Monday, January 14, 2008


I guess I need to admit that, even though I like Frank Capra, I'm not a fan of his MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON--Capra's do-good populism is allowed full sappy reign and Stewart, usually letter perfect in his 30's and 40's movies, goes overboard with the hoarse voice in his famous filibuster scene. I bring this up because this movie seems like it must have inspired MR. SMITH to some degree, even to a scene with the hero ruminating in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and the same sappiness and simplistic populism used in Capra's movie in the service of criticizing Washington lawmakers goes awry here. Even worse, instead of the likeable Stewart, here the unlikable and shrill Lee Tracy plays the hero, a man named Button Gwinett Brown, related to a signer of the Declaration of Independence--we're told that Tracy's blood "is bluer than one of Sophie Tucker's songs." Tracy, newly elected to Congress, comes to town prepared to fight waste and corruption and he's taken under the wing of Frank Sheridan, who secretly works for Alan Dinehart, a bad-guy lobbyist who is also a bootlegger and who seems to have half of Congress under his thumb. Wallis Clark, head of the Prohibition Department, threatens to resign and expose Dinehart until he is reminded that Dinehart has enough dirt on Clark to send him to jail, and Clark promptly kills himself with a gun provided by Dinehart. (This is actually the best scene in the movie; it's mostly downhill from here.) Tracy gets involved with the Bonus Army, a group of WWI veterans agitating for benefits due them, and makes his first mark in Congress by fighting a boondoggle bill which would allocate millions of dollars to build a memorial to a person no one has heard of. He succeeds in stopping the bill but is told that he made an ass of himself before his colleagues. Sheridan, under orders from Dinehart, starts a recall to get Tracy out of office, but with the help of good-guy senator Walter Connolly, his daughter (Constance Cummings), and the men of the Bonus Army, Tracy amasses evidence of wrongdoing against Dinehart, who is eventually put in the same fatal situation in which he put Clark earlier.

Movies are often political, but the subject of politics rarely makes for compelling cinema. This film seems to come down hard on Congressional politics, but it pulls its punches in the name of fairness, and winds up wanting to have it both ways by insisting on one hand that most lawmakers are crooked and lazy, but on the other hand that most lawmakers are good people at heart. The mechanics of the plot are hard to follow because so much of the corruption is left vague in content, but the scenes involving the veterans group are good and Dinehart makes an excellent bad guy. Tracy is not very inspiring, though Cummings and Connolly are OK. The film uses the title of a best-selling muckraking book of the time (and later a newspaper column) by Drew Pearson but the screenplay was based on an original story by Maxwell Anderson. I was pleased to see this film because it's been hard to come by, but I can't really urge others to hunt it down. [TCM]

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