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.

Shane

Like all the best mythical heroes, Shane has only one name, and it’s no coincidence that Jack Schaefer, the author of the novel Shane, studied Greek and Latin literature in college.Shane3 I’ve read that the movie is routinely used in classics courses, to make the lessons of great epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid accessible to undergraduates. Achilles, the hero archetype of Homeric legend, is isolated, set apart by his divine origins. Too perfect for the ordinary world.

“It turns out to be the same for Shane as for Achilles,” Carl A. Rubino tells his students at Hamilton College. “Just as the Greeks need Achilles, Shane’s potent presence and help are necessary if his newfound comrades are to survive the deadly violence represented by the ranchers, whose unbounded and increasingly obsolete way of life they threaten.” Shane too is a loner, unfit by his very nature to rejoin the society of the Wyoming homesteaders after he has killed. “A man is what he is, Bob (the name of the kid in the novel), and there’s no breaking the mold. I tried that and I’ve lost.”

Schaefer originally published Shane in 1946 as a three-part serial (originally titled “Rider from Nowhere”) in Argosy, a pulp magazine that specialized in tales of adventure: crime, science fiction, Westerns, and, in its early days, romance. Tarzan, Zorro, Fu Manchu and even Dr. Kildare first appeared in its pages.

1946. The year is significant. American GIs have returned from the war and are doing their best to reenter civilian life. The Good War is over, the Allies have won, and the world is once again safe for democracy. But demobilization has brought its own share of problems. The same postwar malaise that was revealed in noir films of the era has crept into the Western. Shane (1953) is not as dark as The Searchers (1956), but its moral message is more ambiguous than the pre-war Western’s. Jack Palance’s hired gun may be truly bad, but Shane is complicated, unknowable.

He cannot get beyond his violent past, the reflexes that make him jumpy, mistrustful. We wait for the final confrontation, when he can kill righteously, save the town. Then we watch him leave. Sure, he’s a legend, but his type is not suited to the day-to-day. Watch him ride off alone.

Shane, Shane. Don’t come back.

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