Class Versus Crass: A Comparison of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Distinguished Gentlemen”

The film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was produced in nineteen thirty-nine and was directed by Frank Capra. When released a few weeks after the German invasion of Poland, it came as a who-needs-it-now irritant to many leaders in the film industry. (White) Capra’s film about an idealist who defies his venal fellow congressmen angered those who felt that it was an inappropriate time to criticize such a venerable democratic institution as the Congress. (White) A movie trailer for this film was produced featuring H.V. Kaltenborn, at the time a world famous commentator. Today, Kaltenborn is best remembered for being the news anchor that erroneously predicted Thomas E. Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in the presidential election of nineteen forty-eight. The trailer begins by announcing, “The most important announcement this theater has ever made”. Kaltenborn goes on to say, “This significant picture emphasizes democracy in action” and that he considered it “a real privilege and a real experience to have played even a small part in it”. The nineteen thirties will forever be remembered for the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazism and the recognition of the U.S.S.R by the United States and the United Nations. (Infoplease). Both fascism and communism had strong proponents in the United States during the thirties, communism perhaps the stronger because of its appeal to the workingman during the Great Depression and its widespread associations with the labor movement. Mr. Capra was a pioneer in gaining autonomy over the films he made, from the first concept to final cuts. (Flint) Capra movies were idealistic, sentimental and patriotic. (Flint) While the government was aware of the powerful propaganda effect that movies could have upon the American public, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was not produced at the suggestion of the United States government. However after 1941, Colonel Capra produced a series of acclaimed propaganda movies showing the contrast between freedom and totalitarianism. (Flint) Still it appears obvious that Capra made the film with the idea that while American government had its problems, it also had democracy as its greatest solution.

The Distinguished Gentlemen was produced in nineteen ninety-two and directed by the British director, Jonathan Lynn. The film received mixed reviews, many of them less than complimentary. One critic suggests that executive producer Marty Kaplan’s script was “riddled with dull, sitcom morality and pedestrian jokestering.” (Howe) While many commentators compare The Distinguished Gentleman with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I felt the film was also reminiscent of a nineteen forty-one Bob Hope comedy called Louisiana Purchase ¬, directed by Irving Cummings, which focused on corruption in the Louisiana legislature during that time. Corruption in government is a recurring theme in literature and drama. Another example of this would be Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, a commentary on the rampant corruption in American government during the late eighteen hundreds. (French) The early nineteen nineties will be remembered for the fall of Communism across Eastern Europe, the end of the cold war, the unification of Europe, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. (Infoplease) The Reagan administration had its share of scandals in the late eighties. By the end of his term, one hundred and thirty-eight administration officials had been convicted, had been indicted, or had been the subject of official investigations for official misconduct and/or criminal violations. (Johnson) George Herbert Bush’s administration continued to be tainted by details of the Iran-Contra Affair and beleaguered by the Clarence Thomas confirmation battle. Bill Clinton had just been elected President and so this film cannot be considered a commentary on his administration. I think that The Distinguished Gentlemen played to the public’s memories of the corrupt Nixon White House and the ensuing loss of confidence in succeeding governments and perhaps also as a liberal jab against two consecutively successful Republican administrations. Both Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Distinguished Gentlemen exposes the danger that corruption in government poses to the well being of the American people. Whether the United States faces an enemy from without such as the Nazis, or whether that enemy is all but vanquished as it was during the end of the cold war, there is always the danger of the enemy within.

Synopsis of the Films

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Senator Sam Foley is dead, and Hubert Hopper, the governor of the midwestern state that he was from must appoint his successor. Jim Taylor, owner and publisher of several newspapers in the state and head of the political machine, has told the governor to appoint a political hack to the office in order to ensure that a piece of legislation before the United States Congress appropriating money to build a dam in the state, at a place called Willet Creek, will be approved. Taylor has arranged to buy up most of the land upon which the dam will be built through dummy corporations, and is planning to make an illegal profit. The other senator from the state, the Honorable Joseph Paine (Claude Raines) has also taken similar advantage of the situation.

Governor Hopper is being pressured by citizen’s groups to appoint one man, and by Taylor to appoint another. Both are threatening to unseat him. His children suggest that he appoint Jeff Smith, (Jimmy Stewart) a naïve youth leader, well known and respected in the state. Governor Hopper decides to appoint Jeff, believing he will be able to be manipulated because of his youth and inexperience.

