2/19/20

1917 is an Absolute Masterpiece


1917 (2019)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Universal Pictures, 119 minutes, R (war violence)
★★★★★



The Friday before the Oscars I confessed I hadn’t seen most of the films up for Best Picture, but it would be okay by me if Parasite won. Irony is often a harsh mistress. Less than 24 hours later, I saw 1917. Parasite is a superb movie, but 1917 is a masterpiece, and I’m talking masterpiece in the sense of being the first English-speaking movie of the 21st century that warrants that label.

Director Sam Mendes’ take on World War One builds upon Peter Jackson’s 2018 restoration They Shall Not Grow Old to give us a look inside the trenches that feels and looks right. I’m sure there are some military uniform and hardware cranks out there who will tell us that Mendes got some minor details wrong, but 1917 is intended to be more metaphorical than historical. It has been many a moon since I have seen on the screen such a powerful depiction of the utter senselessness of war.

On the surface, 1917 is one of the simplest plots imaginable: a race-to-beat-the-clock movie. In April of 1917, aerial reconnaissance revealed that a German withdrawal from their position was a faux retreat, a strategic pullback designed to lure British troops into a deadly trap. This left just 24 hours to get a message to the new front to call off an assault on what is assumed to be a lightly defended German position. More than 1,600 lives depend on a stand-down message getting to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) before the lads go “over the top.” In World War One, that meant summiting their trenches to charge across “no-man’s land” toward the enemy. When barbed wire, mines, machine guns, and heavy artillery were in play, “butchery” would be a more accurate term than “warfare.”

Two men are charged with delivering the message, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), the latter of whom is especially motivated as his brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is a member of a unit in extreme harm’s way. If this sounds like a thriller, be assured it’s nothing that simple. There is neither glory nor honor in a surreal quest that begins by leaving a safe position and finding a path through a no-man’s land filled with blood-drawing wire, burnt out tanks, decaying horses, deep mortar holes, and maggot-ridden corpses. All of that just to jump into rat-filled German trenches presumed to be enemy-free. Survive that, reconnoiter every tree and farm house one encounters, cross a broken-bridged canal whose opposing bank has buildings in which the enemy can hide, make one’s way through a sniper-infested burning town, endure untold other obstacles, and hope to arrive before soldiers rush into the teeth of certain death.

Mendes’ direction is flawless, Lee Smith’s editing is nothing short of brilliant, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography a dazzling array of contrasts between human-made ugliness, natural beauty, darkness, shadowy light, and the utter mundanity of death. Novelist Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried, “It can be argued … that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty…. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope….” If that line baffles, watch the journey through the burning carnage of the northern French village of Écoust-Saint-Mein and you will understand. I also cannot imagine a more perfect ending for the film than the feather with which Mendes knocks us senseless.

Chapman and MacKay are not household names, but Mendes choose them wisely. In keeping with contrasting imagery, he plays the baby-faced Chapman off against the blank-faced MacKay to convey wordlessly themes of innocence and hopefulness versus wrung-out jadedness and amoral resignation. (I would not care to be in a poker match with MacKay!) By avoiding cinematic idols, we see the character within the character rather than fixating on celebrities in uniform. It is all the more effective in reminding us that the tools of war are usually ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. When World War One ended, much of the Western world wrestled with cynicism. What, it was asked, was the point of all the bloodshed and destruction? An old Edwin Starr song answered the question of “War, what is it good for?” Response: “Absolutely nothing.”

Oscar got it wrong once again. I’m sure that Mendes and his crew can take solace in having won most of the other big awards–from American Film Institute honors, critics and producers awards, and the Golden Globes. We the viewers ought to ask hard questions about why the “war to end all wars” was but a prelude to a sanguinary future.

Rob Weir


2/17/20

Lynne Hanson: February 2020 Artist of the Month


Lynne Hanson
Just Words

Jan Hall of Folk Roots Radio dubbed Ottawa-based Lynne Hanson, “Canada’s own queen of Americana.” Wish I had said that! Hanson is my favorite kind of female vocalist: one with a low voice who sings effortlessly and has no need for affected coolness. Just Words, her 7th studio recording, makes it easy to understand why Hanson has won two Canadian Folk Music awards, two Acoustic Project alt-country awards, and raves from all who have heard her.

