It has either been feast or famine at SVU—we have either had to settle for not-quite-classic movies for years with a dearth of classic cinema in good tastes (this will become more of a problem in the 1970s) or we have had to choose from among a surfeit of eminently watchable movies. We had the latter problem in spades for 1939. Famously a very good year for film, 1939 saw the release of a battalion of wonderful movies, led by two of the most notorious motion pictures of all time, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. We eschewed these titans of the cinema, however, in favor of two less famous classics: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gunga Din.
Both Mr. Smith and Gunga Din are products of their time, evincing attitudes that are no longer allowed in mainstream movies of today. Mr. Smith, like The Wizard of Oz, is earnest and optimistic in a way that entertainment was rarely allowed to be after the 1960s. Even at the time, Capra’s trademark combination of sentiment, humor, and melodrama was labeled “capracorn” (get it?) by some critics. Gunga Din, by contrast, feels surprisingly modern—it combines sometimes grotesquely horrific villainy with a trio of glib heroes who crack wise in the face of danger and play juvenile practical jokes on one another. Its influence on modern adventure films, especially on George Lucas’ Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises, is easy to see. However, it was part of a trend in movies at the end of the 1930s that glorified British colonialism (The Four Feathers was another good movie that came out in 1939 cut from the same cloth), so an uncomfortable strain of patronizing racism runs through the movie—not that we would have been any better off on that account with Gone with the Wind.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is part of a series of movies Capra made (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe) that recycle the plot of a salt-of-the-earth type from humble circumstances being thrust onto the national stage, being mentored by a street-wise gal Friday (Jean Arthur in the first two, Barbara Stanwyck in the last), then being beat down by a vast organization/political machine (usually headed by Edward Arnold) before ultimately triumphing. I had always seen the ending of Mr. Smith as a dispiriting coda to a very good movie. The ending, (SPOILER ALERT) wherein Claude Rains’ character attempts suicide and confesses his complicity in the attempt to frame Jefferson Smith, seems like a Deus ex machina that allows a happy ending to be tacked onto an otherwise very grim conclusion. The political machine had basically won. If Claude Rains had kept his big mouth shut, Jefferson Smith would have run back to the boonies, tail between his legs, a reviled and soon-forgotten character. Or worse, he would have become one of those bitter Washington crackpots, railing against the system because he failed at manipulating it.
But with this last viewing, and with introspection, I see the ending as perfectly consistent with Capra’s ideals. In the 1930s, Capra spent a lot of footage trying to figure out Communism before it became a dirty word and when, during the Great Depression, it seemed to be beating out Capitalism all hollow. Capra—or his movies, anyway—really seemed to like the stereotypically Communist ideal of pulling together for the common good (Robert Riskin might have had something to do with this). In Capra’s movies, the ultimate virtue was being a compassionate and streetwise common man—a caring member of the oppressed proletariat. Longfellow Deeds is a hero because he redistributes his inherited wealth to the worthy poor. In Lady for a Day, the poor and outcast (and ultimately, the rich and privileged) band together to help an alcoholic old woman hoodwink her daughter and her prospective fiancé until they’re trundled back to Europe. In It Happened One Night, Claudette Colbert’s character’s cardinal sin is that she’s not one of the common people. Her lack of street smarts (except in one notable instance) was the justification the movie set forth for having Clark Gable’s character treat her with smarmy condescension for the bulk of the movie. When George Bailey or John Doe/Willoughby runs up against an impossible situation where suicide seems the only out, it’s the common people he has helped in the past who band together to help him continue on.
In light of this, Cluade Rains’ sudden change of heart is the only way Mr. Smith can end barring a flood of Boy Rangers and their parents flooding the Senate and overthrowing the government. Capra movies place their faith in people. Senator Joseph Paine is a person. And the movie has been setting you up to want his change of heart since the beginning. He’s oppressed by Edward Arnold (if a character is oppressed by Edward Arnold, it’s always a sure sign Capra wants you to feel sympathy for him/her), he’s the savviest of the in crowd, he likes Jimmy Stewart (if a character likes Jimmy Stewart, it’s always a sure sign Capra wants you to feel sympathy for him), and that bit about “lost causes” near the beginning is only there so that it can be referred back to later on. Come to think of it, Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Meet John Doe is like a combination of the narrative roles of Jean Arthur and Claude Rains in Mr. Smith.
I’ve spent a lot of text on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is not to say that Gunga Din was worse. These were both very good movies—the best double feature we’ve had since 1935’s The 39 Steps and A Night at the Opera—but Gunga Din has about as much to do with heavy ideas or politics as your average cable news station. It was directed by George Stevens (who made a previous SVU entry—Swing Time), one of those directorial chameleons like Michael Curtiz who could make great movies that didn’t seem to have anything to do with each other thematically or plot-wise.