Monday, September 27, 2010

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In an age when radio talk shows, all-news cable networks and seemingly infinite arrays of internet websites offer round-the-clock reports of thievery, adultery and brazen stupidity on the part of politicians, it may be well-nigh impossible to believe there ever was a time when Americans were less cynical, and more respectful, in their views of elected officials.

Indeed, as far back as 1939, when filmmaker Frank Capra unveiled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, American voters already were accustomed to logrolling and pork-barreling as instinctive behavior of political animals. But the transition from healthy skepticism to deep-rooted distrust -- or profound disgust -- on the part of the electorate is a relatively recent phenomenon. Capra’s classic comedy about virtue triumphant (though just barely) over Washington corruption is throwback to the days when most people still wanted to believe that public servants really served the republic.

Jefferson Smith, the soft-spoken but steel-spined hero stirringly played by James Stewart, is a small-town do-gooder. He heads the local branch of a Boy Scouts-type organization, quotes Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln at exhaustive length and, evidently, thinks his best gal pal is his dear old mom.

(A random thought: Can you imagine the contortions that contemporary screenwriters would go through to immediately indicate that this bachelor scoutmaster isn’t really – well, you know, gay?)

In short, Jeff is such a starry-eyed naïf that he seems a perfect choice to serve as “honorary stooge” when one of his state’s U.S. Senators dies. Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a robustly venal string-puller, voices a few doubts about appointing this “big-eyed patriot” to serve the remaining two months of the late legislator’s term. But the state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a silver-haired paragon of faux virtue, insists that he’ll be able to keep the “simpleton” in line. Yeah, right.

Initially, Jeff appears every bit as green and gawky as his handlers hoped. As soon as he reaches Washington, D.C., he slips away on his own, to take a bus tour of the nation’s capital. (Cynics often point to this sequence – a shamelessly sentimental and spirit-pumping montage of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and similarly impressive icons – as representing the worst excesses of what detractors label as “Capra-corn.” In his defense, Capra claimed that when he first took the Washington tour, he felt the same rush of excitement – “I got a bad case of goose pimples!” – that inflames Jeff Smith.) Later, while Jeff is being tutored by his cynical secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), the dewy-eyed newcomer decides he should pay a visit to Mount Vernon, for inspiration, before his first day of duties in the Senate.

It doesn’t take long, however, before Jeff gets wise to the ways of Washington. Our hero is horrified to discover that Senator Paine – a long-time family friend who knew Jeff’s late father, a crusading newspaper editor – is part of a plot to procure federal funding for a dam on property purchased by Taylor and other scalawags. Worse, when he tries to expose the dirty dealing, Jeff is framed as a corrupt hypocrite by Senator Paine himself. But don’t worry: Jeff may have a few dark moments of doubt, but he ultimately rises to the occasion. In the movie’s most famous sequence, he defends himself – along with truth, justice and the American way – in a passionate filibuster that he sustains at great cost to his health and reputation. Gravely conscience-stricken, Senator Paine eventually admits his chicanery on the Senator floor, instantly vindicating Jeff.

As Woody Allen once said in an entirely different context: “If only life were like this!”

Viewed today by jaded audiences, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington might seem quaintly timid in its treatment of money-grubbing politicos, hard-drinking reporters and well-heeled power brokers. In 1939, however, many members of the political establishment loudly decried the movie as scurrilous libel. Washington reporters were enraged by Capra’s depiction of the Washington press corps as boozy and irresponsible. (Thomas Mitchell plays the booziest of the lot, and very nearly steals the picture.) The hostile response to a preview screening in Washington, D.C. remains the stuff of Hollywood legend. Joseph P. Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to London, reportedly went so far as pressing Columbia not to release Mr. Smith in Europe, lest American prestige be undermined just as Adolf Hitler was making such a nuisance of himself.

The delicious irony is, Capra didn’t realize what a subversive piece of work he had concocted until long after the cameras stopped rolling. As he explained in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra intended Mr. Smith as a valentine to American democracy, a heartfelt tribute to a form of government that guaranteed a single, right-thinking individual had the opportunity to stand up and be counted. Propelled by the kind of foursquare, flag-waving patriotism that perhaps only an appreciative immigrant wouldn’t deem extreme, Capra – a Sicilian native who reached U.S. shores at the age of six – wanted his small-town hero to represent all that was noble, honest and idealistic about America and Americans.

(It’s worth noting that, unlike many other indie filmmakers – including some who profess to be deeply influenced by the late, great John Cassavetes – Cassavetes himself refused to sneer at the idealist who made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “Frank Capra,” proclaimed Cassavetes, one of the founding fathers of American indie cinema, “is the greatest filmmaker that ever lived. Capra created a feeling of belief in a free country and in goodness in bad people… Idealism is not sentimental. It validates a hope for the future. Capra gave me hope, and in turn I wish to extend a sense of hope to my audiences.”)

