Lessons from 'Mr. Smith'

The Baltimore Sun

With the headlines dominated by news that the governor of Illinois was apparently looking to sell off the state's U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, maybe it's time for all of us to sit down and watch Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (12:15 p.m., TCM) for a reminder of what American politics could (dare one suggest, should?) be all about.

James Stewart, in a role that should have won him an Oscar as the Best Actor of 1939, is Jefferson Smith, a rube from the backwoods, picked by political bosses to fill the seat of a deceased U.S. senator. Though chosen because the bosses felt he could be easily controlled, Smith soon proves himself to be made of sterner stuff. When his pet project, an outdoors camp for boys, threatens a dam project that could line the bosses' pockets with some serious money, they - and much of the U.S. Senate - turn on him. But Smith, whose faith in the ideals of American democracy remains both pure and unshakable, is determined to expose the corruption surrounding him.

Smith himself may be naive (at least he starts out that way), but Capra certainly wasn't; there's a dark, cynical core to Mr. Smith that makes it a lot less cornball than first impressions suggest. True, right triumphs in the end - thanks to that most bizarre of Senate traditions, the filibuster - but it's a close call.

Capra may have had his ideals, but he was also a realist. His overriding theme, that individual honor can trump institutional or societal corruption, makes Capra less a dreamer than a visionary - one millions of Americans continue to emulate, every time they cast a vote and hope the next man (or woman) will do a better job than the last.

For a dose of Dickensian Christmas fare, two versions of A Christmas Carol air on TCM today. At 4:45 p.m., Reginald Owen is Ebenezer Scrooge in 1938's A Christmas Carol. Albert Finney gets to play the old humbug at 6 p.m. in 1970's Scrooge.

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