Jeff Smith idolizes Senator Paine, his father’s longtime friend. Jeff’s father, now deceased, was the publisher of a small newspaper and had a reputation as a “champion of lost causes”. While Jeff’s father was alive Joseph Paine shared his idealism but has since become jaded. We soon discover that the son is a chip off the old block.

Senator Paine has provided the junior senator with an aide, Ms. Saunders, (Jean Arthur) who has nothing but contempt for the new senator, believing him a fool or at worst a hypocrite. She leaves him to the mercy of reporters who make a mockery of him in the press. Saunders is ready to quit but Senator Paine offers her a substantial bonus to keep Smith away from politics, especially the “Willet Creek Dam Project”.

The new senator learns that he has been misrepresented in the press. He physically assaults members of the media and finally chases one into the Washington Press Club. He accuses the members assembled there of sacrificing truth for sensationalism. In turn, the members of the press give the new senator a lesson in truth, showing him how vulnerable and unprepared he is for his new job.

He consults with Senator Paine who, in order to distract him, suggests that he and his aide focus on a bill for a national boys camp, Smith’s own idea. The camp is to be built in their home state. Working late with Saunders on the bill, Smith waxes philosophical saying that he wants the camp to be more than a few months away from the city for under privileged boys:

“Boys forget what their country means … Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say; “I am free – to think – to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can. My children will.” (Gasser)

Realizing that Smith is sincere, Clarissa Saunders begins to fall in love with him. The camp is to be built “along a stretch of land a quarter of a mile on either side of Willet Creek”, the same site as the dam. Saunders lets him introduce the bill even though she knows it will ignite a political firestorm.
Jim Taylor, publisher and party boss, comes to Washington. He offers Smith a future in politics if he is “smart” and tells him that that Paine is in his pocket. Smith calls him a liar and seeks out Senator Paine, who shamefully confides in him.

“It’s a question of give and take – you have to play by the rules – compromise – you have to leave your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.”…”You’ve got to compromise”…”You can’t count on people voting. Half the time they don’t vote anyway!” (Gassner)

Senator Paine entreats the young Senator not to speak when the deficiency bill comes up for a vote. When Smith ignores his advice, Senator Paine tricks him into yielding the floor and then accuses him of the very crime that Paine, and the machine are guilty of, that of using his office to personally profit from the pending legislation. The media, partially owned and spurred on by the Taylor publishing empire, runs with the devastatingly libelous story. Smith is so shocked at the outright lies and false witnesses being produced against him that he flees senate hearings without testifying.

Disillusioned, Jeff reckons himself a fool and plans to return home a failure, but is convinced by Clarissa Saunders to continue the battle. He rises to speak in the senate and requests a week to return to his home state to make his case. When he is refused he states that he intends to hold the floor of the senate until the truth about what he is saying gets back to his own state. A filibuster is in progress.

It is at this point in the film that H.V. Kaltenborn makes a cameo appearance. Calling it “democracy’s finest show” and “free speech in its most dramatic form” Kaltenborn also explains the rules for a filibuster; that the speaker cannot sit down, leave the chamber or stop talking. He remarks that the envoys of several dictator powers have come to see what they cannot see at home, “democracy in action”.

As Smith continues his filibuster, the Taylor machine works to suppress the story in his home state. Local police wielding fire hoses quickly put down public demonstrations in support of Smith. Jim’s youth organization attempts to spread the word through it’s newsletter but the Taylor machine smashes their press, steals their papers, and causes physical harm to occur to some of the boys. Smith’s mother sends word to him to stop for the sake of the boy’s safety.
By this time Senator Smith has proved himself to be a brilliant orator, and has gained the support of many in the Senate chamber including the president pro-tempore , artfully portrayed by Harry Carey. Time is running out. Senator Paine has brought into the hall thousands of letters and telegrams from a public misled by the Taylor media, demanding that the weakened Smith cease his filibuster. Unfazed, Smith vows to fight on even to the point of death. Overcome by exhaustion he collapses on the floor of the Senate. Stricken with guilt and remorse that he has been cause of Smith’s downfall, Paine goes off into a cloakroom and unsuccessfully attempts to shoot himself. Rushing back onto the Senate floor, Paine proclaims his own unworthiness to hold high office, Smith’s innocence and the veracity of his charges. Our hero, democracy, and the American way of life have prevailed.

