsider with no experience in government, a hero to his juvenile followers, arrives in Washington to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He owes his appointment to some behind-the-scenes shenanigans by corrupt politicians in his home state. They think they can control him. Boy, were they mistaken.

smith-capitolImplausible? It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Stewart’s naïve character, Jefferson Smith, made it to adulthood, let alone to Washington. He doesn’t know how laws work, he doesn’t even know the rules of order that govern the Senate. Somehow this is endearing. His cynical secretary’s (Jean Arthur) faith in humanity is restored by Smith’s straightforward ignorance. She’s more than happy to educate him.

Smith doesn’t act like a grown-up. When unflattering articles appear about him following his first press conference, he punches out the reporters. It’s shocking, but you’re meant to cheer at this.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington paints the press as less interested in ferreting out the truth than in selling newspapers and pandering to the prurient interests of their audience. I guess they had it coming?

Jeff Smith is like a kid when he arrives in the nation’s capitol, wandering off to see the sights: statues and monuments to the founding fathers, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Awestruck, he stands in front of the copy of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. We know he’s awestruck because patriotic music swells up beneath images of the Liberty Bell ringing, succeeded by a flaming torch as the words “life,” “liberty,” “pursuit of happiness” (penned as they were on the document) appear in front of his eyes.dwarfed-by-lincoln

He ends up at the Lincoln Memorial, listening as a little boy reads the words of the Gettysburg Address to his grandfather. Frank Capra apparently witnessed this very scene when he was making the movie. He’d been worrying that the time might not be right for this picture.

It was 1939. Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin to ensure that the Soviet leader would not object when he invaded Poland. “The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic,” Capra wrote in his autobiography, “but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose.”

The more seasoned senator from Smith’s state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), knows how politics works. “You can’t rely on people voting—half the time they don’t vote,” he tells Stewart early on. He’s quite ruthless, willing to lie to preserve his power and protect the interests of the fat cats back home. He wants Smith to grow up and face the facts: “This is a man’s world, Jeff, and you’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, just like you do your rubbers.”

Rains is by far the more interesting character, complex and increasingly tormented as he watches his protégé destroyed by the very machinations he set in motion. Smith is no match for the fat cats and their minions. In the famous filibuster scene at the end, when he pulls out the Constitution and reads the entire document, his Senate colleagues are unmoved. A good many of them are asleep.

But Rains has a moment of self-reckoning. He sees himself in Smith, his younger, purer self, and is ashamed at what he’s become. He confesses to having betrayed the country and his constituents, “the people who sent me here. . .  I’m not fit to hold office,” he shouts in the Senate chamber.

Talk about implausible.

Notorious

Claude Rains’s mother.  Madame Anna Sebastian.  Oh My God, is that woman scary!  With her crown of tightly-braided hair and her severe expression, she comes across as cruel and rejecting.  Hard to believe she gave birth to a son like Alex, a man who could harbor an unrequited passion for years — and who can blame him?  Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia is stunning and complex, a woman with a past who wants nothing more than to put her notoriety behind her and redeem herself through love.  Unfortunately, the man she loves, Cary Grant’s Devlin, just can’t get beyond that past of hers.

Poor Alex.  He brings Alicia home to meet his mother, barely able to contain his delight at having snared her, but Madame Sebastian pours cold water on her son’s happiness right away:  “Wouldn’t it be a little too much if we both grinned at her like idiots?”  Of course, she suspected Alicia all along.  In the scene where Alex confesses his gullibility and voices the fear that his sinister colleagues will kill him for his mistake, Madame Sebastian shoots for the heart.  “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity,” she snaps.

On top of this, she smokes like a Nazi!  You know how they hold a cigarette, pinched between the thumb and two fingers, not resting in the V between the index and middle fingers the way decent people smoke?

Okay, I got that out of my system.  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  What a grown-up romance they have in this picture.  Neither of them is “nice;” they don’t “meet cute.”  Alicia’s drunk, in addition to being a fallen woman, and the daughter of a Nazi to boot.  Devlin crashes her party, wrestles with her, knocks her out, manipulates her into accompanying him to Rio to work for Uncle Sam.  Then they fall in love and Devlin wrestles with himself, betraying Alicia at every turn.  She loves him still, and redeems herself, almost dies in the process.  But it’s worth it.  Oh, yes.  Totally worth it.

(5 January 2011)

Casablanca

I wish I could have been on the set when they were filming “Casablanca.”  What a great story, and what a great cast!  Wartime Hollywood must have been a lot like Rick’s Café Américain.  Refugee actors desperate for work, preyed on by studio executives who knew they could get them on the cheap.  But something about the exotic mix of nationalities, along with the high stakes involved, brought out the best in people.

All those Europeans, their nuanced performances, make Humphrey Bogart’s straight-talking American stand out like a sore thumb.  Don’t get me wrong.  Bogart is perfect as Rick, the cynical nightclub owner who retrieves his sense of purpose while letting go of the only woman he ever loved.  Against the shadowy elements of “Casablanca,” his clear-eyed character emerges in sharp relief, the way a searchlight cuts through the night fog.  No wonder the exquisite Ilsa fell in love with him!

I’ve never liked Peter Lorre better than in the role of Ugarte.  “You know, Rick,” he says, “I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”  Even a thief like Ugarte can disarm with his honesty.  Then there’s the fine French actor, Marcel Dalio, in a bit part as Emil the croupier.  Mere minutes onscreen, but he is luminous.  Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari:  pure pleasure to watch this master actor at work.  And Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault.  Seeing him come around and commit himself to the anti-Nazi cause makes me smile every time.

“Rick, you’re a sentimentalist,” he tells Bogey.  Well, count me in, guys.

(18 January 2011)