‘Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders’

Reviewing through the Time MachineReviewing through the Time Machine: Mr Smith Goes to Washington

So, a while back I figured it might be worth my while distinguishing the New Fodder I wanted to review from the Old Awesomeness I want to squee about. One of the nice things about this blog that’s different from submitting reviews to a magazine is that it doesn’t have to be up-to-the-minute. I can talk about anything I think is awesome or otherwise worth reviewing. It even gives me the freedom to review things that are out of print or hard to find. When I want to review such things, I have decided, I will merely make use of my Time Machine, and invite you to come along.

Mr Smith goes to Washington was not what I had originally intended to dig out for my Time Machine’s maiden voyage, but I was so blown away on rewatching it that I simply couldn’t resist. This film is an absolute classic, so you won’t strictly need a Time Machine to view it, but given that it originally hit the silver screen in 1939, you’d be forgiven for thinking that reversing the polarity of the neutron flow might help. Let me introduce you to the vital statistics:

Title:Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Date: 1939
Starring: James Stewart and Jean Arthur
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on a story by Lewis R. Foster)
Genre: Light-hearted comedy? Serious drama? Early ‘dramedy’?
Awards: 11 Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Original Story

Plot: A US Senator dies, forcing the governor of his state to pick a replacement to serve out his term. He receives conflicting pressures from his party and the local Big Business Guy who practically owns all the politicians in that state. The governor’s children helpfully suggest badger him to pick the head of the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), instead. Smith is a local hero and has recently been in the news, but is otherwise a laughable choice. Despairing, the governor flips a coin between the two real candidates, but it lands on its edge… right next to an article about how awesome Smith is. In a fit of rebellion, the governor picks Smith, which turns out to suit both camps remarkably well. Smith is young and idealistic, but also clueless and entirely malleable (or so it is assumed).

Upon arriving in Washington, Smith is just as naive and fresh-faced as everyone expected him to be, much to the despair of Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), his chief of staff – a woman seasoned in politics and sick of being stuck working under men who make no impact. After making a mild fool of himself in front of the press, Smith is persuaded to busy himself composing an almost certainly doomed bill for a national boys’ camp where disadvantaged children can come together in a beautiful place to breathe clean air and learn to love freedom and being nice to each other.

Unbeknownst to Smith, however, his planned site for the camp is the exact same spot where corrupt politicians have been lobbying on behalf of Big Business Guy to put a dam. Once this is revealed, they plot to have Smith expelled from his position by framing him for defrauding small children. Smith is so shocked he doesn’t even try to defend himself, and runs away.

Despite her initial despair, Saunders has developed an affection for Smith, and comes to his rescue, coaching him on what he needs to do to salvage his name and his beloved boys’ camp. Under her instructions, Smith returns to the Senate where-upon he embarks on an epic filibuster. Under US law, he can hold the floor for as long as he can stand and speak, and whilst he does so his friends work to get the word out.

Why is it awesome?

Smith’s filibuster is one of the defining moments in cinema history, and is a piece of US history in its own right. The final scene, where Smith has been talking for 23 hours straight, made James Stewart’s career, earning him the first of five oscar nominations. Stewart reportedly swabbed his throat with mercury to help simulate the required hoarseness, although, really, there was no need. His acting is so stunning, so captivating. This is still, to my mind, the greatest political drama on film.

Long before there was The West Wing, there was Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Of course, it’s not a fair comparison for either of them, really. You’ll see, above, that I struggled to categorise it. The early portions of the film consist of light comedy with little pretension towards serious content, and they do what they want to do well enough. The latter half of the film, on the other hand, is a tense and serious drama that had me bawling my eyes out and flailing around the Internet intoning ‘I love democracy!’ through my tears – despite the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen from the beginning.

So why’s it so cool? Well, Aaron Sorkin has been known to say that one of the problems with writing The West Wing was that, amongst some of the finest political minds in the country, someone always had to be holding the idiot ball in order to allow the drama to unfold, and the audience to understand. Mr Smith goes to Washington doesn’t have that problem. Smith is naturally naive and willing to learn, and the sarcastic and put-upon Saunders is reluctantly a very good teacher. There’s clearly a genuine effort to get people to know a little something about how their country is run, but the brilliant writing and faultless performances from Stewart and Arthur prevent it from being either dry or patronising to the viewer. Here’s the wonderful Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) trying to explain to Mr Smith how ludicrous his wish to propose a bill for his boys’ camp really is:

(For some reason this video is showing as really jerky when embedded, for me. If you find this, too, please go watch the proper version, here.)

And that right there shows another of the things that’s simply stunningly awesome about this film. There is absolutely no doubt, throughout the film, that Clarissa Saunders is one of the most intelligent and well-informed people in Washington. She’s CJ Cregg, but in 1939. Whilst the film is undoubtedly about men in politics and the education of boys rather than girls it’s 1939; Saunders is not only actually savvy and intelligent, she’s clearly much more capable and strong as a person than the lead she supports.

It also has some interesting things going for it on the side of race. Although there are no speaking roles for non-white people, there are some positive depictions. There are also some less awesome ones – the three black porters who are used to carry the bags of the white politicians when Smith firsts arrives in Washington are used in a slightly hammy way for comedic effect. It’s possible that it’s supposed to send up the white men who simply expect black men to trail around after them with their bags, but if so, it’s not obvious. However, it is made clear several times that Smith feels that equality of opportunity independent of race or background is very important. We see that he intends his camp to be for all boys, and that he already includes black boys as a part of his Boy Rangers’ press. When Smith goes to visit the Lincoln Memorial for the first time, there’s a cut away to an old black man who is clearly just as moved by his visit as Smith, and for me the filmmakers were very clearly aiming to remind their viewers that Lincoln is venerated in that temple for abolishing slavery and championing equality.

And it’s part of a broader theme. Smith is used to recite from a number of foundational American texts, not just in his filibuster scenes, but throughout the movie. As quoted in the title of this post, at one point he says to Saunders: ‘Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books’, and I think that’s what’s beating at the heart of this movie. Especially in our developed democracies, it’s easy to forget the beautiful, startling, vibrantly important principles that underlie them: that all men are created equal, how important it is to be free, and free to speak. In the midst of corruption scandals and fears that big business control the news makers as well as the news reporters, we shouldn’t cave under the belief that we won’t be heard if we try and stand up for our beliefs. These points have been ringing particularly true for me in the news this week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they would on any other week you cared to watch this film.

Smith wants, through his camp, and Capra wants, through this movie, to not just remind us of the principles that the US democracy is founded on (or any democracy, for that matter), they want to make those principles alive for us again. And they do. Smith’s passion and determination burn from the screen. What he wants to achieve is really small cheese, but his fight is incandescent and profoundly symbolic. Stewart is beautifully and understatedly comedic when he needs to be at the start of the film, but his dramatic performance at the end is electric. So much so that I struggled to find a YouTube clip to embed in this post that didn’t give away the entire ending. Not that it matters: this is a film I could watch again and again and get something out of. The plot itself is simplistic and almost fairytale: it just sits in the background allowing this magnificent piece of cinema to unfold all around it.

Think politics isn’t your cup of tea? Think black and white films are dull? Think golden era movies are hammy? I still think you’ll enjoy this film. There are worse things you could throw £4 at this winter.

2 thoughts on “‘Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders’

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