Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A long time ago, in an America far far away…

A gifted director made a film about a greedy, imperial machine that was threatening freedom, and wielding its power over the innocent, the helpless, and the downtrodden. In the way of this immoral juggernaut stood the courage and the tenacity of one man—a man who grew up as a simple farm boy from the outskirts, suddenly finding himself thrust unwittingly into a struggle for truth, justice, and hope.

The director was Frank Capra, the year was 1939, and the film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

1939 was a great year for movies, giving us The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others, but it was a tumultuous year for planet Earth in general. The world was shuddering as millions of white men began slaughtering each other in Europe, and eventually roping the rest of the world into the carnage with them. The United States had not yet entered the conflict, but tensions were high as the doom of its European allies looked certain. Only a month and a half after Germany invaded Poland, Capra’s film blitzkrieged its way into American theaters with a Washington D.C. premiere. It was not well received by the local establishment. Though it was eventually banned in German occupied territory, the powers that be—in our nation’s capitol—were afraid that the movie was too un-American, at a crucial time, when anything but unquestionable patriotism was unacceptable. Thankfully, none of the unwarranted denunciations produced any real fruit as more serious and credible movie critics defended the film’s integrity. Through the lens of time, it has become clear that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not a film that criticizes Washington, democracy, or the political process—on the contrary, it’s a film that seeks to provide education on how Washington functions, defend pure democracy, and shine a light on elements that would seek to destroy the political process from the inside. And it’s meant to inspire hope. As Capra himself stated: “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals.” History agreed with him, and 50 years after its release, having come full circle, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of a place in the preservation vaults of the United States National Film Registry.

As for the plot… I’ll give you the overview. The ultimate villain of the story is a corrupt business mogul who has bought influence in the Senate by extracting the loyalty of those who are only concerned with maintaining their seats in Congress. The hero is Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart; he’s the down to earth country boy that is appointed to the Senate by the Governor of his home state when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The central conflict of the film revolves around a land appropriation bill that Smith introduces without knowing that the other senator of his state (an old family friend who he looks up to as a mentor) has already introduced legislation dealing with the same parcel of land—land which will profit his corrupt business mogul partner. As Smith is slowly drawn into a position where he is at odds with those he admires, and eventually threatened by them, we see him age from a wide-eyed, innocently naive, good guy, into a distraught, desperate, pariah who has had the wool pulled from his eyes. Jean Arthur plays the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary and aide who has spent enough years in Washington to know how things actually work. The relationship dynamic between her and Smith is on point, as she helps him to see the reality of his situation and understand the struggle in which he’s embroiled, while he, in turn, helps her to shed her cynicism and recapture some of the hopeful idealism that she has lost along the way. The two of them genuinely need each other as the main battle ensues on the floor of the Senate, before eventually spilling out into the realm of public opinion—public opinion that is bought and paid for by big business and the press outlets it owns.

As I watched this movie, I found myself becoming more and more sad as I realized the terrible truth embedded in its plot—Capra’s film is highly satirical of course, but it contains a warning that our government and political process might be in jeopardy by immoral forces seeking to buy it, own it, and sell it at their leisure. The story that Capra told was ultimately a hopeful one. As Stewart collapses like a sacrificial lamb on the floor of the Senate after a marathon filibuster, the corrupt senator who has been accusing him becomes overwhelmed with guilt and confesses that he has been compromised and is morally unfit to maintain his seat in the government. This brings the story to a satisfying ending… that would never actually happen in real life. While Capra’s film has a positive, redemptive conclusion that should leave one feeling hopeful, it did not leave me with this feeling. Because it was made in 1939—at a time when there was still a chance to prevent what was happening, and to salvage American democracy from the hands of greed, corruption, and indifference.

Maybe I’ve become too pessimistic about this subject… Maybe I’m just tired of hearing everyone talk about it, when most people have no clue what they’re saying… those are two very good reasons for me to end this review right here, lest I begin spilling my thoughts out into the open as well. I don’t want to be that guy. So I’ll just end with this final thought:

We are now living in a time when even the echo of Capra’s warning has long since faded away, and in the wake of its passing, we have exactly what he imagined could happen if corruption was allowed to mature and thrive.

