AFI’s 100 years, 100 movies


The aforementioned ‘Men’.

In a post-religious world, where all-guiding tenets have lost their charm (& widespread power, too), the words “crime & punishment” are almost inseparable from each other: they almost always work in semantic and syntactic tandem. Where there is crime, the law & justice conspire together to say, there must rightfully also be punishment. And where there is punishment, there must surely have been a crime. This much was axiomatic even long before Dostoevsky articulated and elucidated it with his famous novel. Sinners are nowadays ‘criminals’, and they can no longer look to the skies for redemption or forgiveness (God seems almost gentle in the facility with which he can bestow them). Rather, state and society have taken upon themselves the burden of dispensing both – in the form of jailterms & prison-cells, electric-chairs & straitjackets.

Do your time, we are told (for ‘time’, somehow, becomes the currency in which we buy these things), and maybe 20, 40, 70 years hence you can go back to the world and begin anew. Anew, and better. That’s the hope, anyways. (Sometimes, ‘time’ is no good, hardly a fair exchange given the scale of the crime – for how can time, even all of it in the world, bring the dead back to life? And what solace can one man’s time provide to those left behind grieving? In such cases, only life will do. Maybe misery and penury and suffering in life impelled you to the crime, but now you’ve forfeited your right even to that miserable thing. And so quickly, painlessly, it’s extinguished – minimal fuss, and in the long run, perhaps cheaper for the state, too.)

Crime, & punishment. Somewhere in between those two vicious extremities (for though punishment may be just, it has to hurt at least a little, else it’s powerless to affect) come the chase, à la film noir & detective novels. Then the confession, drawn out sometimes in excruciating degrees (though for a reader or a cinema audience, so very delightfully suspenseful and thrilling). Sometimes there’s even repentance – for even suspense thrillers have a vague memory, sometimes, of how confessions began: before there were policemen and private, peering eyes, there was the all-seeing eye of God, and there were priests. But these days, the setting of such dramas is no longer the church or the confessional booth: it’s an interrogation room, where good & bad cops abound alternately; sometimes, it’s a courtroom, where lawyers inquire. Very human (& wigged!) judges or juries stand in for an all-knowing God. Not pretending, this time, to be all-knowing (maybe that’s where religion made a colossal mistake; people value their privacy, and God can be a nuisance sometimes) – but no less powerful or authoritative for all that.

Courtroom dramas in film have more often than not concerned themselves largely with the ‘crime’, the question of guilt – they’re little more than ‘whodunnits’, in this respect. Only with a few more lawyers than you’d otherwise have (and fewer Raymond Chandler-esque sleuths). Witness for the Prosecution (1957) springs to mind – Billy Wilder’s scriptwriting/directorial brilliance meets Agatha Christie’s genius for intrigue, suspense, and table-turning dénouements; add brilliant performances from Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton to the mix, and you have a rip-roaring winner of a film. But great as it is, the film does only this – concern itself with questions of guilty or not guilty, and if the latter, well then, who dunnit???


In the same year as Witness for the Prosecution, 1957, another ‘courtroom drama’ came out. It wasn’t a blockbuster hit like the former – despite a great critical reception (it was nominated for three Academy Awards, while Witness got six nominations), it fell flat financially. People put this down to any number of things – the fact that it was a low-budget production with only one ‘big’ Hollywood name to glamorize it (Henry Fonda); the fact that it was stark and minimalist, using largely only one set throughout and shot in black & white, at a time when technicolour was exploding and enthralling. It was only many years later that this film garnered the recognition it so rightly deserves (but it garnered well – it’s now considered one of the finest films ever made, ranking 6th on IMDB’s Top 250 and highly on numerous other AFI/critical lists).

To call ‘12 Angry Men‘ a ‘courtroom drama’ is technically inaccurate – surprisingly (to me, anyways), most of the film takes place not in the courtroom itself, but in the jurors’ private room. (Only about 2-3 minutes of the total film take place outside of this room, and only about 1 minute or so at the beginning is in the courtroom itself… its subversion of generic expectations begins with the set!). In this room, 12 men – some of them very angry ones indeed, as the title suggests! – have to decide upon a verdict for a trial they have just witnessed in the criminal court. Guilty, or not guilty? But the film is not so much an odyssey through suspense & titillation for the audience as it is a meditation: an examination of prejudice, personality, vendetta, doubt when they are all elements in the juridical process, aspects that contribute towards that fateful decision. (In this case, the defendant will get the death penalty if he is found guilty.)

There are safeguards built into the juridical process, of course, to prevent against the personal and the facile: “This is the remarkable thing about democracy,” says Juror #11 at one point. “That we are…notified by mail to come down to this place and decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have not known before. We have nothing to gain or lose by it.” The jury is made up of 12 anonymous strangers; we never learn their names (until the very end, where we learn two), they do not know each other, and they do not know the defendant. This is the ideal of impartiality. Not only this, but their decision as a jury has to be unanimous – 12 votes, no less, either way. Otherwise it will be a ‘hung jury’, and the trial will have to take place again.

The case seems pretty straightforward – to borrow a cliché and quote Juror #3 (I think?), an ‘open & shut’ one. The jurors smoke, chatter, joke, but are ready to go straight to the business of voting within a few minutes of entering the room. 11 vote guilty; 1 man, irritatingly, prolongs the debate by voting ‘not guilty’. Henry Fonda’s beautiful, benign, beloved face positively radiates with goodness (for of course it is Fonda, Juror #8, who votes ‘not guilty’ – “It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first”). The audience can pretty much see where this will go: one of two ways. Either Fonda, the lone hold-out, convinces the other eleven that he is right, or they convince him. And either way, the plot has to be damn good (the first route is hard, and the second too easy), and Juror #8 an orator of magnificent proportions. But our expectations are quickly disappointed: Juror #8 has no definite idea about the boy’s innocence. “I don’t know,” he says, or, “I’m not sure.” No Marc Antony he, here to turn the auditors’ ears to his point of view in one fell swoop.

Henry Fonda winning hearts (& verdicts).

Henry Fonda winning hearts (& verdicts).

To cut 96 minutes of running time very, very short indeed: ultimately, Juror #8 does manage to convince his audience one and all to change their votes to ‘not guilty’. What makes this film so fascinating is that he does it not by proving the defendant’s innocence, but by invoking the premise of ‘reasonable doubt’. The audience leaves the movie not knowing, ultimately, whether the defendant is worthy of this verdict – but the film tells us not to care too much about that. Where there is doubt, there cannot be death. Err always on the side of innocence (& life), if you must. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like such a big deal; after all, the film fundamentally only expounds that very old tenet, harking back to the Romans (“Ei incumbit probitio qui dicit, non qui negat” – “The burden of proof lies with [he] who declares, not [he] who denies”). Expressed more pithily these days as ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

It sure sounds easy enough – after all, we all know it, don’t we? But the film delineates beautifully how distorted even such a constitutional tenet can become in practice, even unintentionally. How oh-so-much harder it is to stick to in our quest for justice or legal integrity, easy though it is to espouse, learn, recite. We perhaps don’t even realise that we violate it. The twelve jurors are simply human – they’re the same mixture of good and bad and kind and patient and impatient, prejudiced, bitter, shy, overly-rational, overly-emotional that you’d get with any random selection of twelve people in a room. (Here’s a fun fact for everybody: Juror #2, the shyest and meekest of them all, is actually played by the actor who voices Piglet in Winnie the Pooh! I knew I loved him from the get-go, and now I know why!)