The Distinguished Gentleman

The Distinguished Gentleman is the story of a con artist who rises to the office of United States congressman by trickery. The movie opens at a fundraiser being held for incumbent Congressman Jeff Johnson at the home of Zeke Bridges, the CEO of Superior Mutual Insurance. Thomas Jefferson Johnson is attempting to run a con game on the host by posing as a police detective working undercover as a waiter. He tells Bridges that he needs him to testify to his involvement with a phone sex service. His scheme exposed, he escapes with the money he has extorted and happens to overhear a conversation between Congressman Johnson and Olaf Anderson, the president of Gulf Coast Power Company. After listening, Johnson is convinced that the real way to earn fast money is to become a member of congress. Later on, Congressman Johnson dies of a heart attack at his office while engaged in a late night tryst with his aide.

In the next scene we see Tom Johnson, and his cousin, Miss Loretta, at his grandmother’s home. The grandmother exhorts him saying “Make me proud of you Thomas. Make me proud of the name you carry.” While watching television he realizes that his name is the same as the dead congressman’s and decides to run for congress hoping to be elected based solely on name recognition. Amazingly, he is elected by a slim margin. Being an experienced con man he is already a master of the art of political no-speak. But he still has a lot to learn about Washington.

At a fundraiser held by Olaf Anderson, Johnson meets a lobbyist who reconfirms Johnson’s hope of making a financial killing. It doesn’t matter which way he votes, there is plenty of money to be had from either side of any issue effecting big business. While at the fundraiser Johnson meets Congressman Dick Dodge the corrupt chairman of the Power and Industry Committee. Johnson plays the race card by having his staff impersonate various groups who inquire about the cultural makeup of the committee, forcing Dodge to offer Johnson a choice appointment.

Johnson meets another congressman; Eli Hawkins who is apparently the last honest man left in Congress. When Johnson hosts his own reception he meets Hawkins’ niece, Ms. Celia Kirby who is a legislative representative for “Pro Bono” a public advocacy group. Johnson becomes romantically interested in Kirby but has to listen to her socially progressive views as the cost of spending time with her. Meanwhile the new congressman and his staff have started to milk the special interest groups.

Johnson and Kirby have been spending more time together and her ideas are beginning to have an effect on him. Kirby says that she has chosen to work for a public advocacy group because her life “has to mean something”. Jefferson says that he believes in “Life Liberty ad the pursuit of Happiness, the whole black folks thing” but has up to this point specialized in the pursuit of happiness. Things, he said, “were going real good until I met you”. Celia takes Thomas to the church where Eli is preaching. In the halls of Congress, Eli continues to challenge Johnson on his ethics.

The pivotal moment of the film occurs when a woman, Ellen Juba, and her young daughter Mickey, pay a visit to his office and attempt to see him. The staff attempts to dissuade the two from seeing Johnson, and a struggle ensues. Just as Johnson enters the room, the young girl’s cap and wig are knocked off revealing her to be a recovering cancer patient. The Juba’s suspect that they are part of a“cancer cluster” caused by high voltage power lines in their neighborhood. Congressman Johnson attempts to schedule congressional hearings but is told that to hold hearings would endanger the financial well being of the insurance industry, the real estate, market, the school district, and the local economy. Chairman Dodge says, “Son the system ain’t perfect but the fleas come with the dog.” Anderson ends the meeting by offering Johnson $200,000 to start a state political action committee with “no strings attached”. Johnson has to tell Celia that the hearings are on hold.

Constantly thwarted in his efforts to bring reform legislation before the house, Eli Hawkins threatens to expose Dodge’s seamy side by challenging him to what would be for Eli, a futile bid for Speaker of the House. Dodge asks Johnson to smooth things over with Hawkins but secretly lies in wait for the opportunity to discredit him. At a private dinner with Johnson and Ms. Loretta, Congressman Hawkins, slightly in his cups, tell Johnson, “This town isn’t about passing laws any more, it isn’t about doing good any more. All its about is being here.” Later Miss. Loretta drives the two slightly inebriated congressmen home and is involved in a serious automobile accident. Dodge leaks damaging information about the accident and Loretta’s checkered past to the media, discrediting Hawkins. Celia Kirby blames Johnson for the entire incident and says that she never wants to see him again.

