Retro Daddy

The Past Isn't Over - It Isn't Even Past
Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 20, 2008 11:44PM

Memo to Barack: Watch Old Movies

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The Compromiser or the Idealist: Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


The story goes that someone came to movie producer Jack Warner with the idea for a movie where Ronald Reagan plays the president of the United States. “No, no,” Warner said. “Jimmy Stewart for president. Ronald Reagan for best friend.”


Barack Obama is the kind of politician a filmmaker like Frank Capra would have made a movie about. In fact he did, in 1939—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The only question is who played Obama's part in that movie? Was it Jimmy Stewart as the newly appointed Senator Jefferson Smith (“the greatest American we got” according to a worshipful young boy) or Claude Rains as the corrupt Senator Joseph Paine (the “Silver Knight” of the Senate)?


mr smith frank capra

American Idealist: Movie Director Frank Capra


The conflict in this film, like the recent conflict about whether evangelical preacher Rick Warren should speak at Obama's inauguration, is about compromise. Should Obama reject what many of his supporters consider Warren's hateful ideas about gays and lesbians, or should he be “inclusive” and, by allowing Warren to speak, embrace fundamentalist Christians?


The point of the Jack Warner story was to mock Reagan after he'd already become president, but it does say something about the way people thought of Jimmy Stewart in the the 1930s and 1940s. On the screen at that time Jimmy Stewart was earnest, truthful, heroic. This was before Alfred Hitchcock showed us Stewart's psychosexual dark side in Rope, Rear Window, and Vertigo.


But in the 1930s Jimmy Stewart was a romantic lead and Everyman hero like Jefferson Smith, the character he played in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Smith is the leader of the Boy Rangers, an organization like the Boy Scouts. Thanks to fantastic plot turns Smith gets appointed to the United States Senate when the incumbent croaks.

mr smith silver knight

Claude Rains as the Silver Knight of the Senate


But Claude Rains plays the most interesting character in the movie, longtime Senator Joseph Paine. Paine is a politician who's learned to compromise (which means take orders from Jim Taylor, the boss of the state political machine).


Taylor wants the Senate to pass a bill authorizing a dam in his state that will make him and his cronies a lot of money; Mr. Smith wants to put a “national boys camp” where the dam is to be located. After Taylor threatens to destroy him if he fights against the dam, Smith launches a filibuster in the Senate, standing up for his right to free speech.

mr smith book

 Words Are Meaningless Without Human Rights


Senator Paine used to fight for “lost causes” with Jeff Smith's father, a crusading newspaperman who was murdered—you wonder if it was on Taylor's orders. Paine tells Jeff, “You're fighting windmills . . . . You've been living in a boy's world, but it's a man's world.”



In his new book, “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, film critic David Thomson says:


“Jeff's grievance is that Washington has become a place of compromise. . . . Washington is about the deals, the compromises, and the bargaining over such things . . . practical democracy believes in compromise staying fair to the ideals [italics mine]. It does not hold by the shrill teary idealism that makes Smith not just naïve, but a step toward fascism. . . . Sentimentality leads to fascism quicker than compromise.”



I think Thomson is being too hard on Capra in this movie. If people in real life don't live up to the ideals of fictional heroes, I'm not sure the fictional characters deserve the blame. But there are a lot of fascist-looking images in the film. The uniformed Boy Rangers in the Senate gallery, screaming approval of their hero, forcing the senators to join in the applause. The buttons the senate pages wear in their lapels to show they are part of their “Youth Leader's” Movement.

mr smith boy ranger

Senate Page Displays His Boy Ranger Pin


Fascism is almost another character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The movie was made in 1939; everyone knew the world was heading toward war. (Why else make a movie that was a hymn to America's idea of itself—true or not—as the kind of democracy that communism and fascism said was a failure?)


When Jefferson Smith's filibuster gets nationwide and worldwide attention, a radio announcer tells his listeners that representatives of the world's dictatorships are in the Senate gallery, observing how democracy works, getting an example of what is not available in their own countries.


What David Thomson called “compromise staying fair to the ideals” is important. There are lessons here for us, and for President-elect Obama. You should compromise, but only so far. When Obama allows someone like Warren to speak at his inauguration, is he betraying the ideals that people thought he had when they voted for him?

mr smith no hope

No Hope?


At the end of his filibuster, the hoarse and exhausted Senator Jefferson Smith reads the Declaration of Independence to the captive senators. Then he says you can't make a country founded on those ideals work “unless you get men who've learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose.”


Frank Capra and the people who made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington weren't referring to same-sex marriage as one of those “human rights,” but many people do now. And a lot of them voted for Obama.


Obama has said, in trying to explain Warren's appearance at the inauguration, that Warren invited him to speak at Warren's church. Warren can do what he wants in his church. But I'm not sure Obama realizes that the inauguration isn't his alone. It belongs also to everyone who voted for him because he said, “We're a better country than the last eight years.”


When he's at his lowest point, Jeff Smith goes to the Lincoln Memorial and is found by Saunders (Jean Arthur), the woman who loves him. Jeff is beaten down by the hypocrisy of “the words and the monuments and the whole rotten show.”


The question is, did Obama mean what he said or is he just part of the whole rotten show?

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How interesting that both of us were thinking and writing about this topic at almost the same time tonight! I won't go into my somewhat different viewpoint here but you can read what I had to say about it in my post if you wish.

Let me just comment on the refreshing and original analogy you are drawing about common sentiment and expression through the mass media back when Mr. Smith...was produced and now. I found it a fascinating read and appreciate the questions you raise. I'd be very interested in any comment you might have to make if you read my post.

There's been a lot of talk and debate and many honestly divergent feelings aroused by this choice for an Inauguration speaker and you make a valid point about how it's a bigger symbolic stage upon which Warren has been invited to stand. This may be one of those gray areas where good citizens disagree on how they respond to a move by elected leaders. I hope the debate stays open and interesting!
This is a very thoughtful piece. This was the first thing Obama has done that both disappointed and surprised me. Finding a common ground, compromising, choosing battles, appointing Republicans to political positions in order to break the gridlock and get things done is refreshing and one of the things I love about Obama. However, choosing someone with these social views, views that are so antithetical to Democratic and democratic values, to administer the oath of office is not acceptable. Warren could be the 2nd preacher on the stage and make a speech. Obama has severely sacrificed his moral principles (at least what I thought were his moral principals) to pander to the right with this choice.
Thank you all for taking the time to comment.

Feathered - Thanks for the tip-off to your post. In the movie, you could tell from the way Sen. Paine tried to justify his actions to Sen. Smith that he started out in politics trying to do good. And he made a good case that sometimes you do have to compromise. So will Obama. From now on, every time Obama makes a decision he will alienate part of his constituency.

Stellaa - You put it succinctly: "they voted for Claude Rains and thought they were voting for Stewart." I think sometimes we vote for the candidate we imagine, not the one in front of us.

MB - On this issue I think you're right. Was it Tallyrand who said, "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake"?
Stellaa - Thanks for the encouragement. I have thought about that and I will do it.