Decades later, many Americans continue to view Jefferson Smith as the kind of elected official they’d like to have. In fact, politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton and the late Sonny Bono have cited Mr. Smith as a major influence on their decision to run for office. Trouble is, most Americans also recognize Senator Paine as the kind of elected official they usually have to settle for.

42nd Street (1933)

Here they are, ladies and gents: Lads and lassies, sassy and brassy, singing and swaying as Broadway sensations of 1933 while they tap-tap-tap their way into your hearts.

There’s Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the delightful diva who juggles a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee) and a hunky hoofer (George Brent) while celebrating her own superstardom. There’s Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), an all-American “juvenile” who’s catnip to ladies of all ages. There’s Ann Lowell (Ginger Rogers), a chorus girl with an eye for the boys and a naughty nickname – Anytime Annie – she’s bent over backwards to earn. There’s Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a starry-eyed novice who’s ever-so-excited to be just another pretty face (and a pair of flashy gams) in the background of the big show.

And folks, we’re talking a really, really big show: The latest and greatest produced and directed by Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), the living legend who’s fading fast, who’s determined to score once last triumph before he takes his final bow. Always the most demanding of taskmasters, Marsh is even more unforgivingly ferocious than usual as he hand-picks his cast, nitpicks his material – “Sure, I liked that number! I liked it in 1905! What do you think we’re putting on, a revival?” – and rants and raves through rehearsals that push everyone, including Marsh, to egregious extremes.

Through sheer force of will, Marsh bends everyone and everything to his design. Even when fate tosses him a nasty curve – Dorothy breaks her ankle just before opening night – he barely slows his breakneck progress. Left without a suitable star, he simply plucks a replacement from the chorus: Peggy, the fresh-faced first-timer. Is she nervous? Sure. Is she game? You bet. But just to make sure she’s fully aware that it’s not just a show she is shouldering – after all, there is a Great Depression going on -- Marsh shoves her toward the spotlight with a last-minute pep talk:

“Miss Sawyer, you listen to me… and you listen hard! Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you! It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you! You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give! They’ve got to like you – got to! You understand? You can’t fall down, you can’t! Because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you! All right now, I’m through! But you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours! And Sawyer – you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”


Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street, the exuberantly campy classic in which chorus girls become overnight sensations and Broadway extravaganzas are literally matters of life or death, is widely viewed as the mother of all backstage musicals, as well as the lexicon containing every cliché of the genre. As such, it’s an easy target for cynics and satirists. But it’s quite capable of raising your spirit and touching your heart if you give it half a chance, because even the moldiest clichés can be surprisingly potent when you confront them in their original context. To put it another way: The characters here are so intensely sincere, even when they’re well aware of how silly they might seem, that it’s almost inconceivably cruel not to take them seriously.

To be sure, audiences of the 1930s were inclined to take 42nd Street very seriously indeed. As Martin Scorsese perceptively notes in his Personal Journey Through American Movies, the rise of the musical paralleled that of the gangster melodrama in early ’30s cinema. And just as dire economic conditions and widespread unemployment often figured into the motives of movie mobsters, Scorsese writes, “The harshness of the times, the Depression, colored this most escapist of film genres… In those times, if one showed any ambition, one either became a gangster or a showbiz performer – at least in the fantasy world of Warner Bros. Broadway offered a metaphor for a desperate, shattered country. Director or chorus girl, your life depended on the show’s success.”

All of which helps explain why, even during the leanest and meanest years of the Great Depression, movie attendance remained remarkably steady as anxious masses sought Hollywood products that either promised escape from hard realities of the day, or encouraged audiences by reinforcing a sense of solidarity in the face of adversity. To its considerable credit, 42nd Street did both.

Just as important – from a film historian’s view, at least -- 42nd Street did much to define the movie musical as an art form separate and distinct from the stage-bound variety, by introducing an aesthetic of dance conceived for the camera. Like him or loathe him, cheer him or jeer him, dance master Busby Berkeley envisioned a vigorously spectacular form of choreography involving beautifully leggy chorines, machine-like precision, intricate geometric design, surrealistic excess – and, what the hell, as much sexually charged imagery as he could slip past the Production Code bluenoses.

Film historian David Thomson may have said it best: “Berkeley was a lyricist of eroticism, the high-angle shot and the moving camera; he made it explicit that when the camera moves it has the thrust of the sexual act with it. It is only remarkable that some viewers smile on what they consider the ‘period charm’ of such libertinage.”

In the final third of 42nd Street – and even more so throughout Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 and other films that employed him as choreographer and/or director – Berkeley devised elaborate musical sequences that could never be contained in a Broadway production. Nor could they ever appear as impressive on the Great White Way as they do in one of Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots. The grand and glorious irony of Berkeley’s career is that he brought to backstage musicals the type of spectacle that could never be replicated on stage. (No, not even in the popular Broadway musical adapted from the 1933 film.) By doing that, he earned a place of honor in the pantheon of those visionaries who helped establish the wondrous ways that movies move.