Ironically, she’s not really a folk or a country artist. You’ll hear those influences in her music, but you’ll also hear splashes of rock and big waves of the blues. Her voice will put you in mind of a blend of artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, and Mary Gauthier. Think Carpenter’s silky controlled contralto, Williams’ toughness, and Gauthier’s sense of detached resignation. Fittingly, “True Blue Moon,” the album’s single release, tells of a romantic dalliance with a poet that the narrator knows cannot last: Forever is for diamonds/And for poets like you/Happy ever lasts as long/As a rainbow in June/I’ve tried to pretend/This story won’t end/But they always do…. If that’s not resignation enough for you, “Lollipops and Roses” implores: When I die won’t you bury me/With lollipops and roses next to me/Cause I’ve been riding this bitter train so long/I’m in need of something sweet….

Hanson knows that good art and pain are a better fit than most of us are comfortable in contemplating. Her “Long Way Home” reflects upon heartbreak’s detritus–loneliness, booze, losing track of time–but is also a veiled commentary on her own 8-year struggle to stay sober. You have to have been kicked around a few times to muse on such things. For-real living is one of many things that makes Just Words a mature album whose highs and lows ring true. “HigherGround” is swampy and bluesy song with a bit of backwoods gospel peeking through the leaves: I’ve been a lover/I’ve been a leaver/I lacked faith/Been a true believer/What I learned/You wanna get to heaven/Gotta take the higher ground. “Every Minute In Between” is a reminder that the lower ground is usually the path for a broken heart. The title track is equally unvarnished–a look at how hard it is for girls to get past paternal and social expectations.

Hanson shines both as a solo artist and as a band animal, and who could not love the name of her frequent ensemble: The Good Intentions?  As a singer, Hanson is the real deal. Watch her carefully in this video for “Clean Slate.” It is, first of all, a memorable mishmash melody of folk, pop, and Americana that exemplifies why it’s hard to categorize her music. More significantly, observe how she moves from verse to chorus. The transition is so seamlessly smooth that it takes a moment to notice the increased power of the latter.  

Call Just Words an album that hurts so good. Use those last two words to describe Lynne Hanson. 

Rob Weir

2/14/20

Mystic, Connecticut: Small Towns


Mystic, Connecticut is home to the Mystic Seaport Museum, a sort of watery version of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It’s a treasure, even if it is a scrubbed and sanitized version of a 19th century seaport town. There’s always something going on there, including a spring sea songs festival.  

Mystic Seaport is so famous that many visitors skip its host town. That’s a mistake. Mystic is actually a village that’s part of the city of Groton. It has a population of just 4,200 but it feels much bigger because it’s surrounded by Groton, New London, Stonington, and other settlements that collectively contain about 275,000 residents. Mystic, though, gets my vote for the most coastal charm. It has 3 historical districts and a thriving downtown. There is also an aquarium, an art museum that’s separate from that of Mystic Seaport, a historic house museum, and a cantilever swing bridge that lots of people photograph. It’s really just an industrial-style arched bridge that’s sort of ugly, but it connects the Groton side of the village with the Stonington side.

Above all, the bridge is a visual reminder of Mystic’s past. The Mystic River–the name is a mishearing of the Pequot word missi-tuk–empties into Long Island Sound. The Seaport Museum may be cleaner than it would have been during the great Age of Sail, but this slice of Connecticut has always looked to the ocean. A sub isn’t a sandwich around these parts. Anytime military budget cuts are discussed, Connecticut politicians mobilize! Groton has a submarine base and is home to General Dynamics/Electric Boat, which builds subs. Both employ a lot of people. In New London you’ll find Pfizer, a firm that practically defines the term “Big Pharma.” New London is also home to the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, an expensive private institution, and a University of Connecticut branch campus whose tuition is roughly two-thirds cheaper.

I mention all of this because they also symbolize the region’s class divide. Like Mystic Seaport, downtown Mystic is gentrified. The outskirts are dotted with the ranch houses and the humbler homes of those who work in the region’s industries, as well as the grand homes of inherited riches and manicured developments filled with McMansions for new-money professionals. The movie Mystic Pizza got that right.

Though it’s easy to bemoan gentrification, those parts of town are nicer places to hang out. Name another village of 4,200 that has 80 shops downtown. They exist (and come and go) largely by offering things hard to find on Amazon. There are untold numbers of gift shops, artisan galleries that encourage browsing if not buying, and numerous specialty shops. Some of the more unusual ones sell Polish pottery, Tibetan goods, marine supplies, spices, and handmade chocolates. My return trip will definitely include a trip to the Mystic River Chocolate Café.