Or maybe it’s just a really good movie.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

A few weeks ago I resumed my ongoing mission to explore films I haven’t seen before, primarily of the classic genre, with a viewing of Sunset Boulevard. This one, admittedly, threw me a few mental curveballs on its own accord, but with an unexpected bought of pneumonia to go along with those curveballs, the accompanying fever, and the inevitable cold medicine inebriation that followed, it’s taken me awhile to recover enough to feel like writing a review.

I guess I should say, before getting into this, that Sunset Boulevard is an excellent film. It’s listed on IMDb’s ranking of movies as #54 of all time—which is pretty significant. Likewise, it won three Oscars in 1951, while being nominated in just about every category that existed at the time. With that said, this is not a light-hearted film. It does have some wit to it, and a sprinkling of charm here and there, but it’s also deeply introspective of some subjects that are not very pleasant to think about, and whatever humor does exist, I believe it only serves as a bit of sugar to mask the horrible taste of the medicine it offers.

Set in the world of early 1950s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard opens with the narration of the main character, whose body happens to be floating upside down in a pool. We’re told right from the beginning how the story will end, before being transported back six months to watch as this tragedy slowly unfolds in front of us. It’s not really fair to pin Sunset Boulevard down into any one particular genre; it dabbles in several. However, from my personal point of view, this is most definitely a horror film. Like many of the classic horror films from the 40s and 50s this movie tells the story of a monster, made hideous by circumstances beyond its control, desperately seeking a redemption that is just out of reach, and falling in love with its inevitable victim. From King Kong, to Frankenstein, to the Wolf Man, to the Mummy, to Dracula—all the classic horror films follow the same general pattern. What makes Sunset Boulevard shockingly different is that the horror is real, not pulled from the pages of archetypal fantasy and fairy tales, but instead culled from the bones of early Hollywood, specifically the silent film era of Hollywood and the phantoms it left behind as the shift was made to talking pictures. The Monster is Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), an aging has-been of the silent film era, living secluded in her mansion, running on the fumes of her once profitable stardom that has since faded into the past along with any meaningful relationships she may have once had. She has no family, no connection to reality, and spends her days lounging in opulence surrounded by portraits of herself as a young star. Her only companions are her butler and a pet chimp. Our introduction to Norma finds her in the midst of extravagant funeral preparations for the chimp who is subsequently laid to rest during a midnight ceremony in an ivory coffin in the backyard. Yes, this movie is very strange, and it is very creepy. As I said, the horror is uncomfortably real, though it presents Norma almost like a giant spider, her mansion a black burrow of death and dust, with an insatiable need to feed on the worship of fans who have forgotten she even exists. Into her web stumbles the doomed protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who is down on his luck. As mentioned, we know the story isn’t going to end well for him—he’s the corpse floating in the pool at the beginning, narrating the tale of his demise from beyond the grave. Did I mention this is a horror flick? It’s definitely NOT the kind of movie anyone should watch while running a high fever.

While the movie itself has gone down in history as Billy Wilder’s indictment of Hollywood’s dark underbelly, hidden away by all the glamor and lights, I think it holds something much darker in its depths. The questions that are being silently asked of the audience throughout the film, are questions we all must ask ourselves at some point in our lives—what is integrity, and is there a price for which mine can be bought? Joe falls into Norma’s web because she needs a writer to edit her script. She’s produced it for the sole purpose of trying to grab back a piece of the fame and stardom she has lost in the years since she faded from the spotlight. It’s a terrible script, and a terrible waste of time and effort for Joe. We know from hearing his internal narrative dialogue what Joe really thinks, what he really believes, and how he really feels. But we watch haplessly as he deliberately ignores his own thoughts, goes against his own judgment, and allows himself to become Norma’s slave—because doing so means he doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills. Joe has many opportunities to escape Norma’s web, but in the end, he’s willing to give up his freedom, his artistic integrity, and even the love of a woman who is much more suited to him, all for financial security. By the time he realizes his mistake, that it wasn’t worth it—it’s too late, and he pays the cost with his life. The spider doesn’t let him leave the nest without blood being spilled.

The moral of the story is something worth thinking about—however uncomfortable it may be: If you know what the truth is, but you act in such a way that denies that truth, you are, in effect, killing yourself on the inside. There’s nothing more horrific than sacrificing your integrity. I think our society, as a whole, must have had a better grasp on that concept in 1950. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

 

Modern Times

Modern Times

The second film in The Professor Lunsford Educational Series (after the previously reviewed It Happened One Night) is none other than Modern Times, written, produced, directed, edited by, and starring the legendary Charlie Chaplin.

