In these troubled times, with both left and right factioned against themselves, you’d think more angry politics would be up there on screen. Wasn’t this supposed to be the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression?
In the ’30s, the screen was full of visions of riot and turmoil — sometimes as farce, but often with deadly seriousness. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” was the logical culmination of a series of films in which inefficient blustering and cynical corruption were the status quo.
Americans no longer have the same intense feelings about Congress as they did then, maybe because we know way too much about the mechanisms that drive American politics. Constant TV coverage means instant analyses of every last speech and campaign gesture — it’s no longer possible to be suspicious but uninformed (unless, you know, you want it that way). maybe that’s why the Naughts haven’t produced anything like the headache-inducingly strange political films of the ’30s.
The “Mr. Smith” sub-genre goes like this: A man — either naive or uninterested — comes to the capital, discovers rot and does something about it, over strenuous protests, frequently by means of dubious legality. Two films I’d group in this category are also among the stranger ones I’ve ever seem. There’s 1933’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” with Lee Tracy as a man who heads up to D.C. to do the people’s business. After spending some time hectoring soldiers striking for their bonus pay as lazy leeches, the whole thing culminates in a happy ending — with [SPOILER] the forced finishing of a corrupt lobbyist, surely the only time a pressured suicide has qualified as a happy ending.
“Gabriel over the White House,” from the same year, is just as nutsoid with a higher death-count. Indifferent, do-nothing lackey Judson Hammond has an auto accident while in office and becomes possessed by God. This leads to some quick changes: the army takes over, bootleggers are shot and God’s work is generally done with crypto-fascistic efficiency. He’s FDR on speed.
There are many other films like this that are even harder to see, like 1939’s “Rovin’ Tumbleweeds,” where singing cowboy Gene Autry manages to get flood control legislation passed, or 1933’s straightfowardly titled “Corruption” and 1932’s “The Washington Masquerade,” in which Lionel Barrymore redeems himself in front of an investigative committee.
In the ’30s, it seems, we could only bear so much reality. The corruption was a given, the means of vindication a total fantasy. After WWII, the cycle stopped, and political movies since have focused on the failings of specific politicians (mostly in the Nixonian mold) or campaigns. No longer would bright, colorful reformers come to Washington and win — we know too much.
[Photos: “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Columbia, 1939; “Gabriel Over The White House,” MGM, 1933]