AFI #26: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Well, if you’ve been following along with my silly trek through the AFI top 100 you know by now that I have a low tolerance for “classic” films that just don’t hold up. So it should come as no surprise that on this, my first-ever screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was unimpressed. Sacrilege you say? Poppy-cock I say. This film is a sappy, ridiculous mess that has a much better reputation than it deserves. And I love James Stewart. I just don’t care for Frank Capra (with the exception of It Happened One Night).

I don’t simply dislike classic films, so you can’t blame this on that. In fact, several of my personal favorites are old — Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story to name a couple. Those films are great because they are great films with incredible acting and brilliant dialogue that stands the test of time. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just plain dumb. And by the way, the ending is the most ridiculous part. Spoiler alert: the so-called “happy” ending takes place only because Senator Paine ( Claude Rains) comes clean at the end. There was not going to be any redemption for the feeble Mr. Smith — he was going to lose his bid to show the world that politics is evil — until Sen. Paine decides, for some unknown reason, to throw himself on the mercy of congress in a ludicrous confession. Where’s the moral in that? Mr. Smith goes to Washington and fails to blow the lid off corruption. Some plot.

011809mrsmithI will give credit where credit is due though. Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders was wonderful as the sassy but ultimately helpful secretary to Mr. Smith. Ironically, of the three Oscar nominations for acting that the film received she was not among the honored. But despite her great performance her character does have a major flaw — she falls for the idiotic Mr. Smith even though his naiveté about politics (and life for that matter) is obvious. She’s be better off marrying the unattractive but intellectually equal Diz Moore. This film was all wrong.

I would like to say there was at least one memorable line wrapped up in Mr. Smith’s long-winded diatribe in congress:

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”

That’s a nice bit of writing, but it’s alone in an otherwise dull script. And of course the sentiment is as true today as it was in 1939, and probably 1839 and 1776 as well. Guess I’m a pessimist, but the more things change the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to politics.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — so many films you think you love from their reputation just don’t hold up when you see them again with a critical eye. Just because something is old does not make it classic.

Next on the list: To Kill a Mockingbird

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AFI #27: High Noon

imagesThis afternoon I screened High Noon, a film I had never seen before but that I suspected was one of the greatest westerns of all time based on reputation and its high ranking on the AFI list. Boy was I surprised. It’s not a western in the tradition of True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma or Butch Cassidy, but rather it’s a story about one man’s commitment to doing what he thinks is right despite what everyone else thinks and the fact that it takes place in the West is fairly irrelevant. I have to admit that I didn’t really care much for the film, but I was intrigued enough about why it was so critically acclaimed that I had to do some research and I found out some interesting things that changed my opinion — slightly.

To begin, the film was made during the height of the red scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, was a former Communist and when he was called before HUAC he would not name names and was blacklisted. It is said that High Noon is about standing up for what is right even when everyone else does nothing, which is exactly what happens in the film when nobody in the town is willing to help Marshal Kane (Gary Cooper) even though he was responsible for cleaning up the town in the first place. Kane’s new wife, a quaker, initially leaves her new husband because he wouldn’t run away but then goes against her religion and helps her husband, even killing one of the bad guys. Is this Foreman making a statement about religion? 🙂

What makes the film even more interesting to me is that John Wayne hated it. In fact, he said it was the most un-American film ever made. Considering Wayne was a racist and someone who agreed with what HUAC was doing I guess that makes me a fan of High Noon. Lord knows I love a good liberal cause! Strangely, the film is listed as a favorite by both Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower.

High Noon was nominated for Best Picture but did not win. Cooper won for Best Actor, though in my mind he didn’t really do much so it must have been a bad year for actors!

Next: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington