Classic Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


Title: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Release Date: October 17, 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

When I watched this movie as a child, I was gobsmacked by the depiction of rank corruption in the government. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about political corruption throughout US history, I just didn’t expect it in an old Hollywood film. For all the criticism of Frank Capra of making sentimental “Capra-corn,” this movie is cynical and dark. I mean they show flunkies of a political machine attacking children and driving them off a road, fer chrissakes!

The story begins with the death of a senator from a unnamed party in an unnamed state (Capra is very careful never to mention either of these things, ignoring the specific people and places where corruption thrived giving this movie an unfortunate “bothsiderism” undertone). The governor (Guy Kibbee) is torn between selecting a replacement suggested by his party’s political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) or a reform candidate suggested by citizens’ committees. His sons convince him to instead nominate a popular scouting leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). Since the appointment is only for a few months, everyone believes that the noble but naïve Smith will keep his mouth shut and just occupy the seat for a short time.

Stewart does a great job of portraying Smith, at first awed by the symbolism of Washington DC and the majesty of the Senate. Smith’s mentor and the senior senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) advises Smith to work on some small legislation to keep him busy. Despite Paine’s public persona as honest man, he’s working for Taylor’s machine, and wants to keep Smith from learning about a bill which contains a dam-building graft scheme.

Smith works with his world-weary and cynical assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) who teaches him how the sausage is made in the Senate while at the same time his optimism begins to rub off on her. Unfortunately, Smith’s bill for a national boys’ camp uses the same land as dam project. To cover their tracks, Paine and the Taylor machine frame Smith for corruption. Which leads to the final act, the famous and dramatic filibuster in the Senate.

This movie is considered inspirational, although I find it uninspiring that Smith only succeeds because he is able to make Paine feel shame, and then Paine makes a full confession. After all, Senators today won’t even apologize for mistakes they’ve made in the past, much less admit to corruption. In the past four years we’ve seen members of the Senate choosing to look the other way in full knowledge of corruption and crimes that affect the very heart of our democracy and the lives of millions of people. So I don’t believe that standing against corruption like Smith will change the hearts of the wicked, but I do believe it is correct to stand for America’s best ideals and what is best for the country, nonetheless.

This movie features some terrific acting, especially from Stewart, Raines, and Arthur. I particularly like the depiction of Saunders as an intelligent and independent woman within the government, something else you don’t expect to see in a movie from the 1930s. I also like Capra’s direction and some of the subtle choices he made to undergird his theme. For example, when Smith is reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, an elderly Black man (possibly born in slavery) is seen in the background.

This is definitely one of the great films of all-time and one that remains relevant to our times.


Rating: ****1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)


Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.


Rating: ****

Photopost: Washington, D.C., so far…


I’m in Washington, D.C. for the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting. I didn’t have room to pack my good camera but I thought I’d share some smartphone photos.

What I’ve done so far:

  • Arrived for the Archive-It Partner Meeting held in the Conservation Pavilion at the National Zoo! I presented, thus fulfilling my childhood dream of working in a zoo, at least for 15 minutes.
  • While at the zoo, I visited with the Great Pandas, Cheetahs, Gorillas, Orangutans, Tigers, Lions, and my favorite, North American River Otters.
  • Ate grits with waffles at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop.
  • Visited the National Museum of American History. Highlights include an exhibit on the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and The Nation We Build Together where two character interpreters from the era of the Greensboro Lunch Counter protest recreate nonviolent direct action training with the guests.
  • Took in a D.C. United soccer match at their new stadium with a large and vociferous crowd. Wayne Rooney scored twice in United’s 4-1 win.

Related post: Washington, D.C. (October 2012)

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 7


Podcast of the Week returns!  Here are five podcasts from the past week that I think are worth listening to.

The Memory Palace :: The Taking of Tom Sawyer Island

That time when the counterculture Yippies attempted a hostile takeover of the land.  Disneyland to be specific.  Except only about 200 of them showed and half of them were there for a goof. What a long strange monorail trip it’s been.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: red, white, and brew

Home brewing is a big thing these days, among a stereotypical group of white men, but has a long history in the United States among women, enslaved people, and immigrants.

WBUR The Artery :: Stacks Of Books, But Short On Cash: New England’s Public Libraries Face Funding Troubles

Libraries are used to tightening the belt financially, but in these days of Federal and state cuts they are facing unprecedented struggles.

DecodeDC :: DC History 101, Swamps and Scandals Then and Now

The history of Washington, DC, built on an actual swamp, and how the development of the city reflects the views of the ruling parties over time.

ESPN 30 for 30Yankees Suck

Here’s a new podcast based on ESPN’s successful television sports documentaries.  This episode covers the history of the notorious Red Sox fan chant and how a bunch of hardcore punks made a profitable business out of selling t-shirts emblazoned “Yankees Suck!”  Brings back good memories of late 90s Red Sox games.