Of course, critics don’t always appreciate, or even understand, revolutionary innovation. Consider this snippy pan of 42nd Street, written by an uncredited (and, apparently, unqualified) movie critic for the March 18, 1933 edition of Newsweek: “Busby Berkeley, the dance director, has gone to a lot of ineffectual bother about his intricate formations, not having been told that masses of chorus girls mean something only in the flesh. His talent is wasted in the films.” Yeah, right.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

City Lights (1931)

There may be folks who can remain dry-eyed and hard-hearted during the final moments of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, but take care: Anyone that cynical shouldn’t be entirely trusted.

Chaplin’s silent masterworks, one-reelers and features alike, are continually rediscovered by new generations, and recognized as timeless classics by adoring audiences and fellow filmmakers. (“For me,” Francois Truffaut famously enthused, “they are the most beautiful films in the world. Chaplin means more to me than the idea of God.”) To be sure, Chaplin’s relatively few talking pictures -- especially Limelight (1952) and The Great Dictator (1940) -- also inspire admiration and affection. But his pre-talkie efforts are the wonderments that guarantee his immortality, that ensure his very name will forever serve as an adjective for any attempt, successful or otherwise, to mix pratfalling and heart-tugging in a crowd-pleasing comedy.

The Kid (1921) may be more aggressively sentimental, and The Gold Rush (1925) perhaps is more commonly acclaimed as his magnum opus, but City Lights (1931) is by far the most Chaplinesque of all Chaplin movies, being an absolutely magical commingling of graceful pantomime, knockabout tomfoolery, inspired silliness and – perhaps most important – profoundly affecting poignancy. It’s also, not incidentally, a project Chaplin insisted on shooting as a silent movie long after talking pictures had become the accepted norm.

City Lights begins, of course, with Chaplin cleverly introduced in his familiar role as The Little Tramp, the elegantly mustached gentleman whose shabby attire (derby hat, frock coat, baggy trousers, outsized shoes) is offset by his courtly manner and cane-twirling, hat-tipping panache. And it proceeds with the sort of seemingly improvised but intricately choreographed funny business that many comic actors still emulate. (Check out his classic bits in a raucous nightclub and a high-society party.) In the closing scenes, however, City Lights gradually builds to an epiphany of sweetly painful pathos, leading to a final, indelible image of a man smiling with hopeless longing at a woman whose love he fears he could never – not now, not in a million lifetimes – deserve.

Throughout much of City Lights, Chaplin maintains a lighter and mood, even as The Little Tramp – a.k.a. Charlie -- is repeatedly abused or embarrassed. (Chaplin customarily billed himself as Charles Chaplin for his writing and directorial credits, but always stuck with Charlie to identify himself as star of the show.) When a blind flower girl (Virginia Merrill) naively assumes he is a free-spending dandy, Charlie is so smitten that he resorts to drastic measures -- including, most hilariously, his participation in a boxing match -- to earn enough money to sustain the mistaken identity.

Periodically, Charlie enjoys an evening’s revelry with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who drinks to steadily increasing excess in the wake of his wife’s departure. Whenever the millionaire sobers up, however, he never recognizes Charlie as his boon companion from the night before. His selective memory proves to be awfully inconvenient for Charlie: After giving the Little Tramp enough money for the flower girl to have an operation that will restore her eyesight, the millionaire forgets all about his generosity. Which, unfortunately, leads to Charlie’s arrest and imprisonment.

After his release, Charlie looks even more bedraggled and destitute than he does in the opening scenes. The good news is, the flower girl, who has opened a flower shop, can now see. The bad news is – well, she can now see him.

“She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her,” critic James Agee wrote in 1949. “And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

The final image of Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s melancholy romantic comedy, is a loving homage to the heart-wrenching finale of City Lights. It’s to Allen’s considerable credit that his version is almost as affecting as Chaplin’s original, which Allen admits he carefully studied. “City Lights was funny and also tragic,” Allen told The New York Times in 2000. “Some think it’s sentimental, but to me, it’s an honest film about love.” For all his careful appraisal of Chaplin’s works, Allen says he still can’t fully deconstruct the magic of the master: “I don't believe Chaplin was aware of creating a new vocabulary for film comedy. He just happened to be that gifted, that superb. Very few have taken that extreme leap into a realm that is indefinable and unexplainable.”

The General (1926)

An internationally acclaimed auteur follows the biggest hit of his career with a budget-busting action-comedy epic. The production values are prodigious – a single sight gag requires one of the most expensive single shots in movie history – and the death-defying stunt work is spectacular.

