Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) & It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

I somehow went 25 years without ever seeing two of the most beloved American films of all time. It's a Wonderful Life has long been the movie that folks can't believe I haven't seen, and I daresay if Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was only set at Christmastime, it wouldn't be far behind. Upon finally sitting down and putting myself through this Capra/Stewart double feature, I'm not surprised by the feeling that I had already seen them several times. They've both been ripped off, retread and lovingly copied more times than I can count.

What is surprising to me is the disappointment engendered in my cynical soul by It's a Wonderful Life. I can't believe this is the movie that America tunes in to watch every year at Christmas (someone asked me, when I told them what I was going to watch last night, "Isn't it a little early?"). For starters, it's only a Christmas movie for the final forty minutes, and the wintry setting, in fact, isn't really crucial to any of the morals or lessons imparted therein. I suppose Christmastime and moralizing make good bedfellows, but I'd honestly be more interested in some bedfellow relations for Officer Bert and Taxi Driver Ernie (or their muppet successors).

Don't get me wrong. This is by no means a bad movie, but in terms of storytelling, it's pretty on-the-nose in the end. And as for the beginning, I've never seen a movie take an hour and twenty minutes to reach its inciting incident. Prior to Uncle Billy's dumbassery at the bank that lands the Bailey fortune into Mr. Potter's sniveling (and apparently slimy, if his handshake with George is any indication) fists, we're treated to an episodic chronicle of the life of George Bailey. This is all well and good, and I don't think little Bobbie Anderson (young George) has been out-charisma'd by a child actor ever since. Given this as a set-up for George's realization that he's "worth more dead than alive" and eventual start down a new path, it occurs to me that Up did this kind of thing better and in ten minutes. What's It's a Wonderful Life about? It's about a man who's going to kill himself because his twit Uncle lost a ton of cash, and then an angel comes down to give him a Dickensian lesson on life being worth living and he changes his mind. Correct me if that's an improper summary, because it also reveals the film as hideously off-balance.

I think the biggest kick I got out of finally watching this is that I can finally completely appreciate Saturday Night Live's alternate ending, which is inarguably superior to the real one. I'd have to go back through fifty years of review to see if anyone agrees with me on this (the sketch comedy speaks for itself), but seriously: Evil Mr. Potter gets no comeupance whatsoever? That is completely unacceptable. It's bad enough the crotchety old cripple never recieves a fatal beating; he never even gets exposed as having swiped the Baileys' money. He never gets so much as a talking to. It's nice that the townsfolk are so willing to throw piles of cash at George in an overwhelming ejaculation of Christmas spirit, but haven't we previously been told that Mr. Potter owns like ninety percent of the town? How much money can they really have to toss around? Exacting a socialist state in the Bailey's living room is, again, a nice idea, but they can't keep it going much longer with Potter still around.

It's easy to assume that Potter will die before Bailey (although the man's mortality is questionable - he barely ages over forty years and spends the whole time in a wheelchair at no visible detriment to his overall health), leaving Bailey to take back the town (Is there an heir, by the way, to the Potter estate?), but what if something happens to George first? Without him, we are shown quite explicitly, Bedford Falls will become something like the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future, Part II, all gin joints and burlesque. The failure of Capra or any of his screenwriters to bring their villain down - or give any kind of closure between him and Bailey - is unacceptable. I take respite in the fact that the main drag in Pottersville looked like kind of a fun place, and that Donna Reed makes for one damn foxy librarian.

What impresses me most, however, about the structural disarray of It's a Wonderful Life is that seven years earlier, Capra and Stewart (not to mention Beulah Bondi, who plays Stewart's mother in both films) teamed up to make one of the most dramatically perfect films I've ever seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Boy, America, did you choose the wrong Capra movie to watch every year.

Stewart's eponymous Senator Jeff Smith is a small-town rube who runs the local boy scout troupe (the actual Scouts denied rights to use their name; on a similar note, the entire film manages to unspool without naming Smith's homestate or noting his political party affiliation) and prints a one-sheet newsletter. He is selected to replace a freshly deceased senator for two reasons: he's popular enough that his selection won't cause a revolution and he's dumb enough that he won't be able to stop a backroom deal for a dam that's been hidden in Article 40 of the Deficiency Bill solely to make a local newspaper tycoon a ton of money.

The selectors behind Smith's appointment are Governor Hopper and Senator Paine, both of whom answer to Jim Taylor, the rich civilian who for years has been running the state behind closed doors. Paine, it's established early on, knew Smith's father, and loved him. He loves Smith, too, and this will prove to be his fatal flaw.

Of course, Stewart does catch on to the plot and in trying to blow the whistle, ends up framed in a scandal of forgeries and hearsay. About to be expelled from the Senate after less than a week, and with a lot of assistance from his secretary/love interest Jean Arthur (easily besting Donna Reed in the personality category and matching her in the gauzy close-up), he pulls out the dramatist's favorite check to the balances of power written into our books: The Filibuster.

According to the film's IMDb trivia page, there was a much longer ending, depicting a friendly make-up session between Mr. Smith and his malleable nemesis Senator Paine, the collapse of the "Taylor Machine" and a ticker-tape parade for Smith upon his return home. This ending was cut, allegedly, due to a preview audience's response.

At the climax of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart passes out in the 24th hour of the filibuster intended to save his name, his state and the purity of American democracy, and in the next minute-and-a-half, his nemesis Paine admits the truth, the day is saved, our hero is revealed to be "okay!" (to the delight of his paramour), and the film is over. In a minute-and-a-half! Now that's how you fucking end a movie. Did it really take a focus group to tell this to Frank Capra? Where were they on Wonderful Life? Or The Return of the King, for that matter? Or any of a thousand bloated endings to Hollywood entertainments? Sheesh!