The three jurors who complicate Juror #8’s particular quest for justice, however, are jurors #3 (the angriest man of them all, & the last one to change his vote); #4 (a calm, highly rational, analytical man – if this film can be understood as depicting types, then he’s your scientific-objective man par none); and #10 (“a pushy & loud-mouthed bigot”, Wikipedia summarizes quickly and perfectly; he is the bigot in the room). Juror #4’s scientific objective stance is undermined when he is reminded of the fact that even men of science, who want to look only at the facts as clearly as possible, might miss some of the facts and so draw false conclusions. Juror #10 is perhaps the most horrifying of all – he’s a bigot. He prefaces most of his observations about the defendant with the generalizing phrase “these people” (followed usually by an unflattering characteristic of aforementioned people). One of the movies most beautiful scenes comes in the middle of a long, bigoted rant from Juror #10 – as #10 delivers his monologue of hate and stereotypes, slowly, one by one, the other jurors rise from the table in silent protest and mutiny, and stand mostly with their faces to the wall. It’s a real splendid tableau from Sidney Lumet – astonishing, powerful, and emphatic in what the film rejects. It’s probably one of the movie’s most memorable visual moments. (To watch the scene, clicky here! It’s almost difficult to believe that this is Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, because it is so very brilliant even from a technical/directorial point of view.) Says Juror #10, in perfect earnestness:

Look, you know how these people lie, it’s born in them! I mean, what the heck? I don’t have to tell you – they don’t know what the truth is. And lemme tell ya, they don’t need any real big reason to kill somebody either.

So many things about this moment: a blatant, explicit example of prejudice – the film in no way wants to make this subtle, and why should it? It’s familiar enough rhetoric to everybody. The ‘these’ and ‘them’ at whom the prejudice is directed is also by & large open-ended, which makes it a critique of all prejudice and classifications. The audience knows very little about the defendant: he’s 18 years old, on trial for parricide, and he’s from the slums. He’s uneducated, or foreign (“don’t even speak good English” says one juror; the irony isn’t, of course, lost on his immigrant neighbour). Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, suggests that the defendant “looks ‘ethnic'” – “he could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican”. Juror #10’s prejudice could be based on anything: a class prejudice, perhaps, or a race prejudice, or against immigrants. Anything, but it doesn’t matter: it is Prejudice with a capital P. The universal archetype of all prejudice, everywhere. And the movie is about justice for every man (everyman), an ideal that is not to be distorted or thwarted by any myopic understanding of social groups.

Brilliant tableau. Juror #10 is baffled by what's going on around him.

Brilliant tableau. Juror #10 is baffled by what’s going on around him.

Juror #3 is the hardest juror to win over – he is the last to change his vote, and the moment is a climactic one. His problem isn’t even as easy to dismiss as prejudice can be (Juror #10 is told in no uncertain to shut up and not speak again); his ‘guilty’ vote stems from the personal. The defendant is on trial for parricide, and Juror #3 has been struck by, and is now estranged from, his own beloved son. It seems he wants to condemn all sons for his own problems; at the very least, he definitely wants this one, another ungrateful one like his. Perhaps he is yet another embodiment of that horror of parricide that stories have been fascinated with from the ancient Greeks till now – a vague but emphatic and persistent horror. The history of literature, for one, is strewn with the bodies of dead fathers; from Oedipus to Karamazov, the same horror emerges. Parricide everyone agrees is fundamentally murder, another homicide, and yet why does it always feel like something peculiarly more, something fundamentally more unnatural? Remember the Defense Attorney’s speech, which comes at the famous Karamazov trial; the whole trial section of the book (The Brothers Karamazov) is amongst the best things ever written, one of the most beautiful, poignant, and elucidating sections in all of literature. All that, and brilliantly tense and dramatic too. The Defense Attorney on parricide and fathers is worth quoting at length:

“It is not only the totality of the facts that ruins my client, gentlemen of the jury,” he exclaimed, “no, my client is ruined, in reality, by just one fact: the corpse of his old father! Were it simply a homicide, you, too, would reject the accusation, in view of the insignificant, the unsubstantiated, the fantastic nature of the facts when they are each examined separately and not in their totality; at least you would hesitate to ruin a man’s destiny merely because of your prejudice against him, which, alas, he has so richly deserved! But here we have not simply a homicide, but a parricide!…

…Yes, it is a horrible thing to shed a father’s blood – his blood who begot me, his blood who loved me, his life’s blood who did not spare himself for me, who from childhood ached with my aches, who all his life suffered for my happiness and lived only in my joys, my successes! Oh, to kill such a father – who could even dream of it. Gentlemen of the jury, what is a father, a real father, what does this great word mean, what terribly great idea is contained in this appellation?” – The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The key of course is in “such a father” – for this is the Defense Attorney speaking. He goes on to make his defense around the fact that Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov (the murder victim) was not “such a father” as he had described. “[S]ome fathers are like a calamity,” he points out; Karamazov (Sr.) was one such. This speech is precisely what Fonda needs, in 12 Angry Men, to deliver to Juror #3; the drama of the thing lies in the fact that the boy’s defense lawyers are, unfortunately, not very good – he lucked out in a way even Dmitri Karamazov didn’t. This important speech goes unsaid, though its sentiments perhaps not unlearned. (I really do wonder how indebted to Dostoevsky Reginald Rose was….!). As Juror #3 finally breaks down at the end and chokes out his verdict of ‘not guilty’, perhaps he too acknowledges that some fathers can be calamities. This time, wondering about himself.

This post began with Dostoevsky, and it seems like a good idea to end with Dostoevsky too. In narratives of suspense, thrill, investigation, the pressure point always falls on the ‘crime’ of ‘crime & punishment’: perhaps as consumers of movies and books and TV shows, it’s because we have an insatiable curiousity, an unquenchable urge to know (whodunnit?). So very often movies and books end with the revelation (think Agatha Christie, of whom I am a great devotee!); the gory rest is silence. We know punishment will follow once the criminal has been caught or ascertained; every one of us does, but we don’t care to see the punishment or think about it. What is extraordinary about 12 Angry Men is that it forces us to think about the punishment first, and about the crime later (if at all). To quote brilliant, wonderful Ebert again, “[the film] is not about solving a crime. It is about sending a man to his death.” It’s not a plea to end all punishment, of course, but it is a valuable reminder that nowadays crimes & punishments are meted out in the human, not heavenly, sphere. Judges, juries, even witnesses are not all-seeing, all-knowing beings; worse, they have their own problems and prejudices to deal with. They are fallible and myopic, because people are. “You’re talking about a matter of seconds! Nobody can be that accurate!” cries out Juror #3 at one point in exasperation. “But testimony that can put a boy into the electric-chair should be that accurate,” replies Juror #8. Whether you read into this movie a critique of the death-penalty (because after all, surely all human testimony can be subject to reasonable doubt?) or whether you merely read into it a demand for greater care and consideration in deciding upon verdicts… it’s a lesson worth remembering. And this film is worth watching. And boy oh boy, it’s slightly corny to say it, but personally, I think it’s life-changing.

Some interesting links for folks:

The entirety of this film is available to watch, for free, on Youtube.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film is excellent (because he was wonderful and amazing!), and also has some interesting points in it about Lumet’s camera techniques.

An essay on the movie by Thane Rosenbaum, for the Criterion Collection.

And finally, the screenplay for the movie from Screenplay Explorer. (Note: it was a TV drama first, & I’m not entirely sure whether this is the script for the TV version or the movie version.)

"You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?"

“You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”

I grew up on a literary diet of dubious nutritious value: I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley Twins series (& like most things of dubious nutritious value, they tasted very good!). Till this very day, my bookshelf boasts a fair few of these thin paperback books (they came in so many bright colours!) — I haven’t read them in about eight years at least (maybe more), I think, but I was such good friends with some of these books that they are (hey Dylan!) practically “written in my soul”.

