Somewhere in the horrible and vast history of colonialism and imperialism in Latin America, there was a word – a Dutch word, vrijbuiter. It meant ‘pirate, privateer, robber’. From this word slowly were born other words (for after all, one of the most enduring elements of imperialism in our world today is the fragments of language it left lying around; the illegitimate children of unhappy encounters, ‘verandah‘ and ‘catamaran’ and ‘cooties‘ and ‘mulligatawny‘ soup) – the English word freebooter, for example, and the Spanish filibustero and the French flibustier. In all three cases it meant the same thing - freebooter, n., a pirate or lawless adventurer. A strange word (most are if you stare at them long enough!), & stranger still that it should have somehow made its way into American English (first in the 19th century, to describe Americans who ‘fomented insurrections’ in Latin America), then straight into the House of Representatives, before finally finding a seemingly-permanent home in the Senate.
The filibuster probably needs no introduction for those who happen to have even a passing interest (and shouldn’t everyone?) in American politics; it has been in the news pretty recently, too. Rand Paul took some headlines earlier this month, with his good ol’-fashioned, Mr. Smith-style (& many newspapers casually dropped this name in their coverage of the Paul filibuster!) thirteen-hour rant on the issue of drones. For those who don’t know what it is — well, firstly, watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and secondly, it’s a a mode of parliamentary ‘debate’ (in a manner of speaking; debates, I always was led to believe, should allow for more sides than one). In the Senate, with which filibusters are most commonly associated these days, it allows a senator – or a series of them – to keep talking, basically, in order to prevent/delay a measure from being voted on. (This is my very rudimentary understanding of it: corrections are always welcome if in my idiocy I’m misleading people. Please do tell me!)
These days, the filibuster is seen as a means to ‘obstruct’ & ‘delay’ (to quote the headline of this piece on Rand Paul – pithy summary!), to prevent certain issues coming to a vote, certain policies from seeing the light of day. The filibuster today is an emblem of partisan politics and policy-making paralysis: nobody knows where exactly the filibuster came from, except linguistically, and nobody really likes it. But everybody wields the filibuster anyways – Democrats, Republicans, you-name-its. The Senate cots are rolled out (yes – the Senate really does have a storeroom full of cots!); voices grow hoarse; and people wait for rights or welfare schemes or key government offices to be filled.
And now some people are calling for an insurrection against the filibustero itself.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is considered one of world’s finest ‘whistleblowing’ films, and also one of James Stewart‘s and Frank Capra’s finest, respectively. Now, seriously political films can be dry and flat except for the very politically-involved of us, because the nuances (read: various clauses) of constitutions and jargon and bureaucracy any faithful depiction of political issues must convey is – well, boring. Or so I thought, sceptically, as I decided to give Mr. Smith a go for myself. (Violating in the process, may I add, various injunctions I had placed on myself to not watch anything but romantic comedy.)
Well. But. I was blown away. The Capra-Stewart director-actor duo is, of course, well-known to everybody, because everybody in the whole wide Christmas-loving world has seen It’s A Wonderful Life (1948) except me (I am like the Grinch of movie-goers!). Mr. Smith, too, is considered a classic, though perhaps it’s more niche in its appeal – no doubt many people out there, like me, don’t find the sound of a ‘political’ or ‘whistleblower’ film particularly appealing. But let me say here and now – it can be, if it’s done right, and Capra does. Because he always does (except, perhaps, when he made Arsenic and Old Lace, but… even the great do misstep…)
The plot in (not-so-)brief: the Senator of an unnamed state has just passed away, which causes no small consternation amongst the political figures who have to pick a new Senator; this includes the state’s governor, Hubert Hopper; the other Senator, Joseph Paine (played exquisitely by Claude Rains); and the corrupt rich man who’s really running the show, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). These guys are about to push a bill through the Senate which is in actuality a means to graft, something to do with dam-building (they’ve bought all the land the dam is going to be built on, secretly, under various names: if the government approves the dam, presumably they sell the land to the government and make a windfall). In order to push it through properly, though, they need a Senator who is in on it with them, or at the very least, extremely pliant. But the Governor’s in a spot, between a rock and a hard place, between his people (who want a reformer!) and his financiers (who want someone crooked enough to help them with their upcoming bill-vote). In a quirky turn of events, inspired by a dinner-table argument with his very young but astonishingly politically-acute children, the Governor picks a candidate: Jefferson Smith, a gawky young guy whose sole claim to fame is that he’s the head of the local Boy Rangers, and the kids love him. (Obviously, this Mr. “Aw shucks!” is played by Jimmy Stewart…)
The Governor is well-pleased with his choice: not only are the people happy, because Jefferson Smith is universally beloved, but the political shadows around him are also mollified by the fact that Mr. Smith seems incredibly dumb and idealistic. He won’t notice a thing, they think, so long as we keep him happy. This is the context in which Mr. Smith goes, famously, to Washington – his raptures over the capital are incredibly funny, and his fanatic reverence and obsession for things like the Lincoln Memorial only confirm his innocence to the political big-wigs. They figure if they keep him sightseeing and busy with idealistic, naïve endeavours, he won’t be any threat to them whatsoever. It is in view of this that Senator Paine makes the ‘kindly’ suggestion that Mr. Smith write a bill to put forward to the Senate (a sort of “run along and play with a toy!” type of encouragement) – it’ll keep him occupied, after all, and maybe he won’t pay attention to the whole dam(n) business upcoming. [As a side note: Senator Paine and Mr. Smith's father were very good friends in the past, both idealists and reformers together - only their paths have diverged very starkly. Mr. Smith's father was shot in the back for his activism ("Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes..."), and Senator Paine is here now as we see him: with forsaken ideals, the only-sometimes unwilling scion of a corrupt political machine.]