Modern Times was released in 1936, and was the last of Chaplin’s films to feature “The Tramp” — a vaudeville style character that he conjured up in 1914. History has woven Chaplin so closely together with his character that if you run a Google search on Chaplin, images of The Tramp will dominate the results. By the time of the character’s final appearance in Modern Times he was a fully fleshed out representation of Chaplin’s comedic presence, entrepreneurial rebelliousness, tireless resilience, and carefree spirit.

I first became interested in Chaplin about 5 years ago after seeing the 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. That film served as a much needed time bridge of sorts to connect me with the world in which his films and characters were created. There was something about seeing him portrayed by a recognizable actor, in color, with full sound that prepared my Generation X Series Brain to make the quantum leap backwards a hundred years into the petri dish of cinematic history. The trip was well worth it. His movies are not only interesting because of their place in film history, but their comedic value is timeless and universal. If, like myself, you were weaned on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies then you will find Chaplin’s wordless, visual humor every bit as satisfying as an early Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry cartoon. Moreover, as is the case with Modern Times, if you dig just a little below the surface of his meticulously delivered comedy, there is a rich layer of social commentary to discover and analyze.

If I could briefly attempt to describe The Tramp character (at least in this movie) I would say there are two things that fundamentally define him. The first is the fact that his environment is something that’s actively happening to him. While he does of course interact with other people, the main “dialogue” that’s taking place is between The Tramp and the inanimate objects that are constantly attempting to maul, maim, and kill him—or at least make his life a living Hell. And the second thing that defines him, is his superhuman ability to glide effortlessly through his environment and continually escape impending doom without really trying to do so. When something goes wrong, he just brushes it off and moves on.

In the context of Modern Times, the villainous environment takes on the guise of a greed fueled, over-automated factory line that drives the lovable Tramp insane. After a brief respite in the mental hospital he is released into the street only to be unwittingly swept up by an angry unemployment mob protesting the lack of jobs that has occurred due to factory automation. This gets him arrested as a communist, and lands him in the big house where he accidentally ingests a huge amount of cocaine (nose powder as it’s called here) that less reputable inmates hide in the salt shaker. The cocaine seems to function a lot like Popeye’s “spinach,” and gives him the power to single handedly thwart an attempted prison break, garnering the favor of the guards and warden, and earning him a speedy release. The irony is palpable. He protests his release from prison because it means he has to go back into the uncertainty of trying to find a job and foraging for food. Eventually his escapades land him back in the slammer a couple of more times, but in the process he meets a kindred spirit played by the beautiful Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s real girlfriend at the time). The two of them learn very quickly that they have a much better chance at defeating their environment if they work together. In an immediate sense they fail to do so, but it doesn’t leave them without hope, as they set off down the open road, into the California mountains, arm in arm. They’re kind of like an early 20th century version of Adam and Eve – trying to return to the Garden after doing their time in the dark wilderness of “civilized” society.

The most interesting thing about this film, to me at least, is the subtle parable it contains about machines taking over society and eroding the safety, security, and fundamental rights of human beings. I find it amazing that Chaplin called this sort of thing 82 years ago. It’s not science fiction, but the general theme has been consistently handed down to us in literature and film ever since then. I first encountered it as a young lad through James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies. But this is also the parable of my favorite movie—The Matrix. Even though Chaplin’s malevolent automation was before the time of computers, and before the concept of artificial intelligence, the warning was the same — machines will replace us and harm us if we bow down and worship them, and give them the power to do so.

Modern Times, though generally lighthearted, does carry the weight of this warning in the midst of its warmth and charm. It’s a warning that deserves a much louder echo than we can hear in the midst of our modern times today, when we’ve already sold so much of ourselves to technology’s indifferent grasp.

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night

Well, guess what? This week I watched a movie. I know, I know, this is unbelievable news. I don’t know how, but it just happened one night… after dinner.

Sorry for the lame joke. That was just a warm up paragraph. It’s good to do a quick warm up before writing something. It’s especially important if you haven’t written for awhile. You don’t want to hamstring your cerebral cortex or have a neurological blowout – which happens all too often these days.

