Friday, April 22, 2011

Links: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Otis Ferguson, one of America's first great film critics, was not a fan of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on its release back in 1939, accusing director Frank Capra in The New Republic of putting ideas before people, and of having crowd-pleasing ideas among them:

"Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is going to be the big movie explosion of the year, and reviewers are going to think twice and think sourly before they’ll want to put it down for the clumsy and irritating thing it is. It is a mixture of tough, factual patter about congressional cloakrooms and pressure groups, and a na├»ve but shameless hooraw for the American relic—Parson Weems at a flag-raising."

Frank S. Nugent, no slouch of a critic himself (and the screenwriter of Classics The Searchers and The Quiet Man, among other films), disagreed in the New York Times, noting that Capra succeeds not just in walking the line between comedy and drama, but between condemnation and celebration of the American government:

"For Mr. Capra is a believer in democracy as well as a stout-hearted humorist. Although he is subjecting the Capitol's bill-collectors to a deal of quizzing and to a scrutiny which is not always tender, he still regards them with affection and hope as the implements, however imperfect they may be, of our kind of government. Most directors would not have attempted to express that faith otherwise than in terms of drama or melodrama. Capra, like the juggler who performed at the Virgin's shrine, has had to employ the only medium he knows. And his comedy has become, in consequence, not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom, to simplicity and honesty and to the innate dignity of just the average man."

Some enterprising individual at the University of Virginia has collected a number of other contemporary reviews of Mr. Smith, highlighting the various contemporary reactions to the film.  Of particular interest, considering the film's rah-rah rep, are these reported in The Christian Science Monitor:

Senator Alban W. Barkely (D-Kentucky):  "He declared he spoke not only for himself but for the entire Senate in his condemnation. The picture, he declared, was a "grotesque distortion" of the way the Senate is run.... "As grotesque as anything I have ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster! Can you visualize Jack Garner winking up at Hedy Lamarr in order to egg her on?""

Senator James F. Byrnes (D-South Carolina): "outrageous . . . exactly the kind of picture that dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in a democracy...."

And from The Hollywood Reporter in 1942 on Mr. Smith being the last American film to play in France before the Nazi Occupation cut off distribution:

"Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity. "It was," writes the Nachrichten's correspondent, "as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time . . ."

Amplifying on this defiance of Nazi oppression, the Army News Service sent me word that one theater in a French village in the Vosges Mountains played Mr. Smith continuously during the last thirty days before the ban."

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