Mystic is a good foodie town. I’ve not been there, but I’ve heard good things about Bravo Bravo, an Italian eatery, though there are so many pizza shops, you might want to branch out. Some of the downtown restaurants are pricey, but there are several pubs, a microbrewery (Barely Head), 3 bakeries (Lighthouse, Li, and Sift), and a butcher shop if you’re in a DYI mood.

What everyone wishes to know about, though, is Mystic Pizza. In the interest of public service, I checked it out for you! First, though, don’t believe everything you see in a movie. The joint shown on the screen was a set in a building a few doors down from the actual restaurant, which is owned by the Zelepos family. (They really are of Portuguese descent.) It’s been on Main Street since 1973, but the movie brought so much spillover fame that the interior was redone to approximate the set. Hey, why look a gift slice in the mouth? The inside is a bit darker than the faux site, but a TV screen on a back wall shows the movie on what appears to be a continuous loop. Walls are also festooned with pictures of celebrities, especially classic film stars and baseball legends.

Mystic Pizza sells thin crust pies. My wife, two friends, and I devoured a large pizza with vegetables (onions, green peppers, mushrooms, broccoli pieces) and pepperoni. (Yeah, it’s an odd combo, but you try pleasing four people!) We split fries as an appetizer that were sprinkled with herbs and came to us crispy and piping hot. The pie dough was baked to perfection and the ‘za was tasty, though my palette failed to detect a “special sauce.” It didn’t rock my world enough to keep me from trying another nearby joint, but the experience was a blast.

Rob Weir

2/12/20

Mystic Pizza a Tasty Film 32 Years Later


Mystic Pizza (1988)
Directed by Donald Petrie
MGM, 105 minutes, R (Off-screen sex. Really???)
★★★★

A recent trip to Mystic, Connecticut inspired me to take another look at Mystic Pizza, which I hadn’t viewed in 30 years. Most of it was actually filmed in surrounding towns, but no matter. It is now remembered as Julia Roberts’ breakout role and Matt Damon’s screen debut (though his part was a small one).

The film was rated R back in 1988. That’s astounding. Who was shocked to imagine that unmarried young women would have sex? (There is no nudity.) This and other parts of Mystic Pizza are dated–check out Julia Roberts’ big-bowed dress–but there is an innocent charm to it. Grab some ‘za and watch it. Note that I called it “innocent;” take that R-rating!

The movie revolves around three young women, the Araújo sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their good friend Jojo Barbosa (Lili Taylor). The names are Portuguese and both ethnicity and social class factor into the film. Despite the close bonds between the three, they are quite different. Kat is a Type A egghead bound for Yale in fall. She works at Mystic Pizza with Daisy and Jojo, and also works at Mystic Seaport and babysits. Despite her calm exterior, she’s is worried about being a working-class kid at Yale, where she’ll be dependent upon scholarships.

Daisy is Kat’s polar opposite–a good time party girl with a great figure but a seemingly empty head. Her mother rags on her and with reason. Daisy is tough, wild, and maybe even a bit sluttish but, as in most romantic comedies, this is more implied than explicit.

There’s nothing ambiguous about Jojo’s love of sex. She and boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onoforio) go at it like rabbits wherever it’s appropriate and often where’s it not. Their engagement has been so long that Bill, a blue-collar fisherman, presses Jojo to set a date. In a nice twist, he wants to make an honest woman of Jojo in a good way. Jojo has major cold feet.

Of course, all three are “good’ Catholic girls whose parents–a single mom in the Araújo sisters’ case–want the best for them, but are not exactly candidates for guardians of the year awards. That role falls to Leona (Conchita Ferrell), the owner of Mystic Pizza. She not only supports the three as if they were her own daughters, she’s as protective as an enraged lioness. Each of the three has a summer crisis. Kat finds herself falling for Tim (William Moses), a married architect whose delightful daughter Phoebe she babysits while Tim’s wife is gone for the summer. (Uh-oh!) Daisy is drawn to Charles (Adam Storke), a rich guy who may really like her but might be just slumming it with a hot Portuguese chick. And Jojo is just a mess over the entire question of marriage. Leona has her own worry: There’s a rumor that the Fireside Gourmet (Louis Turenne) is in the area. A bad restaurant review from him can cause a place to founder.

Admittedly, none of this sounds like Jane Eyre by the Sea. One might cynically cast it as a remake of Cinderella, but it’s a tad more complicated than that. It is what it is: a set of quirky romances held together by some won’t-tax-the-brain comedy and some truly poignant moments. I liked this film for two reasons. First, it makes sharp class distinctions. Along the Connecticut coast there is quite a gulf (pun intended) between the waterside mansions, Yuppie enclaves, and country club set, and those living in ranch houses who work in the shops and on the sea. Give credit to Tim Suhrstedt’s cinematography for wordlessly pushing class distinctions right before your eyes.  