Out of the many hundred SVT books there are and that I’ve read, there was one which was my absolute favourite: it was called A Christmas Without Elizabeth, and came with the dramatic tagline, “What if Elizabeth had never been born?”. Elizabeth takes some money that Jessica and her Unicorns are going to use to throw a Christmas party, and gives it to a homeless family so that they can have a home for Christmas. They promise to pay it back before Jessica requires it, but fail to do so. Jess is furious when she finds out that the money is gone (as are the terrifying Unicorns, Lila Fowler & all – remember them, SVT fans?). A dramatic confrontation ends with Jessica uttering these monstrous words, words that no twin should ever say to another: “I wish you weren’t my sister, Elizabeth. I wish — I wish I’d never had a twin!” BOOM. Elizabeth runs away weeping to the mall and commits the cardinal sin of wishing she had never been born at all, whereupon she’s taken in tow by a sort of scruffy hippie angel called Laura, who decides to show her a Sweet Valley without Elizabeth. Thereby, of course, reinstating Elizabeth’s faith in herself and reiterating the necessity & importance of…er…appreciating what a wonderful life it is we all lead (but mostly that Elizabeth has led). Sound familiar, yet? Laura waxes lyrical, somewhere in the middle of the book, on a philsophy-cum-scientific theory about the ‘Sweater Effect’ that takes place in a world without somebody: “You change one thing and an endless number of other changes have to be made….You know how it is – you start yanking just one little loose thread on the sleeve of your sweater and pretty soon you can unravel the whole thing.” I don’t know if this still holds true of the high-tech (no doubt) sweaters in our day and age, but basically – I grew up believing in the Sweater Effect, & in the efficacy and necessity of little things. Just in case the sweater unravelled without one of ’em… Obviously the book has a happy ending – Elizabeth realises how many lives she’s changed/saved, and everyone else realises that Elizabeth has done a Good Deed and not stolen the party money for herself, and they use that money to throw her a big party at the end. Cool huh.

I read this book obsessively years ago, and thought it was an astonishingly amazing narrative/plot – SVT plots were usually OK, but this one was my absolute favourite. To re-imagine a world without you, & how different it could be! Amazing!

But sometime last year, I clocked onto the whole truth: the whole caboodle came from that strange movie people are so obsessed towards the end of December – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). A lot of things became clearer then; primarily,  it explained that I’d been living in a veritable cave for most of my life. Because everyone knew (& most loved) Jimmy Stewart, and largely thanks to this film. My epiphany last month (that James Stewart existed, & that he made awesome movies/was an amazing actor) was in actuality a very tragic and belated non-revelation after all. And as I went hurtling on with my James Stewart film-marathon (this past month), I realised that there was no avoiding it – I had to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and I couldn’t wait till December to do so. I knew it would make me weep like a fool; even the SVT book did, & I had reason to believe that It’s A Wonderful Life was even better than that. This movie tops lists compiled about ‘Peoples’ Favourite Christmas Movies’ almost every year (& has done for a few decades now, in both the US and UK); it has an 8.7 rating on IMDB (where the ratings are actually pretty trustworthy, most of the time); it’s #29 on the IMDB Top 250 (again, a good list!). The hype was up, & I was pretty scared. I don’t like watching movies that make me cry, because they’re usually pretty soul-destroying experiences.


(I’ve been snapping up a lot of these movie stills/Old Hollywood photos from Tumblr, randomly, so in case I violate any awful laws pertaining to what I can/cannot use on this blog, please contact me & I’ll remove it ASAP. I’m not very sure how many of these things are considered to be in the ‘public domain’…)

Well, & so too was this an utterly soul-destroying experience. I can safely say now – thank god for never, ever watching it on Christmas day! Christmas in my house is pretty boring (in that it passes by without comment, mostly, and is different to no other day except in that we all have holidays and lots of shops are shut), but to watch this then would make it downright bleak. And as for watching it repeatedly every year – No. Way. It sent me to bed with a migraine & a death-wish, that’s how sad it made me. It baffles me that it’s considered so widely an incredibly uplifting movie – I guess I can sort of see why, with the whole easy Christian consolation thing at the end (“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends!”) – but to accept that still doesn’t redress the fact that George Bailey’s life is a seemingly-endless series of thwarted dreams, hopes, and ambitions. In so thinking, I realised that it was fundamentally selfish and awful of me to think this way, favouring the personal over the communal and the superficial (holidays!) over the meaningful (friends! love!) etc etc, but I can’t help it. I honestly do feel this way. 

So many things to say about this movie – I’m going to dispense with the plot summary, because quite frankly, the SVT book copies it almost wholly (plus/minus a few modern references and romantic subplots), & also, I’m sure everybody knows. If you don’t, like Gandalf I must say to you, you shall not pass…go watch the movie.

I’ve been blitzing through the James Stewart cannon in largely (though not wholly) chronological order, so my run through specifically Stewart-Capra films began with You Can’t Take It With You (1938), went on to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), & finally came to rest here, with It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Between the first two films and this one came the war (in which J-Stew fought with great distinction & bravery, or so we are told, & in which Capra also enlisted, though neither of them was required to, I think, or even – in Jimmy’s case – met the requisite physical specs demanded of combatants!). This was the first film Capra and Stewart made after the war, and it was the last film of their grand eight-year, three-film collaboration. As such I was curious to see if it represented a sort of zenith in their work with each other, a culmination of things that had been growing very perceptibly from film to film (the difference in quality – both directorial and acting! – between You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith, for example, is immense).

Frank Capra & Jimmy Stewart = just chillin'. On some set or another (I think...of 'It's A Wonderful Life', but could be 'Mr. Smith'). An amazing partnership.

Frank Capra & Jimmy Stewart = just chillin’. On some set or another (I think…of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, but could be ‘Mr. Smith’). An amazing partnership.

Capra, who had churned out a whopping two to three films per year throughout the 1930s (& scooped up three Best Director Oscars in the space of five years – wheeeewf!), only made five more films after this one. I don’t know exactly what happened there, and how much of it was precipitated by the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life, believe it or not, was a  loss-making movie for Capra, though not quite a flop either. (Saddens me incredibly, because I think Capra was a brilliant director – he should have made many, many more wonderful movies; it would have been nice to see, perhaps, more worldly-wise cynicism from him in later films.) Nonetheless, I can see some sort of continuity between this film & Capra’s earlier films – notably You Can’t Take It With You (1938), which deals with almost exactly the same themes and dishes out (almost) the exact same moral sentiments. Lionel Barrymore (who plays a brilliantly evil Mr. Potter/banker in IAWL) played the eccentric hero-sage in YCTIWY (phewf: long title!!), the one who rejects the wretched world of corporate finance & banking in order to live a life of whate’er you please — doing good & having fun. Says Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff (Barrymore) to the pompous, evil, greedy banker that is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), in a speech worthy of Occupy Wall Street itself…

Scum, are we? What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool, Mr. Kirby. And a poor one at that. You’re poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some friends. While you with your jungle and your long claws, as you call ’em, you’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend.

The film (itself actually based on a play) gets its title from the Bible –  “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7) – and this is deftly adapted to modern parlance, and then brilliantly delivered by Barrymore in a great ‘showdown’ scene in a jail cell. (Long story…)

Maybe it’ll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.