And let me also state that it's easy to be glib about these things, but I feel I should put on the record that, for that entire minute-and-a-half ending, I found tears welling in my eyes. You may blame this on whatever you like: mental instability, the power of Capra's arguably naïve paean to democracy, or just Stewart's brilliance with the climactic epiphany. I think maybe it's a combination of all three. Perhaps I am a crier: but whereas Wonderful Life left me cold, Mr. Smith had me from the start right through to the end.


  1. This is so, so interesting. It's hilarious how our opinions are just the exact inversion of each others.

    For starters, I LOVE It's a Wonderful Life and I ove George Bailey. George Bailey was the beginning of my tragic love for Jimmy Stewart, which was deepened immeasurably by him as Alfred Kralik in The Shop Around the Corner (incidentally also a Christmas movie, albeit a more Christmassy one). Incidentally, said love is tragically bookending by my terrifying over-identification with the character of Midge in Vertigo.

    REGARDLESS, back to the point, which is: if you think It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie, or even necessarily a happy movie, it's probably because you've only really paid attention to the last 15 minutes. What the movie actually is, for me, is the first 2/3, where you have to watch, bit by bit, the Shakespearean tragedy of this gawky, whip smart, ambitious man hemmed in to a box he spent his whole life trying to escape, and hemmed in mostly by his own goodness. The movie doesn't work as a story about Christmas and it doesn't work as a socialist melodrama, it works as the story of one man, his box, and how through tragedy he comes to realize that the box is what he wanted all along. I think it's very strength lies in the fact that it's limited to just George Bailey, because that lets me believe the fable that Capra's made.

    With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, he's widened the scope of the drama, and that makes it wear a bit thin for me. The ending just seems to abrupt, and too easy-- you mean the bad guy JUST GIVES UP? Just like that? It shouldn't be that easy!! Politics is not that easy! Maybe I'm just ruined by the sophistication of something like The West Wing, which gives the same idealogical uplift but without ever cutting the complexity of politics, but it just seemed unforgiveably simple.

    I like that at the end of A Wonderful Life the only thing that's truly saved is George's understanding of himself, because that feels like something a bunch of neighbors pitching in together could really acheive. And I think that, if George has been able to hold back Potter for all these years, just out of stubbornness, think how much more he'll be able to do now that he knows how important his actions really are. As for Jeff Smith-- sure, he's been saved from the Washington machine that once, but how's he going to escape being chewed up by it tomorrow, or the next day? His bas guys won't always just decide to give up.

    I'm with you about Jean Arthur v. Donna Reed though. And I find it INCREDIBLY funny that Donna Reed's tragic, tragic fate without George is becoming a spinster librarian, for obvious reasons.

  2. Oh, and you're right about Up working with much the same story, although I'd argue it isn't resolved in the first 10 minutes. It doesn't finish until Carl opens up the photo album and sees how Ellie viewed their marriage. Although you make a good point that Up packs the same punch into the 10 minute opening that It's a Wonderful Life gets in its whole dream sequence-- but I think that says more about the incredible quality of Up than it does about It's a Wonderful Life being bad.

  3. I'm trying to draw a comparison between WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH (and UP) in structural terms.

    I appreciate that WONDERFUL LIFE is clearly not a Christmas movie. This is obvious to anybody viewing it objectively; however, it must be colored by fifty years of late-December mass consumption.

    When I compare WONDERFUL LIFE to UP, I'm talking about the former from its beginning up through the moment Uncle Billy makes his grand fuck-up at the bank. Take George's life to this day and compare it to Carl Fredricksen's up to the day he bloodies the construction worker's forehead and ends up losing his house. These two stories are the same: epic tragedies leading up to the inciting incident that will eventually affect the redemption of their self-worth. In WONDERFUL LIFE it takes an hour-and-a-half. In UP, ten minutes.

    When I describe MR. SMITH as "dramatically perfect", I am specifically referring to the ending you feel involves the villain 'just giving up'. This is clearly not the case: early in the film, Paine and Smith share a moment of sadness over Smith's father, who was killed as a result of his commitment to the ideal of American Democracy. Paine knew and loved Smith's father. This immediately causes him to love Smith as his own son. They speak of a man giving his life to serve an idea.

    Paine does not just give up. His reversal is a direct result of Smith passing out cold on the floor of the Senate, a near-death occurrence that directly mirrors his father's (and Paine's friend's) death. This moment is one of the more perfect dramatic reversals I've seen in a movie, and on top of that it is pretty damn moving.

  4. Your points about the film's structural components are definitely sound, it's just the corresponding conclusions you've come to about the films' respective quality that I disagree with.

    I was being overly simplistic when I described the bad guy "giving up" in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and you were right to point that out. I should go back and watch the movie again to get a more nuanced understanding, as it's been a couple years.

    The point I've made, however, still stands, in spite of this clarification. Mr. Smith's narrative is resolved triumphantly, but through the invocation of very unusual circumstances, which robs it of its punch. By bringing the story to Washington, Capra raises the stakes of the interactions, so I'm not satisfied to see just one story about Jeff Smith resolved happily. I want to see some sign OTHER things in Washington are going to change, and I don't. In It's a Wonderful Life, the story is SO personal, and SO small, that I can accept the exceptional moment's extreme power. And that aspect of these stories just bears more weight for me.

  5. Cassandra: I think we both like both these movies but I like one more and you like the other more. I propose an agreement to disagree.

  6. A beat that I forgot to mention in WONDERFUL LIFE: Jimmy is kissing Donna ferociously, while beginning to cry, realizing how mired he is in this one-horse town, and he says, "I wanna do what I wanna do!"

    I absolutely love that moment.