So with the help of Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) – cynical, beautiful, and utterly disillusioned by everything after a few years working in Washington – Mr. Smith begins drafting a bill. Saunders is his secretary but also sort of a mother-figure to this clueless creature running around Washington rhapsodizing about the beautiful prairies; she’s a perfect sarcastic, worldly-wise, wry contrast to him. At first she despises him, unable to believe that such naivety and idiocy could actually come to Washington – in the guise of a Senator, no less! – but then she’s slowly won over by his idealism, charms (who wouldn’t be won over by Jimmy Stewart’s charms?), and general all-around goodness. (Mr. Smith himself is a hat-fumbling mess over one sirenesque Susan Paine, the shallow and superficial daughter of Senator Paine. This sad side-fact leads to a very funny and very dark episode of drunkenness for our dear Clarissa. Brilliantly executed, of course.) Saunders helps him draft the bill (one might even say – she drafts it for him, since Mr. Smith, sort of like me and possibly you, knows next to nothing about how bills are drafted and got into/passed in Senate….), but she is worried when she learns that his bill will bring him up against the exact men who are trying to keep him distracted: he wants to run a big Boy Rangers camp (for the “boys of America!”) in the fields surrounding the river… that is, in precisely the land earmarked for a dam. And unlike Mr. Smith, Clarissa knows all about the graft.
Well, Mr. Smith gets tumbled up into Senate and then trampled down very speedily. When his bill first hits the floor, the corrupt political machine panics and threatens Mr. Smith – take that bill back, and support ours, or else…. But Mr. Smith, like his daddy before him, is an idealist, remember – a fighter of lost and dying causes. He refuses. The very effective political machinery of the villainous Jim Taylor goes speedily into action: they falsify, forge, and lie their way into assassinating Mr. Smith’s newborn political reputation/career. Right from forged land-sale contracts to lying witnesses, they contrive to prove almost irrefutably that Mr. Smith is attempting graft – they claim he has bought all the land by the river, and is trying to con money out of the government and the boys of America through his Boy Ranger camp scheme. The poor jumped-up Boy Ranger has absolutely no defence to offer in the face of all this counterfeit evidence: just his word. And his word is more or less meaningless by this point. This is sort of the moment of Aristotleian anagnorisis, the point at which Mr. Smith moves from ignorance and idealism into an soul-shattering knowledge and understanding of precisely what sort of political world he has been trying to function within: this is not, he realizes, the beautiful world in which ideals of liberté and égalité are inscribed on stone walls (as they are around Lincoln in the Memorial). No, this is Jim Taylor’s world and Jim Taylor’s Washington – Abe is just a statue in a darkened room. The Senator Paines & co. of the world are no Abe Lincolns, & nor can Jefferson Smith be. Or so it seems.
It’s in the dark and shadow-filled Lincoln Memorial that a grieving Mr. Smith is tracked down by Clarissa Saunders, who sails into the empty Memorial like a knight in shining armour to resuscitate his faith, courage, and idealism. (Let me just add a worshipful line or two, at this point, at how utterly beautiful black and white films can be when the light and shadows are worked properly. To use colour like a Tarantino or Wes Anderson – to use light and shadow like a Fellini or a Capra – this should be any director or cinematographer’s dream. This scene between Saunders and Smith is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and not just because it’s sweet & sad & heartfelt – the lighting is wonderful; their arrangement, with Stewart facing the camera and Jean Arthur seen side-face, is lovely. A little anecdote I read mentioned that Arthur was filmed on the left side of her face because they thought, at the studio, that her facial profile from the left was the prettiest angle they could get of her…. They were strange in those days.)