What really drives Mystic Pizza is the acting. The four central female characters–and how often can I type that?–are terrific. When the film came out, it was billed Gish’s starring role. She is terrific as Kat, whom she plays with a bifurcated sense of self. On one hand she’s kind, smart, and responsible; on the other, she is vulnerable, naïve, and looking for love. In 1988, I wouldn’t have predicted that Julia Roberts would be a big star, but now I get it. She is the mistress of the “big” scene, whether it’s a comic turn, an outburst of rage, or a feet-first leap into impetuous waters. To call Lili Taylor a spitfire is descriptive, not demeaning. She was/is the kind of actress who leaves it all on the screen and her energy level makes you look for a blown gasket or two. Conchita Ferrell was also wonderful in a role that demanded subtlety one moment and brashness the next. Aside from D’Onoforio­–who depicts a guy whose honorable intentions are frustrated–the male roles won’t dazzle you; this movie puts women front and center.

Like the Fireside Gourmet, I liked what I saw and tasted. A “secret sauce” is mentioned in the film, but it’s no secret to me: Take four talented actresses, turn them loose, and they’ll transform a thin script into a seaside feast.

Rob Weir

2/10/20

Catch Turner Exhibit Before It Leaves the USA


J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors From Tate [sic]
Thompson Exhibition Building
Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
Through February 23, 2020
[Click on image for larger size]



How many musicians, athletes, and actors can you conjure who were proclaimed gifted at an early age, believed their press clippings, and lived like spoiled brats for the rest of their days? The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a bit like that, except he really was as good as billed. How often does a working-class kid with a Cockney accent get admitted to London’s Royal Academy of Arts at age 14, or get to exhibit as a 15-year-old? How often does such a person go on to produce more than 32,000 paintings?

J. M. W. Turner was a true enfant terrible for all of his days. He never married, but sired two daughters with his housekeeper. He was also known for behaviors that some charitably labeled eccentric, but fall more into the realm of the vulgarian: sloppy snuff habits, shabby appurtenances, social ineptitude, and treatment of others that ran the narrow gamut between disinterest and abuse. The portrayal of such behaviors is about the only thing that makes Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner (2014) worth watching.

For all of that, J. M. W. Turner might well be the most accomplished landscape painter in British history. There are just a few weeks left to catch a show of 93 Turner watercolors and 4 of his oils. You should make it happen if you humanly can; Mystic, Connecticut is the only place in the entire country in which these loaners from London’s Tate Gallery have been or will be on display. After February 23, they will be packed and sent off to Paris before returning to the Tate.

Burning Ship
Whitny
Turner is known for dramatic skies and seascapes. He was so talented that many of the watercolors on display are more akin to watery sketches or studies for his oils than finished products, yet they are nonetheless riveting. His Burning Ship (1830) is one such work. At first it seems rough and tossed off on a whim. It probably was, but look deeply through its monochromatic exterior and you’ll see a lot going on. Similarly, his Harpooned Whale (1845) is at a glance just a wispy swirl of red, but it too is much more than initially meets the eye. Another splendid piece is Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (1836), where we see a team readying itself for what is more likely to be a salvage rather than a rescue mission. As for sea and sky, gaze upon a study of that name (1845) and you will see how Turner wrenched so many shades from somber hues. For more drama, there is Whitny (1824), with a stationary hillside castle standing in contrast to the choppy waters and leaning boats beneath the cliffs. 
Sea and Sky
Lagoon at Sunset
 The Mystic exhibit also displays a landlocked Turner. He loved architecture and travel. He produced studies of churches, Roman ruins, and other such details. Venice was a favored destination, as seen in Venice: Looking Across Lagoon at Sunset (1840) and his depiction of the famed Bridge of Sighs. Switzerland was another frequent destination. Lake Lucerne was the subject for one 1842 work; Lake Geneva for several others. Of course, he also captured his native England in works far from the sea, examples of which are Arundel Castle Upon River Arun (1824) and Sunset across the Park from the Terrace of Petworth House (1827). He even dabbled in a bit of painterly reportage in his Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1856).

Funeral of Sir Thomas...