Johnson decides to run a con game against Chairman Dodge to get even. He convinces the Chairman and Olaf Anderson that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to launch an investigation on whether high voltage power lines cause cancer. After a private meeting with Anderson and Dodge, he gets them to admit their guilt on tape, and subsequently reveals this information at an open hearing to the delight of Eli Hawkins who watches on television from his hospital bed. Dodge is undone and is forced to resign. Johnson is now a national hero and also too well known to run confidence games. As he walks with Celia Kirby, he tells her that he is left with only one alternative. He is going to run for the president! Breaking the forth wall he looks at the audience and smiles as if to say, why not?

Analysis

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington utilizes many classic symbols of American democracy. Upon his arrival Smith is enraptured by the view of the Capital dome and at once embarks on a tour of democracy’s shines, ending at the Lincoln Memorial. He later returns to Mr. Lincoln for solace and strength in his darkest hour, just as the nation had done so many years ago. Upon his introduction into the Senate, Mr. Smith is led to a desk once used by Daniel Webster. At the time the film was made Mr. Webster’s name was still a powerful metaphor for the preservation of the Union and patriotism. Another device used by Capra was the cameo appearance of H.V. Kaltenborn, a real-life radio commentator. This lent an undeniable atmosphere of reality to the story.

Jim Taylor is the villain in the film. He brings to mind William Randolph Hearst as an obvious stereotype of the powerful and egotistical publisher who believes he can buy, make or break anyone with the power of his press. It is important to note the reason Mr. Taylor is corrupt. There is nothing wrong with owning a large portion of the media, newspapers, or radio stations in a particular area or even in a whole state and attempting to control public opinion. Nor is there anything wrong with being the head of a political machine. Political machines after all, ensure that everyone gets out and votes for the candidate that supports the party platform, and that everyone who is a member of the party receives the maximum benefit, access, and influence for doing so. No, the reason that Mr. Taylor is corrupt is that he has arranged to buy up most of the land upon which the dam will be built through dummy corporations, and is planning to make an illegal profit because of his prior knowledge.

The president pro-tempore of the Senate seems to represent the soul of the American people; their love of freedom, fairness and a good fight. Our hero of course is Jeff Smith, the ultimate Boy Scout, from somewhere in the Midwest, where clean living is still practiced and mom waits with apple pie. Even the good guys in Washington, the fourth estate, are depicted as alcoholic opportunists, who are at the same time skeptical and in awe of our boy wonder. In contrast back at home the concept of a free press is portrayed in the guise of optimistic youth and the salvation of truth and liberty. Writing about the film, Joseph P Kennedy, then ambassador to Great Britain and himself a former movie magnate, voiced the belief that “pictures from the United States are the greatest influence on foreign public opinion of the American mode of life,” (White) Having grown up watching Capra films I will say that I believe the great thing about them is that they make me believe that this is the way life should be, and that I should anything I can to make it that way.

The Distinguished Gentleman

Eddie Murphy in the role of Thomas Jefferson Johnson must be the hero of this film although I can’t tell you why. He is as crooked and corrupt a character as you would ever want to meet. Perhaps as it did in the nineteen thirties, America still views itself as a nation of underdogs, and identifies with the gangster/Robin Hood characters as were portrayed by Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Jefferson is depicted as a classical stereotype, the lovable con man with the heart of gold. The picture depicts the majority of congressmen as uniformed, unconcerned and unethical. The only decent individuals portrayed in the film are Johnson’s grandmother, Eli Hawkins and his niece, and all three appear either naïve or anachronistic. Johnson’s grandmother does not have a large enough part to be considered significant at all. Eli Hawkins is particularly ineffective and is shown as a spoiler, unable to negotiate with his colleagues, and preaching a gospel of social repentance rather than grace. The alcoholic haze from which he leers at Ms. Loretta, before the accident that proves to be his undoing, highlights his hypocrisy. Celia Kirby should be the true heroine of this picture, the sensitive, thoughtful, no doubt democratic liberal activist working for social and environmental causes. In the end she does have a rehabilitative effect on Jeff Johnson, but not before he has an opportunity to use his good old fashioned criminal know-how to save the day.

