Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Falling in Love With the Wrong Movie
In 1939 and 1940, Hollywood turned out two memorable movies about American politics, with distinctly different points of view. Unfortunately for the state of our political discourse, most people fell in love with the wrong movie.
The movies in question were Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty in 1940. Almost everybody knows about the first one, but few people are familiar with the latter, probably because its message didn’t reverberate with audiences.
In Mr. Smith, the story line is that a U.S. Senator dies unexpectedly, and the governor who has to appoint his replacement is torn between factions. To get out of a political pickle, the governor appoints an innocuous nobody as a placeholder, leaving the factions to slug it out at the next election.
Naivete as Virtue
That innocent placeholder, the eponymous Mr. Smith, played brilliantly by James Stewart, decides to try to do one good thing while in office — secure an appropriation for a boys’ camp in the mountains. In moving forward with that project, he is utterly clueless about the fact that various moneyed interests have other ideas for the land, and as a consequence is nearly run out of office. But it all ends happily, when the bad senator (Claude Rains) has an inexplicable change of heart and decides to withdraw his opposition to the camp.
In real life, of course, hardened politicians don’t have that sort of change of heart, and since the James Stewart character had no idea of how to move the levers of power, he could win only with the aid of the sort of psychological miracle the film calls on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be represented by elected officials who are on the right side of issues but need a miracle to get something done.
Yet there are quite a few people in this country, generally unlearned about politics, who think that what we need are purer elected officials. In the area where I live, voters recently re-elected, by a wide margin, an incumbent politician who has been utterly ineffective on the people’s behalf, but who is widely loved because he walks the neighborhoods and talks to people and because he makes a point of giving a chunk of his salary to charity. Voters chose personal virtue over political savvy.
Grimy But Effective
The Great McGinty presented a far more realistic (and cynical) point of view. McGinty (Brian Donlevy) gets the attention of a big-city political machine by voting for mayor more than 30 times in one day. He rises through the ranks to become mayor himself, then governor.
Through it all, he’s taking bribes and kickbacks, which makes him a crook. Hey, nobody’s perfect. He does, however, get an extraordinary number of good things built and done, creates good jobs for the working people he serves, and is able to at least somewhat restrain capitalist greed. McGinty is everything Mr. Smith is not, but he gets what he wants through political savvy, without the aid of miracles.
In the end, McGinty is undone by honesty. He marries a good woman, and when she entreats him to go straight, he does. The other politicians ruin him so thoroughly that he has to flee the country, and at the end of the movie, he’s tending bar at a joint in a banana republic. In real-world politics, that’s what would have happened to Mr. Smith, but Hollywood didn’t want that ending. In Mr. Smith, Hollywood got the politics wrong, but read the public sentiment perfectly.