When Hollywood Went To Washington: The History Of Politics In Movies

Sep 10, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 1:45 pm
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There are many ways to get acquainted with Washington politics. But surely, none are more enjoyable than doing it at the movies. Filmmakers have long been fascinated with the machinations of the nation's capital. And Hollywood has produced a memorable piques beneath the Capitol dome. Among those who caught the political bug this way was NPR's own Ron Elving our editor correspondent, our own Professor Ron. Here, he'll remind us of some of the best-loved American films about Washington.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: I want to go back, way back to the black-and-white classics. Everybody knows about "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," even if they've never sat through it in all its cornball glory. Frank Capra directed this valentine to his adopted country. And Jimmy Stewart starred as Senator Jeff Smith, a neophyte appointed to fill out an unexpired term. He does a golly gee tour of the monuments, gets mocked for it in the newspapers and is mighty sore about it, touring the town and coldcocking every reporter he can find.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

JAMES STEWART: (As Jeff Smith) Why don't you tell the people the truth for a change?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, the truth? The man wants the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) The man wants the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: What is the truth, said jesting pilot and would not stay for an answer.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: How do you want it, senator - dished out or in a bottle?

ELVING: Smith takes a crash course in Senate procedure, loads up on fruit and sandwiches, and blocks a bad bill with an all-night filibuster on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

STEWART: (As Jeff Smith) Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome - that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something.

ELVING: In the final reel, Senator Smith goes from martyr to man of the year, shaming the Senate, setting things straight and riding off to live in legend. When they first screened the picture in 1939, some audiences in Washington laughed in derision. But the rest of the country loved it. Capra took another swipe at Washington almost a decade later with "State Of The Union" in 1948. Spencer Tracy plays a business tycoon with no political experience, thrust into the race for the Republican nomination for president. Katharine Hepburn plays his estranged wife. And the film dazzles with warp-speed dialogue and sly jokes. In one scene, though, Tracy lays out what he'd really like to do if he were president.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STATE OF THE UNION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) They don't want to hear these things.

SPENCER TRACY: (As Grant Matthews) Well, they're going to hear them. They're going to hear that capitalism itself is being challenged. If it doesn't survive, it's because men like themselves haven't the guts and the imagination to make it survive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: You can't talk to that crowd this way, you'll antagonize them.

TRACY: All right, so what? So I'll antagonize them.

ELVING: After universal health care and higher wages, of course, he wants to move on to a global organization he calls the United States of the world. Well, that sends his political guru into peroxisomes of hysteria. Capra's theme is, once again, the venality of the powerful versus the enduring decency of the common man. The decade of the 1950s saw Hollywood besieged by Cold War anti-communists looking for subversives. Not too many studios wanted to take on that subject in real time. But a journalist named Allen Drury did a blockbuster novel called "Advise & Consent," which got its cinematic treatment in 1962 by producer-director Otto Preminger. Henry Fonda plays a nominee for secretary of state who is accused of disloyalty by a shadowy figure from his past. The conflict dwells on the deep rifts within the majority party, including its northern and southern factions. Charles Laughton was unforgettable as the arch Dixiecrat leading the charge against Fonda's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ADVISE & CONSENT")

CHARLES LAUGHTON: (As Seabright Cooley) I abominate this man, Leffingwell. He is an evil man. He will pursue a policy of appeasement. He will weaken the moral fiber of our great nation. He will bring destruction to our traditions. And I beg you, senators, reject him. Reject him.

(APPLAUSE)

ELVING: "Advise & Consent" includes rumors and blackmail concerning the sex lives of men in power, as does a less famous film also starring Henry Fonda called "The Best Man." Written by keen political observer Gore Vidal, the movie takes place in an age when the backroom dealings of party leaders determine the presidential candidate - not those pesky primaries.

The fictional contest in "The Best Man" is between Fonda's quintessential eastern liberal and a populist conservative from the heartland. The film hinges on an attempt to smear one candidate with rumors of homosexuality. The relevant dialogue is so oblique, it's almost in code. Yet taking on sexual orientation at all in 1964 was considered bold and daring. Here's Fonda trying to take the high road and getting a lecture from the head of his party, who wants him to get tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST MAN")

HENRY FONDA: (As William Russell) Don't you understand if I start to fight like Cantwell, I lose all meaning.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) If you don't start to fight, you are finished. Now, I am here to tell you this: that power is not a toy that we give to good children. It's a weapon. And the strong man takes it, and he uses it. And if you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in this big league.

ELVING: Indeed, any film studio is taking chances making films about national politics in the mid-20th century not only because of pressure from politicians but because it wasn't what people wanted to see. Audiences flocked to films that distracted them from disquieting stories in the news. It's a sentiment moviegoers in our era can well understand. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.