Such ideas are echoed, though perhaps not as precisely articulated, in IAWL – only this time, James Stewart has to deliver them to Lionel Barrymore: “You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?”. (I find this contextual reversal quite ironic/amusing; Stewart is pretty insipid in YCTIWY, both as a character and consequently, perhaps, as an actor – it’s all the more amazing for me to compare these two films, only eight years apart. How much Stewart has grown as an actor – !!! It’s blinding! But this will be raved about later. Conversely, I must add, Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter is not as interesting a banker-villain as Edward Arnold’s Mr. Kirby is — Barrymore is an incredible actor — THOSE EYES!! — but the character lacks three-dimensionality; he’s too flatly villainous, with no compunctions or motives.) Banker-villain movies from the ’30s & ’40s are quite amusing to me, because… well. We’ve got our banker-villains too, haven’t we?! Seems like nothing has changed. (Only, where’s our Grandpa Vanderhoff, our George Bailey?)

This is the moral premise behind the whole 1946 film too: it’s why George Bailey ‘wins’ at the end (so to speak); it’s why we rejoice (so to speak). Bailey doesn’t have money, but he has friends, we think – oh hurray! For some reason, I buy this sentiment entirely as presented in YCTIWY – but I can’t fully buy it  in IAWL. Maybe the sufferings of George Bailey are just too much, and too dark, for it to be elided or forgotten with such a pithy, clichéd consolation at the end. Now, that’s something that can be said about how subtly but radically Capra’s directorial Weltenschauung had shifted: there’s suicides, evictions, poverty, broken love-affairs, embarrassments, humiliations, & moral guilt a-plenty in You Can’t Take It With You, but never, never, never does it ever feel as dark or as solemn as It’s A Wonderful Life contrives to do. Perhaps that’s why the fairy-tale ending works there but not here. (Mr. Smith comes somewhere in between, where it still works, albeit with qualifications.)  I can’t really pinpoint why: is it because the darkness in IAWL is so psychological & personal, whereas in YCTIWY it’s more of a narrative necessity? But then, too, Capra films are always geared towards tugging the heartstrings & unclogging the tear-ducts — maybe he just does it really well in IAWL. Unlike Lubitsch, who seems to entrap everything that’s ‘human’ or ‘Life’ about life in almost ineffable ways (so “light & airy” – Kael? – as to almost pass unremarked), Capra invests everything with overmuch tangibility/intensity – he practically slugs you in the face with emotion (and moral sentiment!) in a scene every five minutes. From childhood romances & ambitions to a more adolescent courting, to marriage & children & jobs & dreams  – all this big, heavyweight stuff is in IAWL; the narrative is basically a series of moments centered around these! In that famous Lubitsch-Stewart Christmas tale (underrated in comparison to IAWL), you need to really strain to catch such moments amidst the department-store hustle & bustle (they’re probably somewhere in between fetching things from the stockroom & wondering about bonuses). You don’t need to exert yourself so much with Capra; he gives it to you pretty eagerly. (This comparison is not meant to elevate Lubitsch over Capra or vice versa: I just find they have two very different, but equally wonderful/enjoyable, styles, & since there’s a small confluence in that they both worked with Jimmy Stewart on Christmas classics, I thought I’d mention it.)

A horrible darkness in the man's heart! :'(

A horrible darkness in the man’s heart! :'(

Oh boy. Where to begin with how amazing Jimmy Stewart is in this movie? Three spectacular scenes from IAWL I need to single out: the scene in Mary Hatch’s drawing room (before they answer the phone call), where you can see that George Bailey isn’t as ‘nice’ as he used to be but instead a bit more cynical & impatient, oh-so-subtly; the phone call scene (has any scene ever been invested with more electricity, eroticism, and tension than this one????); and the small scene towards the end, where George Bailey is thrusting newspapers proclaiming good news about his brother onto unwilling by-standers. This last one is absolutely heartbreaking; dunno how anyone knows how to bring out “Middle-aged man who used to have hopes & dreams but who’s lived out none of them, instead just sort of subsisting in the same town for decades while watching everyone around him leave and do stuff, & now he’s just a middle-aged man with not much to say whom people are just sort of tolerating” in your character’s stroll through town with a newspaper, but that’s everything Stewart manages to convey in that small scene. It’s heartbreaking!

Now, in the great Jimmy Stewart film marathon (no pun intended….) I’ve been doing over the past month, I’ve by & large stuck to his early, pre-war work. It began with The Philadelphia Story (1940), where my side-note gushings over how great he is in it slowly blossomed into a kind of creepy obsessiveness about him/his life/photographs of him on Tumblr/his movies. Oh my god, I thought in my third re-watching of TPShe’s actually pretty fucking brilliant. Suddenly the movie wasn’t all about Hepburn & Grant. So then I started hunting down this & that with James Stewart in it. I had seen Vertigo and Rear Window (my favourite Hitchcock film) a few years ago, but I (insane & embarrassing admissions upcoming) [a] never really noticed Jimmy Stewart as ‘brilliant’/otherwise while watching them [b] didn’t know he was ‘Jimmy Stewart’ [c] actually, I think, didn’t even realise it was the same actor in both (I watched them some time apart/ago, and my powers of memory are evidently pathetic).   In my defence, I was young and stupid. So as far as I’m considered, this grand marathon begins with his (Oscar-winning) drunken, cynical-but-still-innocent, really, Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story.

George Bailey is probably as plum a role as any actor can get – the sheer range of emotions alone that it requires of you is incredible (as any proper ‘life story’ must require, I suppose). But having said that, what makes the movie something slightly more than just sweet (or saccharine – a favourite word o’ mine when it comes to Capra, since his films do veer so very dangerously close to it! Watching ‘The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life‘, I was introduced to the word “Capracorn” – summarizes everything beautifully!), and slightly more than just fairy-tale-esque, is James Stewart. (Allegedly the script of IAWL was initially intended for Cary Grant — I cannot even imagine, love Grant though I do.) The whole horror of the film is entirely lost if one sees George Bailey simply as a “good man” – the way you could say, maybe, that Mr. Smith is, or the way Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff is in You Can’t Take It With You. For the film to reach the extremes of darkness that it does, it’s very important that George Bailey be a good man and more – rather, a man who’s good but at the expense of his own desires & ambition. And it’s quite important too that that sacrifice is a painful one. There are countless scenes in the film where James Stewart shows precisely this, and without words even – this is way beyond the script or the dialogue. When his face falls upon learning that his brother has been offered a job by his wife’s father – or when he enters the dilapidated ‘honeymoon’ house on 320 Sycamore Street for the first time (having postponed his glorious honeymoon, having given away all his money to save Bailey Building & Loan — yet he doesn’t say a word throughout this scene). I already mentioned the drawing-room scene & the walk through town scene. His face at the bar, when he’s getting drunk at Martini’s. These scenes are incredible; I don’t know how anybody gets so much expressed, leaving virtually everything unsaid. There’s something incredible about the way Stewart uses his eyes and eyebrows; raising his brows ever so slightly, maybe half a centimetre, less? – & he speaks worlds.

Look at this fantastically crazed expression!

Look at this fantastically crazed expression!

In reviewing a Jimmy Stewart biography, Geoffrey O’ Brien writes (NYRB, so might be behind a paywall):

He had preserved into middle age just enough of the boyishness and naive enthusiasm that animated his pre-war performances in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to keep that earlier impression alive for his longtime fans. It was only gradually that one registered just how completely the war years, when he was a bomber pilot, had altered him, within & without. Yet despite how much he may have changed, some part of him managed still to embody the ideal of the small-town boy.