Saunders strikes the despondent Smith where it’ll affect him most — she brings up Abe:
“Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines; so did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against ‘em didn’t stop those men – they were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that, you know that Jeff! You can’t quit now! Not you. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington, that kind just throw big shadows, that’s all….You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man; you had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain decent everyday common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah. So could the whole cock-eyed world, a lot of it.”
(I haven’t seen Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln yet, but I think it would probably bear witness to the verity of these words…everyone has their Taylors & Paines. No easy prey is liberté.) Clarissa works her magic, and off they go to plot the grand overthrow.
Which takes the form, you will all be most delighted to know, of a filibuster. Yep. Mr. Smith is about to stripped of his status as Senator, but before that can happen, he cunningly takes the floor and this time – wiser, older, harder – refuses to yield the floor to anybody. He filibusters that poor Senate out of composure, patience, and sleep. “In other words, I’ve got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I intend to speak it.” For this is Clarissa’s grand plan: keep him talking until he either convinces the Senate or delays the vote on Senator Paine’s bill for as long as possible. Now, believe you me, it’s probably not easy to film a filibuster and keep it exciting (certainly if you’re going to stick to the verity of time, documentary-style, and capture every minute of it). Fortunately Capra is making a movie and not a news-reel, so he can splice in and out of the filibuster as necessary. The filibuster is, by turns, heartbreaking, tear-inducing, laughter-inducing, sweet, funny, romantic (yes! Love amidst a filibuster can, apparently, happen – & it looks and feels damn good, too!). What follows is almost dizzyingly exciting and wonderful: a passionate filibuster delivered by Mr. Smith, in the hopes that it will reach his home-state and be broadcast far and wide, fomenting insurrection (to go back to linguistic roots!) against the corruption of Paine & Taylor – while simultaneously, Jim Taylor and his machinery work very hard and very brutally (physical violence against little children!) to stop the people from hearing anything that is said by Mr. Smith in the Senate. Unfortunately, again, the Taylor machine seems to win (as people who control all the newspapers can contrive to do) – a climactic moment, after something like eighteen hours (?) of filibuster (Mr. Smith is now hoarse, unshaven and ashen-faced; Jimmy Stewart’s disgustingly-slicked back hair falls handsomely unkempt around his forehead). The people of Mr. Smith’s state send baskets of letters in to Senate, pleading with Mr. Smith to – stop. To give up. Please. (They have been kept from hearing what he’s really been saying, and are fed vast quantities of Taylor-manufactured propaganda instead.) Will he? No. One last roar from Mr. Smith – the filibuster finale – before he keels over in a faint:
You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.
God. Cinematically, dramatically, emotionally – it’s brilliant. This entire chunk of filibuster scene might just be one of the best things in movie history ever. We’ve almost given up – here is our hero, Mr. Smith, fainted, and he was going to win the day over the crooks with his beautiful heartfelt filibuster. Well: Capra makes us hopeful, and then he takes us to brink of despair, and then he quickly (thankfully!) pulls us back. For all this has been too much for Senator Paine who was, after all, once an idealist and defender of lost causes himself. He breaks down, tries to shoot himself but is stopped and dragged into the Senate where he screams out the truth – yes, yes, it was graft, they framed Mr. Smith. Clarissa jubilates in the viewing stands. The slowly-reviving Mr. Smith is helped out of the chamber as the President of the Senate heaves a happy sigh of relief; the twinkle in his eye, if it ever left, is restored fully. (Sadly, there is no finale kiss between Clarissa & Mr. Smith – many a movie-goer besides me laments this, no doubt; Capra & co. scrapped plans to film a jubilant return to Mr. Smith’s hometown for Saunders & Smith on a flotilla, though snippets of this can be seen in the film’s trailer apparently.) The End.
* * *
I’ve started taking notes on index cards around movies I watch – quick, pithy (yes – I really can do this, sometimes!), and first-impression notes as they hit me in post-movie waves. So here’s my bit on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and because I can’t resist, I will extend + add some thoughts in lengthier form after):
“Heartwarming & brilliant movie – has the standard Frank Capra moral-sentimental fare, but transposed into a dark and disillusioning political setting. Widely considered James Stewart’s ‘breakthrough’ role, I think, and rightly so (he was nominated for an Oscar but lost; always considered his win the very next year, for The Philadelphia Story, as being a make-up Oscar for this one – not so sure – I think he’s fantastic in TPS as well!)
