Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goosebumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life-changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters, the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly, it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big-name directors, co-starring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth, and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene-stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and preventing any of his words from the Senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character, acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair-raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast, those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.

The Mortal Storm (1940)

I Did Nazi That Coming

I try to avoid calling movies underrated or saying “Why is this not more well known?!”, otherwise, I would sound like the most malfunctioning record but as to why The Mortal Storm is not more famous goes beyond just my own personal preferences. The fact that Hollywood’s then biggest studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer would release an anti-Nazi film at a time when the US and Germany were not involved in any conflict should be a bigger deal than it is. To give some historical context, although it seems hard to believe nowadays, fascist and other Nazi-like ideas were out in the open throughout the United States during the 20’s and 30’s (heck, just look at the film Gabriel Over the White House from 1933, also released by MGM, or the public initial backlash against films with pro-interventionist sentiments such as Sergeant York or To Be Or Not To Be). Prior to the US involvement in the war, there was even uncertainty as to whether or not the US should take part in the conflict in Europe.

The Mortal Storm being overlooked is criminal. It deserves the special edition DVD treatment with documentaries behind its production. I’m sure there must be an interesting story behind the making of this film. MGM has generally been seen as a studio who played it safe, thanks in part to its conservative studio head Louis B. Mayer. So it comes as a surprise The Mortal Storm would come from this studio and they paid the price. The Mortal Storm lead to MGM films being banned in Germany. The word Nazi is never used once throughout the film, while the characters I can only assume are Jews are referred to as Non- Aryan. I wonder if this was done to prevent further controversy surrounding the film but it’s still an incredibly brave picture.

The core story is about how Nazism tore German families and friends apart due to racial and political differences. The Roths (Jewish I assume) are a happy picture postcard family one day, the next there are completely torn apart. Things go bad for the family from the moment in which it’s announced Hitler has become chancellor of Germany as the adopted, non-Jewish sons of the Roth family begin saying disturbing yet enthusiastic comments (“If peasants want to keep their cows they better have the right politics”). Likewise, the patriarch of the Roth family and the professor of the town’s local university played by Frank Morgan is treated with the highest levels of respect one day and is awarded for his contributions to the fatherland. Not long after Hitler’s rise to power his students are boycotting his class after he states that science has shown there is no difference between the blood of various races.

The Mortal Storm is a work of propaganda, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Propaganda is an art form in itself, one which tries to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer in order to convert them to one side. The Mortal Storm achieves just that. The tension during the film just builds and builds, concluding in an ending which is one huge punch to the gut.

Watching the film again in order to write this review I surprised just how engaging it was on a further viewing. There are many little touches I never noticed previously, such as when Robert Young’s character announces his engagement to Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart is the only character the room who does react with joy. I do also have to ask how Stewart, a man who would become a World War II hero and later supporter of the Vietnam war must have felt playing a character who is a pacifist.

Majority of the film is shot on sets with the use of painted backgrounds and miniatures, yet the whole thing still looks fantastic and looks more idyllic than real-world locations could. You really get a sense for this small town in the Alps. The only complaint if any I can find with the film is that opening narration which is overly bombastic.

The casting of the previously paired Shop Around the Corner stars couldn’t be more perfect. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two friends who are forced to become lovers due to the impending circumstances – I can’t recall any other movies which portray a love story like this. Sullavan often portrayed characters who represented bravery; her voice is so fragile yet powerful at the same time. The cast isn’t the only tie the film shares with The Shop Around the Corner; both films represent a European society which was on the brink of destruction. The Mortal Storm shows how even an enlightened society can turn to authoritarianism.

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

Quit Badmouthing the House!

The Cheyenne Social Club sounds like a bad idea on a number of levels. For beginners it stars two elderly actors towards the end of their careers in a comedy about prostitution, not to mention Gene Kelly would be one of the last people I would expect to be directing a western. For a long time it remained a movie I doubt I would ever watch yet much to my surprise the film turned out not only to be perfectly dignified but also very funny and surprising endearing. The idea of Jimmy Stewart being the owner of a brothel and becoming a sugar daddy sounds wrong on paper yet somehow it manages to work. The Cheyenne Social Club paints an idealized version of a whore house in which the women are proud of their profession and worship their boss. The movie doesn’t shun prostitution and while propaganda might be a strong word I certainly got the impression the movie was voicing its support for the legalisation of prostitution.

Henry Fonda is by far the funniest thing in the film; a child in an adult’s body living out a completely carefree existence with Stewart being the straight man and the grown-up one of the two. Even as soon as the film begins Fonda babbles through the entire opening credits which according to the movie lasts for literally over a thousand miles which helps distract from how ordinarily plain the test in the opening credits are. The relationship between the two is incredibly endearing with one of my favourite moments of the film is the two of them innocently sleeping in the same bed together. It is also very amusing as Fonda just follows Stewart wherever he goes as he has nothing else to do with his time but also because he just likes his company. It’s evident through their own screen chemistry that the two where lifelong friends. The film’s other major highlight is Stewart and Fonda’s discussing of politics (Stewart being a Republican and Fonda a Democrat) mirroring their real-life personas and bringing to mind an occasion when their friendship was almost brought to an end when they got engaged in a fist fight over politics in 1947 (“I don’t like to dispute you John but didn’t you always vote democratic?, Well…that was when I didn’t know any better”) .

The Cheyenne Social Club is the third of three films James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred in together. The first two of which are among the weakest films I’ve seen from ether actor. Thankfully the third time was the charm; it took 35 years to get these two legendary actors in a great film together but it was worth the wait.