I agree with most of this analysis wholeheartedly – only I take exception with the words “only gradually”. It’s almost impossible, for me, to reconcile his performance as George Bailey with his pre-war performances – and this transition hardly feels gradual (although within the scope of the film itself, Bailey’s transformation from young noble idealist to bitter middle-aged man is pretty gradual, yes). No way — I mean, no way. True, the majority of roles Stewart played in pre-war years were ‘nice’ ones — not too much darkness, sometimes not any; the most they ever brought out of Stewart was a laughter-inducing sort of cynicism à la Philadelphia Story or Shop Around the Corner. (In After the Thin Man, one of Stewart’s earliest ‘big’ roles, he does have a pretty sinister piece to play – but it is so relatively small & muted a part, it seems like a strange narrative aberration rather than something you can take seriously as a facet of this actor.) This film, IAWL, makes it worse because it does its level best to remind you of precisely that gawky awkward pre-war Jimmy – the entire first part of the movie plays off precisely the early Jimmy persona he had crafted & done so well. And ultimately the whole pathos of the thing rests, to some extent, on the fact that you’re watching not just George Bailey but Jimmy Stewart (!!), “Aw shucks”, small-town boy, break down on screen in a way you could never even have conceived of in, say, 1940. “Yet,” continues O’Brien later on in the same piece, “undoubtedly, to revisit the pre-war Stewart in light of his later career is to be startled by a fresh-faced charm, almost eerily unmarked by experience, which was never to be seen again.” No; never. It stopped right there with It’s A Wonderful Life — whether because of the war (perhaps he was really changed inside), or because of this movie (maybe it forced him to discover new dimensions to his acting), who is to say? After IAWL came the famed Hitchcock-Stewart films (dark), the Mann-Stewart films (dark), and odd one or two’s like Harvey (1950; profoundly tragic in some undefinable way) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962; dark). Perhaps it was not just Stewart, though — after all, the screwball era was pretty much over too by 1946, and even if Stewart isn’t known as a ‘screwball comedy’ legend, I think it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that his pre-war films certainly channel the madcap, light-hearted, footloose/fancy-free ethos of that genre. Perhaps what changed with the war was the sort of glorious, happy simplicity that people could depict in films or enjoy at the movies. So people start tapping into the darker recesses of human nature – and that’s when you get the James Stewart of Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window; the Cary Grant of Notorious.

What he used to be :-(

A hint of the 1930s Jimmy here!

It almost feels as if Capra was drawing things out of Stewart with each further film they made together, and in IAWL it really does reach a certain zenith: if Mr. Smith is merely disillusioned, George Bailey is brought to the very brink of life & despair. Capra first put that mild-mannered, ‘fresh-faced’ (yep – he was!) stringbeanish sort of fellow in You Can’t Take It With You, in what can only be called a fairly characterless supporting role – the real star of the show is Lionel Barrymore. Then Mr. Smith: so much more full-bodied, and a brilliant filibuster scene for Stewart where he really comes into his own, for the first time perhaps, as an actor. And then this. Capra drew something out of Stewart for the very first time in this film — & god knows what! — that people like Hitchcock and Mann then pounced on. They wanted precisely this sort of darkness, this sort of psychological two-facedness (which Hitchcock utilizes somewhat in Rope (1948), though I still feel Stewart is miscast in it — the Stewart of Rope is not the Stewart of Vertigo, who is still ten years away at this point; & that’s the sort of Stewart Hitchcock probably needed). I know I keep waffling on about ‘darkness’ without being able to say precisely what it is: it’s the anger with which Bailey flips out at Uncle Billy, the look on his face as he waits for his clothes to dry after saving Clarence, the way he weeps on the bridge, the way he shouts on the phone. All of this I guess. Darkness. The look on his face as he considers the thought that he’s worth more dead than alive.

Let me live, is it?

(They sure had good make-up artists, it must be said.)

* * *

Before it was a wonderful life for James Stewart, though, it was a wonderful world. Not many people seem to have heard of It’s A Wonderful World (1939), a film directed by W. S. Van Dyke and co-starring Claudette Colbert (who is great!). W. S. Van Dyke had previously cast Jimmy as the villain in After the Thin Man (1936) — now, he’s no villain here, but he’s certainly not the most palatable hero either. Among some of his more awful deeds are lines like, “I’ve thought to myself, `Well now, this, this just can’t be—that all dames are dumb and all men ain’t,’ but that’s the way it seemed to me…I don’t know, I always figured they all ended at the neck…” (feminist film critics – take note), & a terrible sock in the face for Claudette Colbert when she gets to be a little too annoying. As a side-note, it’s fascinating how licentious old films are in some respects: copious smoking, for one, as if any scene in which an actor’s hands were idle were sinful somehow (all of them!); drunk driving (IAWL The Philadelphia Story!); casual violence against women, usually manifested as a slug in the mug (It’s A Wonderful WorldThe Philadelphia Story).

Claudette trying to worm her way out of trouble. But Jimmy ain't impressed. No sirree.

(Claudette trying to worm her way out of trouble; Jimmy ain’t impressed, though. Nope. Isn’t that just about the best unimpressed face you’ve ever seen?)

It’s A Wonderful World (1939) isn’t a blindingly brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s damn good fun, and everyone should give it go for this reason alone. (All I ask of my films is that they be fun, fun fun fun! And this one is.) Stewart plays a horribly cynical, misogynistic (see above), mercenary little private detective, whose client has just been framed for murder. The promise of riches if he can discover the real killer and get his (very wealthy) client off the electric chair seduces him into a series of adventures, mostly alongside poor Claudette Colbert. Colbert plays a poetess, who goes (bizarrely) from loathing & fearing Stewart (who, to be fair, does threaten and abduct her, in addition to stealing her car) to clinging onto him relentlessly. He does his level best to rid himself of her through interminable meanness & ploys, but she won’t have any of that — and it’s just as well, since she pretty much saves him (repeatedly), his client, his promised reward, and captures the real criminals. Not bad for a dame, huh! All’s well that ends well.

It’s a sweet film, and nothing exemplifies better the stark differences in Stewart’s pre- & post-war careers than the differences between the way you’ll see him here and the way you’ll see him in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s not, strictly-speaking, a ‘nice’, goofy, romantic lead in this film, but he’s so very…well, “fresh-faced”, even in his unpalatable meanness! It’s interesting that W. S. Van Dyke (a director I don’t know anything about!) cast him in two unflattering roles in the ’30s (Van Dyke also directed After the Thin Man, in which Stewart plays — cover your eyes if you haven’t watched/don’t like spoilers! — a murderer!). Perhaps Van Dyke prepared Stewart for Capra who prepared him for Hitchock….??? Exciting chain of influences. Now I haven’t watched all of the pre-war stuff, but I’m fairly sure that these Van Dyke roles were amongst the ‘worst’ Stewart got in those days. And it’s pretty telling that in this movie Guy Johnson isn’t really a ‘bad’ guy; bad-tempered and money-grubbing, sure, but still fundamentally lovable/attractive, as indeed Colbert finds him. (There’s a few sly directorial nods to Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in this film, which also starred Colbert.)

It’s A Wonderful World (1939) & It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – only seven years between them, but oh, nothing shows just how different Stewart was in 1946 than juxtaposing these two films. (You could probably do it with many of his pre-war films, but these two have similar names, so….obviously you should do it with them). It’s practically like two different actors; & when you realise it’s not, well then, you realise that he’s just a very, very, very good actor. Thank you Margaret Sullavan, for giving the world Jimmy Stewart.

VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION — Geek chic. Who wears it better: Cary Grant as science nerd in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Jimmy Stewart as Boy Scout in It’s A Wonderful World (1939)


 VS geekchic

Now Jimmy’s grand & all… but I… I think I’ve got to go with Cary Grant! Jimmy wins a little prize for more ludicrous facial expressions though. And also for having his eyes preposterously magnified behind those lenses.

Mr. Smith in Washington - complete with Lonely Planet-esque travel guide!

Mr. Smith in Washington – complete with Lonely Planet-esque travel guide! “Hey, this place only has a three-star review….”

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 Washingtonand 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.

