Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Frank Capra married his "Cinderella man" concept to the subject of American politics in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. By that time Charles Brabin had Capra beat by seven years. Adapting Henry Bernstein's play The Claw, Brabin and five writers (including the late actor Louis Wolheim, who had worked on a treatment before dying the previous year) put their not-quite-so-innocent Cinderella Man -- this is the Pre-Code era, after all through a similar rise, fall and redemption routine, with twists specific to the star. Lionel Barrymore's junior senator even has the same first name as Jimmy Stewart's iconic neophyte. He is Jeff (for Jefferson) Keane, a small-town lawyer who makes a name for himself in statewide politics by getting the governor to pardon a man wrongly convicted of murder. He's encouraged to challenge the judge who sentenced the poor man in the next election, but doing so would put him at odds with the state's powerful political boss, U.S. Senator Bitler (Burton Churchill). Bitler tries to intimidate and humiliate Keane into submission at a swanky party crashed by the lawyer, but the boss only provokes our hero into challenging him instead of the judge. Despite the odds, and by means of no interest to the filmmakers, Keane pulls off the upset and heads to Washington D.C. with his daughter (Diane Sinclair) in tow to serve as his hostess, the Senator-elect being a widower. He takes the oath despite being denied the courtesy of an escort by his senior colleague from his home state, who considers Keane a traitor to their party. To this point, Washington Masquerade is so Capra-esque that Keane is ready to throw punches at his fellow Senator.

Keane's big issue in the election was hydroelectric power. Like many Americans in the first third of the 20th century, he believes in federal or municipal ownership. Needless to say, the idea was widely opposed by pro-business types, one of whom denounces the concept as "Communistic" on the Senate floor, provoking Keane's maiden speech in the august body. To those who think private enterprise is best qualified to steward the nation's resources, Keane offers the Depression as evidence to the contrary -- a palpable hit, certainly, for many in the movie audience. Keane's speech is a hit with the public in the picture as well, forcing powerful lobbyists to take steps to stop him. Senator Jeff is double-teamed by lawyer Alan Hinsdale (the ever-loathsome C. Henry Gordon) and influential D.C. courtesan Consuela Fairbanks (Karen Morley). She seduces Jeff the old fashioned way, while Hinsdale seduces him with wealth. Consuela marries the lonely widower (over his daughter's warnings) and pressures him toward a business relationship with Hinsdale that has the appearance of corruption. Complicating the scheme is Consuela's old lover Henri Brenner (Nils "General Yen" Asther), with whom she renews an affair. When everything falls apart, it looks like old Jeff Keane will take the fall for taking bribes from Hinsdale, but he gets one chance to speak in his own defense and makes the most of it. Unlike Jeff Smith, who after all was framed, Keane admits guilt in order to blow the whistle on those also guilty -- not just Hinsdale but former Boss Bitler.

Then the film goes too far. For Capra, it would be enough for Jeff Smith to work himself into a swoon. That's not enough for Lionel Barrymore, however. He'd just won an Academy Award playing an attorney who talks himself to death in court in A Free Soul and, by God, he's going to talk himself to death in this picture, too! This time Barrymore does the old, "I'm just going to sit very still in this chair until people notice that I'm dead" trick. For that he earns an epitaph from an admirer: "He loved his country enough to die for it." The line lands like a lead weight. The problem is, the stunt Barrymore pulled in Free Soul is like Daffy Duck's gasoline trick in the cartoon; the people may want an encore but you can only do it once. It's hard to imagine any moviegoer, even the simplest rube, who saw Washington Masquerade after A Free Soul without saying, "Again?" It's a you've-got-to-be-kidding moment that kills the picture dead, at least. Too bad, too, because the picture has points of interest apart from being a precursor of Capra's film. Moviegoers in the Pre-Code period seemed to want pictures to explain what was wrong with Washington, unlike their descendants eighty years later. A cycle of political pictures resulted that document the range of options people imagined possible in the 1930s. While Washington Masquerade is neither the most incisive nor the wildest of these, like all these pictures it has obvious historical interest, and for those who find historical interest itself entertaining, I recommend it.

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