Film was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and Franco’s Spain – also managed to irritate the US Congress. The bannings alone tell you this film gets something right – its depiction of idealism and heroism in the face of disillusionment are wonderful without being clichéd, heartwarming without being saccharine.
Stellar performances all around: James Stewart at his most endearing, combining his trademark “Aw shucks!” nervousness with the steely nerve we see often in later films – also at his most devilishly handsome during the filibuster, I have to add. Capra had worked with Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor) before, in You Can’t Take It With You (1938) – he clearly liked them, and he certainly brings out the best in them. For Jean Arthur, as with Stewart, this is a fine role – ought to have been her ‘breakthrough’ role too, because she is singularly amazing – full of wit, life, cynicism, love – everything. Much fuller than the character she played in You Can’t Take It With You, & quite frankly Stewart wouldn’t be half as effective without her. Sadly her career sort of petered out, it seems?, in the 1940s. A great shame: I think she’s one of the best, most intelligent, and most likeable actresses from this golden Hollywood era. A Hepburn with less bite and more humanity. Arnold – plays villains very well, as we saw in YCTIWY, but this role is more two-dimensional – no room for introspection and capitulation. That is the province here of Claude Rains, who is STELLAR: debonair always, evil & human by turns, every inch the conflicted senator who has forsaken his ideals but remembers them.
A brilliant unusual take on the filibuster, especially for us today who tend to see it as a boring, rather villainous ploy for partisan politics. Capra blends political commentary with refreshing idealism, cynicism, disillusionment, and heroism…brilliantly! Astonishing how full-bodied the movie is: always room for humour and love, even amidst a filibuster. Extraordinary.“
I mean it when I say that this movie contrives, somehow, to present all this overwhelming idealism about liberty and freedom etc. without ever becoming too trite or clichéd. It surprises me, because I’m pretty sceptical about things like that – after all, it seems more than a little obsolete that some guy should bang on about that lady atop the Capitol dome or deliver lines – infinitely quotable but how meaningful? – like, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak.” It gets the cynic suspicious, to put it mildly. But oh god – in a world full of deconstructions and relativisms and dead fathers and dead authors and dead moral authority – it’s sort of nice to have someone affirm something simple like that. Something simple and – I am almost convinced in saying – something true like that. (Because it probably is true, that liberty is good when enacted and no use when stuffed into books alone.) And Jimmy Stewart really does say it all very disarmingly, as he flips between reading the Constitution of the United States very ‘slowly’ (time-wasting) to cracking cute little jokes in the middle of filibustering (“I just wanted to see if you all still had faces!”). No silver-tongued devil he, glibly gabbing his way to victory: no, this is Stephen Leacock’s innocent American alright (the one who goes “Heck, b’gosh, b’gum, yuck, yuck”), only he’s been plucked straight out of his happy innocence and placed on a hero’s pedestal, and worse, asked to deliver a filibuster from that perch. It’s that awkwardness and the shy, sort-of-apologetic-but-steely-despite-it-all aura that James Stewart is so well-known for: that’s what saves the words he utters from sounding like the worst excesses of saccharine, irrelevant tripe. He sounds so honest and earnest — we’d be cads not to believe him. So we do.
The film also presents a pretty sweet vision of the filibuster’s nobility, ascribing to it a constitutional basis in free speech and freedom of expression etc etc. that I think… is actually historically inaccurate/false. Nothing I have read about the filibuster to date suggests that it stems from any such Constitution-inspired idealism. Says a news reporter in the middle of the exciting filibuster segment:
Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it and talk as long as he can stand on his feet providing always, first, that he does not sit down, second, that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home: DEMOCRACY IN ACTION.
It’s a really sweet idea: almost begs us to put aside our own biases and partisan prejudices for a second, and appreciate the filibuster for being simply that – the manifestation, above all, of a right to speak. Whether you’re right or wrong, Republican or Democrat. It almost seems to be, the way Capra frames it and describes it, the ultimate expression of democracy’s finest principle.