Poster for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939).

Poster for ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939).

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…)


Having ‘fun’ with the press, you might say.

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.

Dreamy-eyed visions of the great American Constitution.

Dreamy-eyed visions, once-held, of the great American Constitution… Which unfortunately soon turns to despondency and grief (beautifully relayed, courtesy of Frank Capra’s directorial skill & Jimmy Stewart’s gorgeously expressive face.)

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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.

Mr. Smith brought apples and a flask for his filibuster. Now that's what I call 'well-prepared'.

Mr. Smith brought apples and a flask in for his filibuster. Now that’s what I call ‘well-prepared’.

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 (yesLove 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.

Letters & letters, letting Mr. Smith down. His lost cause exposed.

Letters & letters, letting Mr. Smith down. His lost cause exposed.

* * *


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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.

Jean Arthur being crazy + wonderful.

Jean Arthur being crazy + wonderful. (And me, committing the cardinal sin of putting GIFs into a post! I’m really sorry – it was too good not to.)

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.

Liberty! Liberty!

How can you not believe a man who gazes at you thus, with his hand on the Constitution, no less?

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!

A tiny bit of cinematic/suspenseful glory for both the audience & Mr. the finger.

A tiny bit of cinematic/suspenseful glory for both the audience & Mr. Smith… the finger.

He moves the finger. The audience sighs, collectively: yes. Finally.

He moves his finger. The audience sighs, collectively: yes. Finally.

So long folks, & thanks for all the fish.

So long folks, & thanks for all the fish. (And geez, this guy – look at this. It’s genius. He’s a bloody amazing actor….)

"The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world - is the privileged classes enjoying their privileges."

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world – is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” – The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Sometimes you think something, and then you find yourself liking that thought so much, you use it to excess – maybe it’s what the thought expresses, or the particularly nice rhetorical flourish you use to construct it. Or maybe you don’t do such things; maybe it’s just me. Either way, one such thought I fell in love with once was this – the movies, I thought, are like anaesthesia, the movies are like morphine. You walk in to watch them and everything else that’s ugly & awful melts away. I fell in love with the idea that that was the glorious, fundamental principle of the movies – this is what Hollywood was (and when I say “movies”, I mean specifically Hollywood as it came to be in the 30s & 40s & henceforth). Obviously this would-be truism has its limits: for one, the whole bit about movies being like some sort of escapist analgesic only works if the movie in question uplifts you, makes you laugh and not cry. For this reason alone I try and avoid ‘sad’ movies as best I can (sad in the sense of narrative; sad in the sense of theme) – not for me the Schindler’s Lists or Cuckoo’s Nests of the world. Gone are the days when I would put on The Notebook just in order to have a satisfying weep. Weeping is not satisfying anymore, in any sense. It also means you sometimes have to ignore movies with overt socio-political commentaries and explicit ideologies; the Eisensteins and Griffiths of the world, technical geniuses no doubt, but still – they don’t belong to the ‘escapist’ school of cinema. Screwball comedies might not seem to be at the technical forefront of their art – Capra and Hawks are no Eisenstein or Welles, but that doesn’t really matter to me. As Stanley Cavell importantly points out, in his seminal work on screwball comedies, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) —

what is good in a film may not depend on its overt showmanship. It would follow that the craft lies in its effects, not in its basis; that the workmanship is arbitrary, not authoritative.

And what are the effects of popular entertainment? Simply that, I guess; it entertains, it amuses, and that seems to me as noble and as grand a reason to love, admire, and respect certain things as any.

Say what you will about Hollywood & what it did to us, modern society, as people – about the whole ‘star’ system or ‘celebrity’ business, about its basis in appeal-to-the-masses-&-rake-in-the-profits capitalist ethos (by and large true then, and true now), about how when the ‘talkie’ came in, film often became little more than a hyper-technological form of drama (disregarding all of Eisenstein’s warnings), or about how the ideals of beauty & romance that the silver screen presented to us over years slowly became imbibed like poison, working on our psyches to our psychological and physical detriment (for we all want to be skinny, now, and we all want fall in love like they do in the movies).  Despite all this, I love a certain sort of Hollywood – a certain vision of the world the movies presented to us, saccharine and strait-laced (thanks to Production Codes and whatnot); simplistic (yes) and uncomplicated except in a farcical sense. Most of the time it seems to me that the murders in film noir are as uncomplicated as the romances are in screwball comedies (exceptions in the former category for M by Fritz Lang and Sunset Boulevard, because those two films really do delve into the psyche more than I find films like Double Indemnity etc. did). And god knows but simplicity is nice sometimes – when all you need to worry about when falling in love is where the bone is buried, or how to pip other reporters to the scoop. Metaphysical questions reduced to questions of trust and faith in relationships, and above all, to having fun and adventure (c/f Holiday, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire…almost every single one!). More often than not former lovers are abandoned because they’re not fun (like the Puritanical Miss Swallow and the greedy King Westley), or returned to because they are (like Walter Burns). Fun is important, both in the films’ effects and in their themes. Life together has to be fun, otherwise it is fundamentally lacking, these films seem to say; perhaps they suggest the same thing about films themselves: films have to be fun, too, otherwise perhaps the relationship between spectator & spectated lacks something too.

Hollywood sprang up alongside department stores (with big wide windows so people could look in and see the pretty things), consumerism on an unprecedented scale, cities on an unprecedented scale, relationships in a previously-inconceivable light (marriages didn’t need to wait for death in order to end, all of a sudden, it seems). And it embodies all of these things. The talkie was born shortly before the Great Depression, and one of the most enduring ideas about the screwball comedy has been that it was escapist panacea for an economically sick nation, an impoverished and financially distraught world – Stanley Cavell calls this idea “a piece of folk wisdom”, but I wouldn’t discount it just for that. People still speculate that some films – like Holiday (1938) – failed at the box office because they presented views Depression audiences couldn’t empathize with (Johnny Case wants to give up his job and go for a holiday, a radical idea by all accounts, rejecting both the financial security of a job and of an heiress wife! – but can you imagine? When jobs are so hard to come by? And could we repeat this incredulity here and now, in our own little Depression?). Caleb Crain points out, in a piece in The New Yorker, exactly why it “might seem nervy of Hollywood to give an audience slogging through the Great Depression a story about rich people wondering how, why, or even whether they should work…” (but then points out that these doubts were “widespread”, in those days. Makes me wonder about now; it doesn’t seem so different not.)

 And then you have My Man Godfrey (1936), which was “a runaway hit“: the story of a rich heiress who through happenstance meets a homeless man in the city dump, hires him as her wealthy family’s butler, and falls in love with him. It appeals fundamentally to dreams of aspiration, and has basically a fairy-tale quality to it. (There are countless aspects of it which also bespeak an inherent conservatism, particularly the fact that although Godfrey is a ‘homeless man’ when we meet him alongside Irene, he’s actually not a homeless man but a Boston Brahmin and a Harvard man to boot, masquerading as one. The narrative resolves itself beautifully without ever having to confront the real bogey in the room: what of cross-class love affairs and marriages? But never mind that for now – the fairy-tale structure is sustained for long enough, and the ending conservative enough, to please everybody.) But why? Well, as James Stewart puts it so blithely (and astutely) in The Philadelphia Story, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world… is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” God yes. To me, this statement is 30s/40s romance comedies in a nutshell; in large part, this is the movies in a nutshell. Make of “privileged classes” what you will (maybe in the 30s rich heiresses were all the rage; maybe these days it’s spies & action heroes, enjoying their ‘privileges’ – the license to kill? God knows.). I call this Breakfast At Tiffany’s syndrome; finding comfort in the mundaneness of capitalism, and in the idea of luxury (however obscene or unfulfilling you know it might actually be). Because isn’t there something nice about the fact that if one were to have breakfast at Tiffany’s, one wouldn’t be worrying (perhaps) about life and death and love ETC? I always wonder about Holly Golightly (who is inseparable in my mind from that other amazing Hepburn, of course!) and her crazy love of Tiffany’s. Maybe because  the glitzy glamorous world of large, posh diamond stores is really a bit shallow – and shallowness can be another way of saying simple, uncomplicated. Like screwball comedies like to be, sometimes. Maybe my (our?) enjoyment of this luxury & leisure in film traverses the uneasy line between aspiration and condemnation (like Mike Connor’s), just like the line between representation & critique can often be vague.

