Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—at the Stanford Theatre

The Spring repertory season begins Saturday at Palo Alto’s Stanford theater with some very familiar and a bit of a rarity. One wonders which way Frank Capra’s populist rant against the Senate cuts today? Does it inspire or infuriate Tea Baggers?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington/Come Live With Me

(1939/1941) A Boy Ranger leader named Mr. Smith (James Stewart) goes to Washington to clean up the Senate, with only his secretary (Jean Arthur) for help. Meanwhile, a chorus of cynics observes and predicts doom. Director Frank Capra has an all-star lineup of cynics: the great character actor Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, Eugene Pallette, Guy Kibbee and Edward Arnold (Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth and Wrath—that’s four of the Seven Deadly Sins right there). The film was thundered against by Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley. Sen. James Byrnes of South Carolina was more specific: “Here is a picture that is going to tell the country that 95 out of 96 senators are corrupt, that the federal, state and municipal governments are corrupt; that one corrupt boss can control the press of a state; that the newspapers are corrupt; the radios are corrupt; reporters are corrupt …” (quoted in Joseph McBride’s The Catastrophe of Success). Today’s viewers may be less than shocked by these conclusions. The film’s intimate moments—such as the drunk scene between Mitchell and Arthur, supposedly coached by Howard Hawks—outdo the big patriotic heartstring-pullers like Stewart’s filibuster, a vague blob of populism. Yet there’s real bravery in this film, and Stewart is still our fondest dream of a citizen/patriot, especially in these divisive times. BILLED WITH Come Live With Me. Hedy Lamarr stars as an illegal alien, a singer with the stage name “Johnny Jones” who is going to be deported; Stewart steps in as a low-rent author with a thing for the exotic girl. Clarence Brown directs, with the help of a title swiped from Kit Marlowe. (Plays Apr 3-6 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.) (Richard von Busack)

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