Artist and Admirers
For all of that, one can’t help but think that the most revealing of all the works on display is his 1827 The Artist and His Admirers. A painter–himself in all likelihood–stands at his easel as a several well-dressed ladies look on. Turner loved to play the genius and one can imagine his brush stroking both paint and ego. That ego is also on display in several works whose color has drained away. They need not have done so; Turner insisted on using a carmine pigment that his contemporaries told him would fade. He assuredly knew that, but that didn’t mean he gave a fig!

Rob Weir

2/7/20

Oscar Nominated Short Animation



There’s no point in commenting on the big Oscar nominations unless you live in a place where all of the films have opened; to wit Los Angeles or New York. I’ve seen just three of the Best Picture nominees, of which Parasite was my favorite. (A Korean film has about as much chance of winning as a lone slice of pizza has of surviving a kegger.) I did see a program of Oscar-nominated short animation, plus several honorable mention entries. Here’s the dope:


One film is head and shoulders above the competition, but probably won’t win because it’s French. Mémorable (12 minutes, directed by Bruno Collet and Jean François Le Carre) is a Claymation production of an aging artist struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. If that sounds depressing, rest assured that it’s more poignant than heart-wrenching. The figures–the painter and his wife–are done with dappled Impressionist colors, akin to what was done in the stop-motion animated feature film Loving Vincent (2017). Trust me when I say you will find the film sad and beautiful. What better way to represent the long decline of an artist than to depict colorful drops dripping from his hands, rising into the air, and floating away? If you’ve never been around someone with dementia, lucky you. If you have, though, you will instantly relate to the dance between sublime moments of clarity followed by those in which they mind shatters like a thin crystal goblet knocked from its mental shelf. Though it’s just 12 minutes long, Mémorable is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

My second favorite film was Sister (8 minutes, directed by Siqi Song). It’s another film that detours down a side road. This one uses boiled wool figures. We come in upon a young Chinese boy whose life as the apple of his parents’ eyes is disrupted by a new baby sister. The film is narrated by the boy as if he is sharing childhood memories about sibling rivalry. Then it dawns upon the viewer that under China’s one-child policy, there is no sister. Siqi Song gives us a unique perspective on loneliness.




If I had to pick the odds-on favorite for the Oscar, it would be Hair Love (7 minutes, directed by M. A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver). It has the elements Hollywood likes: cartoon animation, made in the USA, and African American characters. (Hollywood loves to throw PC bones to small films to ‘prove’ how culturally sensitive it is.) It wouldn’t be a travesty if this film were to win, though. It’s a very cute take on a dad who needs to comb and style his daughter’s hair while mom is in the hospital. Call it little girl/really big hair. We’re talking hair that has a mind of its own. Discovering why mom is in the hospital is an ah-gee moment. Hair Love crosses the border between sweet and saccharine a bit too often for my taste, but it’s a crowd pleaser.

 
If Hair Love doesn’t win, Kitbull (9 minutes, directed by Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson) probably will. Not because it’s all that good, but because: Pixar. Let me just say that I find Pixar cartoons obvious, annoying, and about as substantive as cotton candy. This one is about the unlikely friendship between a stray kitten and an abused pitbull. Yeah, whatever.

Dcera/Daughter (15 minutes, directed by Daria Kascheera) is certainly the dark horse, unless you think the Academy has been dying to honor a Czech papier-mâché production. It’s emotionally heavy–a daughter holding vigil at her father’s deathbed and sifting memories of times in which she had been unkind to him. I found the storyline a bit fragmented, but mostly I found the papier-mâché figures grotesque.


 


To round out full-length theater releases of such short material, the Academy includes Honorable Mentions. Three of these could have easily replaced Kitbull or Dcera. You can catch several of these on YouTube, including the hysterical Maestro (French, 2 minutes, directed by Florian Babakian). A bluebird sits on a branch and just when you think things will be too-too precious, the bird lifts her wing and blasts out an aria. Cue the squirrel conductor and a marsh full of animals for the chorus. The abrupt ending is tone perfect.

On a more touching note, Henrietta Bulkowski (16 minutes, directed by Rachel Johnson) is a stop-action fairytale-like story of a young woman afflicted by kyphosis. Her hunchback is so severe that she can only look down and must use a mirror to see behind her. If only she could become a pilot, she could see the world normally. Know any airline that would allow someone like Henrietta fly? Instead she seeks to salvage a junkyard wreck under the nose of Danny (voiced by Chris Cooper), who guards the grounds. Danny has his own challenges and Henrietta Bulkowski is ultimately a nice take on disabilities. The ending is a bit odd, though, and tilts toward cliché.