Stanley Cavell has a deeply philosophical theory about this – he rejects, as I mentioned above, the idea that these films and the privilege they routinely depicted has anything to do with the socio-economic context in which these films were made. He says instead that these films scrutinize the meaning – or the achievement? – of human happiness, and that this activity (the pursuit, or examination, of human happiness) can only take place in contexts of luxury and satiated ‘basic’ needs:

…the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand, but the examination and transformation of them.

…[but] no one would say that it [the idea above] is applicable in all human contexts. It applies only in contexts where there is satisfaction enough, in which something like luxury and leisure, something beyond the bare necessities, is an issue. This is why our films on the whole take settings of unmistakable wealth; the people in them have the leisure to talk about human happiness, hence the time to deprive themselves of it unnecessarily.

Not just the leisure to talk about human happiness, I’d like to add, but the leisure to be free and bold – this is especially true of the heroines of so many of these films. Admittedly, I can’t help but get the feeling that in many of these movies (many/most of which feature a wonderful Grant/Hepburn pairing), someone like Katharine Hepburn is just playing versions of herself (Dorothy Parker once reportedly said, “Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” Well, but what an A, and what a B!): autonomous, free-willed, free-spirited, extraordinarily brave and bold in a world that hasn’t quite caught up with women like this yet. The snippet of scene in Holiday where Katharine Hepburn paces a playroom (in a horror film it would have been the site of some tragedy, or some waifish ghost) as her sister’s engagement party goes in full, grand, strait/dinner-jacketed luxury downstairs is such a memorable one: she is literally like a caged animal, desperate to get out, but not to the downstairs – to the outside. Stanley Cavell, by the by, said this first and better – he says the entire genre of ‘comedy of remarriage’ – which I’m going to call screwball comedy in common non-academic parlance – requires “the creation of a new woman, or the new creation of a woman….a new creation of the human”. His view is that this period in the history of film is also intimately bound up with a particular phase in the consciousness and representation of women, and he’s right – these are brave women, bold women, fun-loving, restraint-beating, adventurous women; they’re not on screen to make googly eyes at Cary Grant, but to lead him in a merry chase through woodlands of Connecticut or exhort him to be mad and go on a madcap holiday.

The Philadelphia Story actually managed to incite a tear or two from me on my second (most recent) viewing – and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why, for a while, and it felt wrong (because after all – a screwball comedy isn’t meant to leave one wiping away l’eau!). Well, but why not? Happy ending and all – but the story begins in what one might almost call a matriarchal setting. Tracy Lord, lord of manor of Lord, governing over her mother and her younger sister Dinah. Tracy’s first marriage to C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant) has failed (as we are pithily and effectively shown in the movie’s opening scene, which involves a broken golf club and Katharine Hepburn/Tracy Lord socked in the face, more or less), and her mother’s marriage is failing, as Tracy’s father is off philandering with a dancer in New York. Tracy does not approve, and her mother has taken a stand against it (presumably at Tracy’s urging). “It’s the only stand a woman could take and keep her self-respect!” Tracy declares. “Yes, dear, I know – now I have my self-respect, and no husband,” is the somewhat unenthusiastic response from her mother. And the possibility of keeping one’s self-respect and staying married…? Well, that’s what the film seems to want to interrogate. But slowly, one by unwanted one, the first husbands of both women trickle back into the house, on the eve of Tracy’s remarriage to George Kittredge – much to Tracy’s disgust, and her mother’s secret/Dinah’s not-so-secret delight. Poor Tracy suffers innumerable lectures, first from Dexter (“I’m contemptuous of something inside of you you either can’t help, or make no attempt to; your so-called ‘strength’ – your prejudice against weakness – your blank intolerance!”), then from her father (who with a straight face blames the “bronze”, unforgiving Tracy for driving him adulterously into the arms of younger women, and then finishes off by dismissing Tracy as “a prig or a perennial spinster, however many marriages” – ouch). She even has to deal with it from George, in the guise of love, as he lovingly calls her a ‘goddess’ (not Tracy’s favourite word at that point) and promises to build her an ivory tower (not quite what she wants, right then).

The only person who seems willing to give Tracy her appropriate due – or rather, a compliment of any sort – is the young reporter, Mike Connor (James Stewart). He’s a poet, really, and boy it shows – lines like, “You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you. Hearth fires and holocausts” – well, it would drive anybody into his arms. (And James Stewart is really, really, splendid – funny and charming and brilliant by turns – in this movie. It won him an Oscar. Rightfully so, although apparently he always believed it should have been given to Henry Fonda for Grapes of WrathWell, whatevs!). The straightforward ‘comedy of remarriage’ is somewhat complicated by Stewart’s character, because Tracy has not one, not two, but three suitors by the time her wedding day rolls around – and she’s uncertain. By the time the wedding ceremony comes around, she’s decimated. This is the story of a take-down, of how a spirited woman – who almost topples domestic patriarchy, but not quite – is subsumed back into the proper order of things. Tracy at the end of the movie is no longer the sharp, caustic woman of its opening – she’s humbler, a bit meeker, and less mean to Dexter and her father. I guess it’s all well and good, but it’s also a little bit sad: the narrative brings to our view a brilliant image, and then closes down on it conservatively. But, well – maybe  not wholly so

George: A man expects his wife to …

Tracy: (interrupting) …behave herself, naturally.

Dexter: (agreeing) To behave herself naturally.

I love this clever change of inflection from George to Tracy to Dexter. Even the removal of the comma doesn’t do the actual cinematic exchange justice. Cavell says this “is a piece of instruction at once moral and aesthetic – it speaks of a right way to live but at the same time tells how to act in front of the camera, and specifically how to deliver a line”. Gender roles are being scrutinized in film almost in a way Shakespeare’s plays do, toppling the natural into the performed and vice versa and generally messing everything up. And perhaps, on a narrative level, it gives the spectators some vision of a happy married life beyond the happy ending, too – wives behave naturally, and husbands can accept that. Who knows?

One last little side-note…the actress playing Tracy’s little sister, Virginia Weidler, is also splendid. This scene is one of the funniest, most ridiculous things I have ever seen – “What is this?”, and the looks on Ruth Hussey’s and James Stewart’s faces!

* * * * *

From the family album of 'Bringing Up Baby'.

From the family album of ‘Bringing Up Baby’.