But it would be a big mistake to come away from this movie with a rosy, idealized vision/understanding of what the filibuster is in practice – both today and historically. I get the impression that what Capra depicts is the filibuster-as-saviour in its most extreme manifestation and employment: the minority being the lone figure of Mr. Smith (versus a big, bad, or at least deeply misled political world). I suppose, too, that in essence this is what the filibuster is – a means for the minority to whittle down or complicate any facile passing of bills, laws, motions (whatever it is they do!) by the majority. To protect the minority from being trampled by a majority herd-rush towards legislation, I guess.
In a brilliantly enlightening piece in the New York Review of Books on precisely why reform is needed so desperately in the Senate around the filibuster & questions of supramajority vs. simple-majority (Greek to me!), Michael Tomasky lays bare a possible historical foundation for this ‘safeguard’ towards compromise and against rash legislation (“the famous statement of George Washington, who explained to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate would ‘cool’ the inflamed passions of any given moment as a saucer cools hot tea” – I never ever suspected that saucers cooled hot tea…well, well!), and also the downside of this minority safeguard in practice – it has the potential to become “minority rule”. Worth quoting a bit more from Tomasky:
Minorities rarely pay a political price for threatening to filibuster. The obscure motion procedure is so arcane, so hidden from the view of all but the most initiated observers, that the public usually has no idea whom to blame for gridlock. When, for example, important executive branch positions go unfilled, average citizens tend to assume that the president simply hasn’t gotten round to appointing someone, whereas the truth is likely to be that the appointment was made months ago but has been languishing in the Senate….
Let’s be clear: the filibuster is a lifeline for the embattled Mr. Smith alright, but I don’t think there’s been a Mr. Smith sort of fellow in the Senate yet. Being pragmatic and realistic, the ‘minority’ is not one lone man vs. the world but rather the minority party or, at the very least, a minority of senators who disagree with and therefore try to prevent certain actions supported by the majority. Tomasky points out (& since I was so ready to believe good things about the filibuster in the aftermath of Mr. Smith, this was sort of depressing to know) that filibusters had been used to delay civil rights laws, including anti-lynching laws (!!!!!): “…typically, filibusters have put off for decades actions the nation should have taken years before – civil rights, notably, including anti-lynching laws.” So. Very. Grim. Also add to these facts the one that tells us the filibuster has been wielded more often over the past decade than ever before in American history – 8% of bills in the 1960s were threatened with filibustering, whereas in our decade, Tomasky points out it is close to 70%. This is political paralysis and deadlock, right there.
Not being a political scientist, I don’t want to delve too deep into the pros & cons of the filibuster: I simply don’t know. But suffice to say that Mr. Smith does present a very rosy, inspiring view of the filibuster, for whatever reason – either because it makes for a good bit of dialogue/drama, or because the film is kind of old and maybe they actually thought this back then? – but it isn’t quite right. (I’ve heard that political scientists get screenings of Mr. Smith in their classrooms — the lucky things! Everyone should watch this movie, political scientist or not – we all have to live in this absurdly political and scientific world, don’t we?)
Last (at last!) words on this gem: the President of the Senate (played by Harry Carey) is a delightful character. One of those people with a half-hidden but almost-always-present wry smile on their face, and with twinkling eyes. Jean Arthur is brilliant beyond words: I adore her, and think she’s one of the most underrated gems of this Hollywood era. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to think of her career dying down so quickly – and why? In this respect she reminds me a little of Margaret Sullavan, another titan who tragically didn’t work the silver screen to her full potential. Capra is breathtakingly wonderful – I’ve heard It’s A Wonderful Life is a grand old film, and I will watch it soon (I have been avoiding it because I know it will bring out the salt water, and I’m not always OK to handle the psychological breakdowns a moving film can incite!), to see how this Capra/Stewart partnership develops and culminates if nothing else. Lastly, I think it’s fantastic that a movie can be both political and about politics, heavily so, and yet still have space for romance and humour and the more ordinary aspects of human life and relationships, if you will. Like the letter Clarissa sends Mr. Smith in the middle of the filibuster (see screencaps below), or that scene where Mr. Smith is overcome by a most painful, bashful clumsiness in the presence of the beautiful Susan Paine, and drops his hat repeatedly. Slightly slapstick, but so sweet, and never out of place. The film never focuses on the political at the expense of the human — and perhaps that’s the whole point of Mr. Smith’s speech, and of the film itself. Never the political at the expense of the human, because the political has to be, above all, human. Whatever that might mean – makes sense in my head…
The film, by the by, is available for free and in its glorious entirety on Youtube, and possibly on other sites as well. So if you got this far and haven’t watched the film – well, I’m sorry for the spoilers, but – go watch it now!