The Irish film The Bird and the Whale (7 minutes, directed by Carol Freeman) also suffers from cliché, tinged with Pixar-like schmaltz. An undersized whale calf who cannot sing is rejected by his pod. He swims alone and comes upon a shipwreck whose only survivor is a caged bird. The two become friends and ultimately the whale finds his voice. What, are we 10-years-old?

French animators were busy last year. Leo Brunel and three others directed Hors Piste (6 minutes), which features the most inept ski patrol duo of all time. Even their names are funny: Salami and Parmesan. Their “rescue” of a backwoods skier adds insult to injury, which is doled out through broad but hilarious slapstick. It’s basically a frozen version of sappy TV fare like Baywatch and might have fared better had it been made 4 decades ago. Its look is very 1980s. Still, I confess to laughing aloud–even at the obvious pranks.

Rob Weir


2/5/20

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is How Things Should Be


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra
Columbia, 130 minutes, Not-Rated (lots of gosh darns!)
★★★★★

Cynicism over American politics is nothing new. Even George Washington had his detractors. But let’s face it folks, we are living in deeply cynical times. Maybe Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just the antidote we need.

This Frank Capra comedy/drama is a quintessential New Deal film, a delicious leftover from a time in which millions believed that government could solve their problems. President Franklin Roosevelt, though a wealthy man, often railed against the rich and those who sought to parlay political power into personal gain. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is based on a Lewis Fowler story titled “The Gentleman from Montana,” but no particular location is identified in the film other than “a Western state.”

The movie opens with a crisis for Governor Hubert “Happy” Hooper (Guy Kibble). One of his state’s U.S. Senators has died and Hooper is faced with appointing a new one. Like everyone else in the state and quite a few in Congress, Hooper is controlled by political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Taylor demands that Hooper appoint Henry Hill, who will go along with a scheme to build a dam in a recreational area that, not coincidentally, would make a tidy profit for Taylor and selected cronies. The plan goes slightly awry when Hooper’s six sons and all their pals pressure the governor to appoint their scout leader Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Hey, it’s 1939, so who’s going to go against a bunch of kids?

Hooper, Taylor, and the state’s other senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains) aren’t worried. They see Smith as a gee-whiz rube, plus Smith worships Paine as an icon and mentor. They’re right about the rube part; Smith is in awe of Washington and whenever they or his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) can’t find him, he’s out sightseeing with star-spangled dust in his eyes. The Lincoln Memorial practically intoxicates Senator Smith. He’s so goofily patriotic that the news media laps it up and he’s too naïve to know he’s an object of ridicule. He’s the perfect foil for the Taylor machine. One small problem: Jefferson Smith has a conscience.

This sets the table for high drama. Paine will try various tricks and cajolery, including baiting Smith with his glamorous daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn). When all else fails, use blackmail, smear, and crucifixion. Soon, Smith goes from joke to villain but, by gum, Jeff Smith learned at the Lincoln Memorial that truth and principle are worth fighting for. Stewart’s filibuster is a legendary Hollywood scene, and Harry Carey’s role of the bemused president of the Senate provides lots of comic relief. Jean Arthur is also perfectly cast as a tough-skinned scoffer trying to recover her ideals.

The best way to enjoy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is to surrender to its innocence. Historians are fond of saying, “It was a different time,” when discussing the past. Those who roll their eyes at the film’s wonderment and unfiltered patriotism are products of the jaded perspectives of the present. Like all Frank Capra screwball comedies, this one is broad. As in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart’s character isn’t meant to be taken literally; Stewart is an Everyman archetype. Nor are Capra’s films intended to snapshots of reality but, gosh darn it, they are the way things should be.

Early on I pegged Mr. Smith as a New Deal film. It, like numerous films from the 1930s, is an indirect reference to FDR. When the writer Tillie Olsen was asked decades later what she recalled of the Great Depression, she noted that it was a time in which ordinary people came to believe that the government was on their side. She gave Roosevelt credit for that. FDR was neither saint nor superhero, but wouldn’t it be nice to experience what Olsen felt? And wouldn’t it be nicer still if the government really was on the side of the masses rather than the asses?

 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 10 Oscars and only captured one. That went to Foster for Best Writing, Original Story, which is ironic as his “The Gentleman from Montana” went unpublished. Want to know why Mr. Smith didn’t win more? 1939 was an extraordinary year in cinema and Mr. Smith had to compete against Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz. As the years have passed, though, Mr. Smith has weathered better than optimism. The American Film Institute ranks it as #29 on its list of greatest American movies. Give it a watch. It sure beats cynicism.

Rob Weir