It’s extraordinary to me that Cary Grant kept cropping up, in almost every screwball or semi-screwball or post-screwball comedy I put on play; why him? And why – how – was he simply so perfect in all those roles? Especially in his roles with Hepburn; even the somewhat slightly insipid script of Holiday was enlivened for me by their amazing on-screen chemistry. Hepburn was crazily self-willed (both in real life, I’ve read, and definitely on screen quite often) and independent, and Grant always seems to match her perfectly, without ever losing himself or his own dignity; whether he was a bespectacled science nerd, or a blue-blooded Philadelphian alcoholic, or a naïve idealist. This is a movie you feel, watching Hepburn/Grant on screen, about a relationship between equals. Same goes for His Girl Friday (1940), where Rosalind Russell matches Grant both in wit and whatever dialogue-per-minute record each of them got in that movie (phewf…this film was a real doozy – but what an exhilarating one!). I didn’t quite get that feeling from Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), where Priscilla Lane simpers insipidly, and screams a bit, or even, truth be told, very much from The Awful Truth (1937). Pauline Kael’s seminal New Yorker piece on Cary Grant, ‘The Man from Dream City’ (1975), pinpoints this bizarre – and yet beautiful (because who can help loving Cary Grant?) – quality in him:

With [Clark] Gable, sex is inevitable: What is there but sex? Basically, he thinks women are good for only one thing. Grant is interested in the qualities of a particular woman–her sappy expression, her non sequiturs, the way her voice bobbles. She isn’t going to be pushed to the wall as soon as she’s alone with him. With Grant, the social, urban man, there are infinite possibilities for mutual entertainment. They might dance the night away or stroll or go to a carnival–and nothing sexual would happen unless she wanted it to. Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn–or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner.

Grant was the leading man of fun and adventure – and it makes sense, ultimate sense, that he rocked the screwball comedy genre from start to finish. What’s so grand about his work with Hepburn is their energy, their athleticism. Comic timing translated into romantic chemistry, right from the pace of the action and the snappily-delivered quips – the camera loves it, and so do I (Kael calls the Hpeburn/Grant pairing a “true mating” – “they had same high-energy level, the same physical absorption in acting”.) It’s also entirely true what Kael says about Gable: I watched It Happened One Night (1934), and Gable was almost callous. “I am alpha-male! Me, me!” screams with every movement and every dark gaze and every line delivered. And of course he made a perfect Rhett Butler, the alpha-male and egomaniac supreme, tamer (?) of Scarlett O’Hara’s unrestrained madness.


“You call THAT big game-hunting???”

I found a delicious essay by Zadie Smith in the NYRB, which is basically a piece on Obama and voices. It’s a piece on changing voices (from one to another) and the sense of betrayal it carries with it; it’s also a piece about being multi-voiced (as Smith says Obama might just be…well; it was written in ’09), and a piece about having no voice, being from ‘Dream City’. (‘Voice’, in this essay, is the conflation of language and accent, identity and sound, all – all of it in that one word!). ‘Dream City’ is a direct reference to Pauline Kael’s (abovementioned) piece on Cary Grant. It’s a delicious essay to me because it’s both wonderfully wide-ranging – a romp from Obama to Cary Grant to Shakespeare to Keats, to Frank O’Hara to Macaulay to Halifax – and because it’s wonderfully pertinent and nostalgic at the same time. I love that Cary Grant becomes relevant to Obama, somehow, and that they are both relevant to how we can read Shakespeare, anotherhow.

And best of all, she puts her finger on Cary Grant’s peculiar self and that peculiar self as manifested in his peculiar voice. Cary Grant doesn’t really have an accent in most of his movies, but there’s the odd word that slips out here and there, where a ‘d’ is more enunciated than it ordinarily would be (“Riverdale”), or a word where one syllable doesn’t quite glide over the other, shorter one like it should (“Mr. Peabody”). It’s one of the quirks in Grant’s voice I love best – those odd little words, here and there. They slip out and make you pause: “Wait a second, what is that accent?”. It’s how they speak in Dream City, or so I suspect. (Katharine Hepburn doesn’t come from Dream City – she’s got the clipped tones of New England through and through. And it’s marvelous, just the way it is.)

What did Pauline Kael call Cary Grant? ”The Man from Dream City.” When Bristolian Archibald Leach became suave Cary Grant, the transformation happened in his voice, which he subjected to a strange, indefinable manipulation, resulting in that heavenly sui generis accent, neither west country nor posh, American nor English. It came from nowhere, he came from nowhere. Grant seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times, as it sometimes feels voters have dreamed up Obama in hard times. Both men have a strange reflective quality, typical of the self-created man—we see in them whatever we want to see. ”Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” said Cary Grant. “Even I want to be Cary Grant.” It’s not hard to imagine Obama having that same thought, backstage at Grant Park, hearing his own name chanted by the hopeful multitude. Everyone wants to be Barack Obama. Even I want to be Barack Obama.

I quite like Cary Grant: I think everybody does. He’s almost like a blank thing on screen, the space onto which we project all our desires and thoughts and constructions. In all the movies I’ve seen with him, from 30s/40s screwball to the later Hitchcock films and Charade, I can never quite figure out who he is. There’s no one definite character or aura that leaps out at you; you know his place in the narrative, of course, but there’s something about his character that is always more elusive and uncertain than his role in the story seems to be. Nobody quite gets Walter Burns (His Girl Friday), and nobody quite gets C. K. Dexter Haven (Cavell points out that a lot of the questions directed at Grant’s character in this film are left unanswered, deflected, in fact, by Grant’s repeating them – “Do I?”, “Wasn’t I?”, “Am I…?”). This opacity of identity reaches its apogee in Charade (1963), where Grant is “Brian Cruikshank (alias Peter Joshua, alias Alexander “Alex” Dyle, alias Adam Canfield)“. I think it sums up Grant’s elusive “What is it about him??” screen charisma and identity quite perfectly.

“Let us dally a little longer, be content still with surfaces only–the glossy brilliance of the motor omnibuses; the carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

– Virginia Woolf, Streethaunting

I’m watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window right now, and although I’m not too far in – so the suspense which would prevent me from pausing to rant on here hasn’t quite set in yet – I can’t help but think that this is a movie Woolf would have liked a lot. I like it a lot: watching people live la vita quotidiana unselfconsciously; the more diminished pathos of human life played out behind glass panes. It reminds me of that scene in The Voyage Out where Rachel & Helen watch people in the hotel.

“They had come out upon the broad terrace which ran round the hotel and were only a few feet distant from the windows. A row of long windows opened almost to the ground. They were all of them uncurtained, and all brilliantly lighted, so that they could see everything inside. Each window revealed a different section of the life of the hotel. They drew into one of the broad columns of shadow which separated the windows and gazed in. They found themselves just outside the dining-room. It was being swept; a waiter was eating a bunch of grapes with his leg across the corner of a table. Next door was the kitchen, where they were washing up; white cooks were dipping their arms into cauldrons, while the waiters made their meal voraciously off broken meats, sopping up the gravy with bits of crumb. Moving on, they became lost in a plantation of bushes, and then suddenly found themselves outside the drawing-room, where the ladies and gentlemen, having dined well, lay back in deep arm-chairs, occasionally speaking or turning over the pages of magazines. A thin woman was flourishing up and down the piano.”

– Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out

I like that about London, too, especially in the winter-time – the streets get dark very early, and everything is sort of shadowed and muted. No neon lights & bilboards galore, like the cities I’m used to. So I like looking at windows, empty frozen but lit-up living rooms, etc. I can’t quite figure out why, but there’s something incredibly comforting about it – maybe it reminds someone on the outside that there is a warmth, there is an inside, there is this cordoned-off little sanctum-space in which life plays itself endlessly, even if somebody else somewhere stops to watch. We are not all out on the streets, ‘hustling for a buck’ or running from point A to B with our heads bowed down and scarves wound tightly round: some of us bask in the glow of yellow lights & linger in the liminal space of tenement stairs.

'Rear Window'. From Google Images.

I suppose this would be a good time to add that I’ve been dreaming of New York. I have never been there, but I tend to have a nostalgia for places I’ve never seen anyways – one absorbs their (often falsified, poeticized, romanticized – yes, all of that) aura from Paramount pictures in 1950s Technicolor, from the pages of feverishly typewritten novels, et cetera. I want to go to New York so very badly!