But the critical response is scathing. Variety bluntly blasts the production as “a flop.” Life magazine condemns the cringe-inducing mix of comedy and carnage. The New York Times huffily complains that the director “appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.” Negative buzz abounds, unfavorable word of mouth spreads. Despite the marquee allure of the above-the-title star, audiences stay away in droves.

Sound familiar? It could be the story of 1941, or Last Action Hero. But the embarrassing under-achievements of those box-office duds are fairly inconsequential when viewed in the big picture of Hollywood history. Buster Keaton’s The General, arguably the first action-comedy epic, merits special consideration as a far more significant “failure.”

Today, Keaton’s dauntingly ambitious and remarkably accomplished 1927 comedy is universally recognized as one of the enduring classics of the silent era. Indeed, many critics and academics insist The General is one of the greatest movies ever made in any period. Back in the 1920s, however, it was such a resounding flop that Keaton’s career was forever blighted by its long shadow.

To be sure, Keaton remained active -- most often as an actor, sometimes as a director or uncredited writer -- in features and shorts until his death in 1966. He appeared as a befuddled time-traveler in a memorable Twilight Zone segment, displayed remarkable dignity (and undiminished comic verve) in such teen-skewing trifles as Pajama Party (1964) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and gave a poignantly funny final performance in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). But he never again enjoyed the artistic freedom and financial wherewithal he was granted when he made The General.

Even in his heyday, Keaton often found himself on the wrong end of unflattering comparisons to a more celebrated contemporary, Charlie Chaplin. Viewed in retrospect, however, the dissimilarities between the two comic greats are more pronounced. As critic Andrew Sarris astutely noted in The American Cinema, “The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things...”

To put it another way: While Chaplin often risks everything, even his life, while soaring on flights of dream-stoked fancy, Keaton customarily remains more earthbound, doggedly ignoring the chaos around him while obsessively focused on purely practical matters. Chaplin romanticizes women as luminous mysteries to be worshipped; Keaton expects a woman to pull her weight even after he falls in love with her. (At one point in The General, his character is so exasperated by the clueless klutziness of his lady love that he very nearly strangles her before opting to kiss her instead.) Whereas Chaplin might be driven batty by his dehumanizing drudgery on a high-speed assembly line (Modern Times), Keaton is more determined to impose control over troublesome technology, likely through sheer force of will.

Consider one of the many unforgettable moments in The General, the Civil War saga of a Confederate engineer’s misadventures while trying to retrieve a wood-burning locomotive hijacked by Union spies. (The title refers to the locomotive, not a military officer.) As Johnnie Gray, the improbably and imperturbably heroic Southerner, Keaton is so busy chopping wood to keep his engine running while pursuing his stolen General, he remains totally oblivious as his train passes retreating Confederate forces, then an advancing Union army. His absurdly disproportionate attentiveness to detail is not unlike that of the bomber crewman in Dr. Strangelove who fastidiously corrects a log error while en route to the dawning of doomsday.

Throughout The General, Keaton lives up to his nickname as The Great Stone Face, making only the most minute adjustments to his expression to signal shifts between amusement (rare) and befuddlement (frequent), despair (he volunteers for the Confederate army, but is rejected because of his value as an engineer) and exultation (he proves his heroism to the Southern belle who once thought him a coward). Just as important, Keaton also illustrates the contradiction – the hilarious dichotomy between stillness of form and fluidity of movement – that is his hallmark as a comic artist.

After the enormous success of his Battling Butler (1926), a relatively slight farce about a faux boxer, Keaton co-wrote and co-directed The General (with Clyde Bruckman) as another star vehicle. Even so, the latter movie’s notoriously expensive sight gag (estimated cost: $42,000) is keyed to the flabbergasted response of a minor supporting character, a Union commander who watches helplessly while a train falls through a burning bridge and into a river far below. Keaton used a real bridge, a real river – and, yes, a real locomotive. Back in 1927, such excessive spectacle in a comedy struck many critics and audiences as bewildering, if not downright unseemly.

Viewers of the era were even more upset by the outrageously dark comedy of a scene in which Keaton fails to notice while his Confederate comrades are felled by a Union sniper. Just in the nick of time, our hero saves himself simply by waving his sword. The loosened blade flies off the handle, and plunges into the enemy marksman.

Mind you, we don’t see the moment of impalement, just a brief glimpse of the dead sniper. But that was too much for most folks in the 1920s. Critic Robert E. Sherwood complained in Life magazine: “Someone should have told Buster that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle. Many of his gags at the end of (The General) are in such gruesomely bad taste that the sympathetic spectator is inclined to look the other way.” Time passes, tastes change: In 2000, when the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 funniest movies ever made, The General ranked higher – No. 18 – than any other silent comedy on the list.

Buster Keaton was far ahead of time, which is why he remains immortal.