Sunday, July 3, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Story: There are probably 25 scenes I could use from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but for this July 4th week-end, I'll use the least likely one, the one with the fewest words—a diversion from the story—a montage, in fact, created in the studio, lasting about two minutes, and, at its densest, comprising three images fading in and out of each other. Director Frank Capra didn't even create this, although I'm sure he had a hand in shooting the location footage, and supervising the edit.

The name of the man who put this montage together is not a household name, demonstrably so, because you'd remember a name like Slavko Vorkapić. He's obviously, like Frank Capra himself, an immigrant to the United States, both finding prominent livelihoods in "the pictures." No wonder there's such feeling in this sequence—they're both thankful, grateful.

It begins on a tour-bus (the music starts with a rousing version of "Yankee Doodle went to town...") with Smith rubber-necking the D.C. buildings, The Supreme Court, the White House, the Capitol—the three branches of government—to the statues of "the framers" in the rotunda.

At that point, the sequence becomes something more than a guided tour. It is a phantasmagorical combination of iconography, historical recreation, and a background of a ringing Liberty Bell and a wind-blown American flag.

The missing element from this presentation here is the music, a melding of American folk music and standards*** that reaches its emotional peak with a keening violin when Smith turns to look back at Lincoln in his shrine. His shrine. One could feel uncomfortable with this sequence with its emphasis on cold marble—one could say it displays "an edifice complex"—but one must remember the year this was made, 1938, pre-World War II, Nazism was on the march, and Leni Riefenstahl was its chief propagandist, and this sequence borrows from her play-book.

But it ends up with words—and a general acknowledgment of sacrifice—before Smith ends up at the temple-like Lincoln Memorial—there are shots of the Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and the sequence ends with a cross-generational reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, one of the humblest of acknowledgments of sacrifice. Again, words...that define a spirit, a cause...chiseled into that cold marble lest it fade from memory, but also spoken aloud and re-affirmed by a child to whom that legacy is being handed down.

"Capra-corn" is what the director inventively called the sentimentality in his pictures, but that didn't stop him from filling them with heart and feeling, anyway. And this sequence will be called back during the course of the film, even at its darkest moments.

Now, for the cynical side. That inserted shot of the old black man's face when the little boy says "Freedom?" It lasts just as long for the boy to say that—that way if any theaters in the South objected, they could just clip those 12 frames could say "with extreme prejudice." And I know I'll break a couple hearts saying that James Stewart was the second man to be offered the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (the first was Universal contract star Rock Hudson). Stewart said "no" to the part, saying that the script was "too liberal," and that the film would be too controversial. Stewart was a rock-solid conservative—he just didn't make a big stink about it. The part went to the third choice—Gregory Peck—who considered the role "a great gift."

And some thoughts for this election year of 2016. May we take those words of Lincoln's seriously. America, now in its 240th year, after impudently and pugnaciously declaring it was going to take care of its own affairs and not listen to the mandates of an absent and capricious landlord, is still an experiment in democracy. It can still fail if not tended, as if by a gardener, with care, respect, and a steady hand guided by the foresight of its past. It is the state of Nature to grow, but one must be patient and not succumb to "slash-and-burn" techniques to speed things along. Burning things to the ground may feel pro-active in the short term, but recovery time takes longer, and destroys necessary ingredients for recovery. Let us resolve—again—that government OF the people, BY the people, FOR the people shall not perish from this Earth.

The Set-Up: The junior senator from an unnamed state has died, and the area's political machine run by Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) has already decided on the patsy to fill the seat. But under pressure from constituents (and his family) Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) decides to appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), leader of his state's Boy Rangers but a complete babe in the woods to politics. He's also the son of a good friend of the state's surviving Senator, Joe "The Silver Knight" Paine (Claude Rains) who has presidential aspirations. Things, however, don't go according to plan from the get-go—once the Senators get to D.C., Smith follows his patriotic bliss and goes AWOL aboard a site-seeing bus.

Boy(reading): ...that from these honored dead we take increased...
Boy(reading): ...devotion to that cause for which they...
Boy(reading): ...gave the last full measure of devotion...
Boy(reading): ...that we here highly...
Grandfather: ...resolve...
Boy(reading): ...resolve...
Boy(reading): ...that these dead shall not have died in vain --
Boy(reading): ...that this nation, under...
Boy(reading): ...God, shall have a new birth of...
Grandfather: ...freedom --
Boy(reading): ...freedom --
Boy(reading): ...and that government of the people...
Boy(reading): the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Words by Abraham Lincoln (edited by Sidney Buchman)

Pictures by Joseph Walker and Frank Capra and Slavko Vorkapich

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is available on Sony Home Video.

*** The music is composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, a Russian immigrant who, ironically, is most synonymous for composing scores and songs for westerns, like Rio BravoRed River, Duel in the Sun, the song from the television series "Rawhide" and the source for his greatest hit, High Noon, for which he composed "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," based—it should be pointed out—on a Russian folk-tune. The music he weaves for this sequence includes "Yankee Doodle," "America," The National Anthem, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Taps, and "The Red River Valley," which dominates the Lincoln Memorial section.

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