I have, of course, seen a few movies over the past couple of months—just nothing I really felt like writing about—not even the new Star Wars movie. It’s going to be awhile before I get to that one. But this week a friend from my church let me borrow one of his favorite movies on the condition that I write an official review. So I gladly accepted his challenge, and honestly, it was the exact kind of motivation I needed. This movie really surprised me. I admit that I am terribly ignorant of most film history before the 1970s—and anything in black and white has never really been on my radar. I do like Charlie Chaplin, but I only first started watching his films about five years ago. The point is, when Mike (or as I like to think of him – Professor Lunsford) suggested I watch It Happened One Night—a black and white film from 1934—I was interested, but not overly enthused about setting an evening aside to watch it. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was something along the lines of, “how can a movie made so long before I was born have anything interesting to say to me.” I know that’s a ridiculous sentiment, and not something I believe of course. Any kind of art, especially good art, transcends generational boundaries. But this was personal… this involved setting down a good book, and not picking up the XBOX controller for an evening with those two old folks that go by the names Monochrome and Monotone.

Well I’m glad I spent some time with them because this ended up being the most transfixing film I’ve seen in a good long while. I don’t think I physically moved an inch the entire time, and yet it moved me emotionally so far beyond myself that by the end I was left with nothing but a face full of tears and a confused dog trying to console me. Although, to be fair, he might have just been angling for the Pringles can that was also occupying the couch with us.

I’m not sure how far back the film genre of Romantic Comedy goes, but given its age, this must be one of the originals. And I don’t want to be that old fart decrying the supremacy of things from the past – especially since this was only my first real foray into the ancient chronicles of movie history – but this story puts the rom coms of today to complete shame. It’s pure and it’s beautiful in ways that are difficult to find in the films of our time. Moreover, It Happened One Night was the first film to win in all five major Academy Awards categories, and one of only three to ever do so in 89 years. In other words, this film really cuts the mustard.

As in all the best stories, the characters in this romance are archetypal and cross generational – like in Beauty and the Beast. It’s about a strong, independent woman meeting a stubborn, independent man, and the two of them breaking each other into interdependence.  Those are the baseline ingredients for the tale as old as time… as far as I can tell. I don’t know if that’s how it always works in real life, but in the movies it translates to gold if portrayed well.

This movie is also really fun. It’s a love story disguised as a comedy, disguised as a road trip. Without giving away all the details (because I really hope you’ll watch this movie yourself) Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are just two strangers who happen to end up traveling in the same direction together long enough to realize they need each other, struggling with the vulnerability that realization creates in them, and then going through the process of dealing with the reality that they have to do whatever it takes to stay by each other’s side. And then… they have to deal with the mess that this creates in the lives of the people around them—because without a mess (and there’s always a mess), the story isn’t nearly as interesting.

One of the things that’s mesmerizing to me is how interesting and moving this story is while remaining firmly clothed in the garment of a time that has long since passed away, in an America that no longer exists. While it might have an element of the classic fantasy love story, it also has something real about it that many films in this genre do not have today. There’s something noble and innocent about it that’s hard to describe. For instance, Gable’s character actually cares enough about the woman he’s falling in love with not to dishonor her, take advantage of her, or make her uncomfortable – even if conducting himself this way means he might lose the chance to be with her. Likewise, there’s something graceful yet dignified about Colbert that inherently repels the need for her to appear over-sexualized or naked (although she does show some risqué calf muscle during the hitchhiking scene). I know this movie was made long before that kind of stuff began showing up in movies, but the best Romance films don’t need the nudity and the sex, as this movie proves. The films of today struggle to portray this kind of attraction between people without resorting to the cheap crudity of a sex scene. I guess it has become old fashioned (it probably became old fashioned a long time ago) to cling to the notion that truly falling in love is about two hearts touching each other long before it’s about two bodies coming together. And real intimacy is about harmonization rather than sex.

Lastly, and most importantly, with all of the many differences between them, the one primary value that the couple in this movie share with each other is that of integrity — it’s the thing that defines both of them, drives their actions, seals their love for each other, and ultimately, “brings down the walls of Jericho.” This film got it right. It celebrates integrity from beginning to end. And if you watch this, and think to yourself how peculiar it seems to be… that’s because this kind of integrity is scarce in our society.  What else can I say… It’s an elegant story, for a more civilized age.