Monday, August 18, 2014
A YEAR WITH CAPRA CHALLENGE #1
First I would like to thank Stevie Nowinsky for the challenge of following the original writer, producer, and director Frank Capra for the year. Capra is best known for It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and today's spotlight Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). There is a list of Capra's movies in the sidebar that I will be reviewing throughout the following year. So check it out and let me know what you think by liking the posts, commenting and sharing. I'm looking forward tot his challenge and I hope that you are too!
Harvard Film Archive depicts Capra as the first director who perfected the "common touch" which is portraying the characteristics of spirited and the "pluck" of the underdog against great odds (The Capra Touch, 2014). This is obvious in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The great odds against Mr. Smith definitely defines him as the underdog against, what seems, insurmountable circumstances. I can definitely see how this is a timeless classic and is relevant today as much as it was in the late 30's when it was released.
Interestingly, Washington insiders were angry at the movie and Capra's allegations of such corruption of Government. Europe's fascist states banned the movie, some theaters played the movie repetitiously before the ban went into effect (IMDb, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Trivia). Even during it's time, the movie showed people how real politics work and it is disheartening; especially if you have such belief in the system, as Mr. Smith did in the movie. We want to believe that government is "for the people" but what Capra, so cleverly showed us, was that it's not all what we're shown.
Within the first minutes of the movie, Capra molds the concept that those elected into their positions are manipulated there; certainly still evident today. Behind the manipulation, "the Taylor machine" which the movie refers to as one man with money (equaling power) who is dictating who and what is going on; and mainly for his own profitable gain. The corrupting and evil Mr. Taylor is portrayed by Edward Arnold, who is no stranger to Capra films having also been cast in Meet John Doe (1941) and You Can't Take It With You (1938); also starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. But, it's no surprise that once you find great talent, as a genius behind the lens, to recast like-minded brilliance; much like this day and age directors Kevin Smith and Adam Sandler, who probably took this from Capra's playbook.
James Stewart brings to life the American Hero Jefferson Smith. The All-American Ranger from an unspecified state, but one that you want to relate with, someone you want to believe in, and someone full of valued morals. Stewart did a marvelous job conveying this boy-next-door-all-grown-up character Mr. Smith, who led his local "Boy Rangers" organization and led his fight for the male youth of the country. Interestingly enough, "[according] to the New York Times, "the Boy Scouts of America objected to having any part in Mr. Capra's reform movement," and [Capra] therefore had to use the fictitious name of the Boy Rangers" (IMDb, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Trivia).
What is great about Smith being Capra's underdog in this film, is that he's demanded by the people. With such demands, from the Governor's own children, he goes against The Taylor Machines demands and elects Smith for office. Once he is in office, a family friend Senator Paine also helps Smith to claim his title and "The Silver Knight" helps to welcome Smith to Washington. However, soon enough Smith finds out that not all friends have your best interest in mind. Senator Paine, trying to get Smith off his heels and to direct him toward his new role, instructs him to start his plans to introduce his bill into senate for the male youth.
Jean Arthur portrays the cynical Saunders who has been jaded by the corruption she has seen through her job. Arthur originally did not like Stewart for the role of Jefferson Smith, she wanted a previous co-star for the role, she felt Stewart wasn't masculine enough for the role (IMDb, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Trivia); however this isn't evident when watching the movie. Saunders depiction of Smith starts to change when she realizes he's the rare exception to politics; he's the real thing. I love the scene when they are talking about the view coming out of the tunnel, you can see this is when the cynical Saunders picture completely starts to change. She is a key character to Smith's stand in the Senate. She helps him to form and write his bill that he submits to Senate and aides in his filibuster.
What's an underdog movie though without a little romance? It's evident in the movie, not only is Smith the underdog for Senate, he's also the underdog in love. He fumbles, looses speech, and seems to lose his brain functionality all together when in the presence of a beautiful woman. Capra's shot of Smith meeting Miss Paine (Senator Paine's daughter) for the first time, could be viewed as a directional mistake; the shot is of Stewart fighting with his hat while attempting to converse. However, quite the contrary. I believe this is a great depiction of demonstrating the ordinary within the extraordinary. During a time when Smith's character is experiencing, something he thinks is outstanding, Capra captures the everyday and the ordinary within the scene; his classic "common touch" as mentioned previously.