An interesting scene shows the Congressman Johnson off a hunting trip with the gun lobby, where they use semi-automatic weapons to hunt duck. It is unfortunate that the gun lobby has stated publicly that semi-automatic weapons have legitimate hunting uses. Anyone who understands this issue knows that their true purpose is political. Access to semi-automatic weapons provide average citizens with effective military arms should it become necessary to overthrow their own government, it having degenerated into tyranny. Nevertheless, the film’s director uses this scene to demonstrate the insincerity of various lobbying groups, while suggesting a left leaning philosophy on the part of the films creators. Other classic settings used to suggest special access and influence are the cocktail party, and the steam room. The movie had two or three incidents of gratuitous profanity unrelated to the plot unless it was meant to display a temporary lapse of savoir-faire by Johnson.

Both Smith and Johnson are suddenly catapulted to high office by unforeseen circumstance. Smith represents the best that America has to offer, Johnson the worst. Yet the moral of both films appears to be that in the end good will and the truth will triumph. But while Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stresses the overall goodness and patriotism of the American government and its citizens, Distinguished Gentlemen seems to make the opposite case, implying that things will work out for the best in spite of the overall corruption and self interest of the American government and its citizens. This would appear to be wishful thinking at its worst. A major theme of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the influence that role models and government have on children. Smith is ever conscious of his responsibility as a role model and of what he will have to tell the boys back home. We see this also in The Distinguished Gentleman when Tom Johnson is momentarily nonplussed when he has to address a group of school children outside the congressional chambers, and again when he sees the disappointment in the countenance of Mickey Juba.

Both films deal with superficial political issues that on their face, appear to have two sides to them. No doubt that the building of a dam would have had produced many favorable benefits for the state represented by Senators Smith and Paine. The crime was that Senator Paine was going to unfairly profit by it. In the same way, the arguments made that hearings about the relationship between cancer clusters and high power lines would endanger the financial well being of the insurance industry, real estate market, school district, and the local economy were reasonable ones. It is interesting to note that a nineteen ninety-six review by a prominent group of scientists at the U.S. National Academy of Science concluded that: “No conclusive and consistent evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.”(Moulder) The true crime was that congressmen were receiving payoffs in exchange for not exercising the deliberative process to decide the issue. However, it seems unlikely that the average audience member would be aware of these fine distinctions and would instead, see in both films evil represented by big business, whether in the guise of newspaper publisher, insurance or power company executive, and all undoubtedly Republican in their political affiliation. The nineties as well as the thirties have been times when the gulf between rich and poor has grown larger and therefore movies with a populist, rich versus poor, us versus them theme were likely to be successful.

Conclusion

Political corruption is a recurring theme throughout the history of man. In The Republic, Plato offers as a solution the idea that public officials should be given everything but forbidden to own anything as insulation against being influenced by bribery. While subject to danger from outside forces, the greatest danger to any state is the corruption of its own officials. Artists will create works that utilize and comment upon the political events of their time, especially when corruption is involved because of the public service that is performed in doing so, and because of the public interest in such subjects. The use of political stereotypes is an effective tool to produce knee-jerk emotional reactions in an audience irrespective of the content or quality of the screenplay in which they are employed. A man may be flawed, either by naïveté or by other baser character weaknesses, but the public will in no case forgive the monumental arrogance and pride that causes one man to believe he may ignore the civil rights of all other men. Films about political corruption serve society well by giving us an opportunity to think about these issues in a more relaxed philosophical setting than might otherwise be provided by reports in the daily media.

Works Cited

“1000–2000 World History.” Infoplease.com. © 2000 Learning Network. October 12, 2001 (http://www.infoplease.com/1000to2000.html).
Flint, Peter B.. “Frank Capra, Whose Films Helped America Keep Faith in Itself, Is Dead at 94”. The New York Times. September 4, 1991
French, Bryant Morey. Mark Twain and The gilded age, the book that named an era. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1965
Gassner, John, and Nichols, Dudley, Eds. Twenty Best Film Plays, Vol. II. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977
Howe, Desson. “The Distinguished Gentleman(R).” Washington Post December 4, 1992
Johnson, Haynes. Sleep-Walking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. New York: Doubleday, 1991
Moulder, John, E.. Power Lines and Cancer FAQs. Medical College of Wisconsin General Clinical Resource Center, October 10, 2001. (http://www.mcw.edu/gcrc/cop/powerlines-cancer-FAQ/QandA.html#1).
White, David, and Averson, Richard. The Celluloid Weapon. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972

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About Louis William Rose

“I stand for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a member of the National Association of Parliamentarians, he lectures on the subject of parliamentary procedure and political process. He serves as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a local businessman, and Alexander, a successful real estate professional here in Jacksonville.
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