Thursday, 17 May 2018

The greatest "drain the swamp" movie of all time? "Mr Smith Goes to Washington", showing on TCM at 9.30am this Sunday

I know I'm a terrible old softie, but I teared up during this scene:
Mr Smith Goes to Washington was yet another of those classic films I wasn't sure I'd watched from beginning to end. So I recorded it on the TCM channel, and my wife (a great Jimmy Stewart fan) and I ended up watching it a few days ago - and we both realised we'd only ever caught bits and bobs of it. What a deliriously wonderful experience it was: the world felt a happier, warmer, more hopeful place afterwards...

...Of the new films I've watched since the start of this century, only a handful of Pixar movies and the Oscar-winning French masterpiece, The Artist (2011), have come close to matching Mr Smith in terms of sheer, exhilarating feel-goodery.

Director Frank Capra had already bagged three Oscars by the time this classic hit the screens, and it would probably have snagged him a fourth if it hadn't been released in the greatest year for great movies in Hollywood's greatest era - it came third at the box office, despite being up against Gone with the Wind (which won the Best Picture Oscar), Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, The Women, Union Pacific, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr Lincoln, The Four Feathers, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Roaring Twenties, and another Jimmy Stewart feelgood classic, Destry Rides Again. Wowsers!

Capra had got his eye in with 1937's Mr Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, which explored many of the same themes as Mr Smith - and he dusted off the "naive dreamer and cynical dame fight for the little people against corrupt politicians and big business" template for a third time in 1941, with Meet John Doe (Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck this time) - but the magic had largely evaporated, and, while John Doe isn't a bad film, it feels a bit contrived, preachy, talky and overlong in comparison. And Gary and Babs just couldn't whip up this sort of onscreen chemistry...
...or the heights (depths?) of pathos achieved by James Stewart in this quite stupendous scene:
As for the "drain the swamp"message, I'm not (believe me), drawing any parallels between James Stewart's character in this film and Donald Trump! And I'm not endorsing Frank Capra's brand of goofy populism, even if he made the dangers of it tipping over into fascism explicit in Meet John Doe, and even if one somehow managed to ignore the faint whiff of Hitler-Jugend given off by Senator Smith's proposal for a national boy's summer camp. But these films are a reminder that people do occasionally tire of opaque, business-as-usual, pseudo-democratic, elitist politics - especially when it dawns on voters that nobody up there appears to be even pretending to do what they've asked for. For instance, this next scene reminded me of Project Fear's attempts to muzzle, misrepresent and browbeat the opposition during the referendum campaign - and ever since:

To repeat - in the unlikely event that you've never seen Mr Smith Goes to Washington, it's on TCM this Sunday at 9am. It's absolutely brilliant

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