Smith is so enamored for the Miss Paine, who has been recruited by The Taylor Machine (including her father) to divert Smith's return to Senate after his bill was purposed. The key glitch within Smith's proposition is the land on which he wants to build. This land is already in another bill that has been going back and forth in Senate in the acquisition of a dam; the dam that Mr. Taylor will gain greatly from. Once Smith finds out the truth, he wants to stand up for what's right. Unfortunately, The Taylor Machine derails his attempts. Senator Paine himself, who Smith considered a family friend, purposes the unthinkable and attacks Smith's very character; politics at its truest form.
The battle in Senate goes from different bills to the diversion of Smith's dismissal. During his trial Smith, shocked by the lies and forgeries, leaves. During his downtrodden and disbelief, he flees to The Lincoln Memorial. Here he reconnects with Saunders who had left her position after the maneuver by Miss Paine to deflect Smith from his attendance in Senate. There's an endearing scene where Saunders is having a few with her good friend Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell), where we see further how she's falling for Smith against her cynical beliefs. This is a pivotal scene though, she's able to rejuvenate Smith's plight and helps him to head into battle armed with her knowledge that she's acquired.
Something so disheartening to myself was the disconnect for myself as a woman. I'm sure it was acceptable for the time the movie was released and depicts our history. However, Senate was comprised of nothing but males. It was as if females were not even allowed on the floor. To the point that they even had squires, young boys who were more involved and more valued than a woman counterpart. But, this also gave me a more endearing connect with Capra, for his betrayal of the knowledgeable Saunders - who had to coach Senator Smith from the sidelines. To further demonstrate the old adage - behind every great man is a woman telling him what to do.
One of the seemingly minor characters that gives such an outstanding performance that takes notice, is President of the Senate (Harry Carrey). Who seems to enjoy Smith's zest and 'pluck' that he gives the floor to Smith, when the rest of the Senators are calling for his immediate termination. In this action Smith begins his filibuster to the great exhaust of himself and Senate. However, as Capra so ingeniously written, that Smith's passion was either driven by truth or mere craziness. It points out that someone wouldn't go to these extremes if he wasn't innocent. Another interesting factoid "During Smith's filibuster, he mostly sticks to improvisation and reading from historical documents (The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, etc). However, during one scene (immediately following the montage of the dueling newspapers), he reads from the King James Bible, specifically the "love passage" in 1 Corinthians 13" (IMDb, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Trivia). This was another great adage from Capra, the presence of God within government. It also saddening that it seems this is all too absent from politics today (but that's just my belief, as Americans we have the right to our own opinions and beliefs - however, the country was founded on the principles found within the Bible - too bad they're not represented in government today).
Another great example of Capra's common touch and life lessons within the movie was how the guilty rarely make eye contact. There were a couple scenes where Smith is trying to get the eye contact of the man stabbing Smith in the back, Senator Paine, and Paine refuses to make eye contact. I've experienced this within my own life, in a court room and unable to get the eye contact of the person who wrongfully accusing me of something preposterous. Eventually Paine, through the tireless devotion and conviction of Smith, buckles and ends the filibuster by finally telling the truth on the Senate floor - after nearly 24 hours of Smith's determined pleas of the Senate. The only thing that I didn't like about the movie was the abrupt ending after the filibuster's end. Apparently there was more the ending as stated on IMDb "Originally, the ending was much, much longer. It included scenes such as [Smith] going back to his home state and given a parade (with Saunders); the Taylor machine being crushed; Smith on a motorcycle and stopping to see Senator Paine; forgiving him and everyone going to see Smith's mother. It was cut after a preview audience's response. Some of the footage can be seen in the theatrical trailer" (IMDb, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Trivia).
Overall, this is a movie I think everyone should see. Capra shared real characters with his timeless ability and shares their experience in a way that we are cheering along with everyone else by the end of the movie for beating the odds. Especially in our time when most people would not stand up against the odds as Smith did. You want to believe in the time when good triumphed over evil, when righteousness triumphed over the government and you want to believe in the relationship and development of Smith and Saunders - although, it would have been nice to see a bit more of it. But, Capra did a fabulous job of hitting the highlights and giving us a true gem to cherish and for future generations to come to watch and experience as well.
"I left the Lincoln Memorial with this growing conviction about our film: The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered nd lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America's democratic ideals. The sould of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter's simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure. And back we went to Hollywood to get to work on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The panic was over. It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom's bell." (The Capra Touch, 2014)