The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A movie from 1939 – as good as new

with 16 comments

“Politics is to want”.

This is a famous quote by Olof Palme, who was prime minister in Sweden in the 70s and 80s.

While I don’t share his political views in general, I sympathize with the idea expressed in those words. It’s not about gaming the system; it’s not about getting access to power and wealth. It’s about the urge to make a contribution, the wish make the world a little bit better than it is, and the willingness to make the sacrifices it may take to get there.

I’ve never been active in a political party myself. The closest I’ve been to political activism was when I as a 13 year old illegally occupied a house that was about to be removed in order to leave room for yet another parking house. We thought it should rather be turned into an “all activity house”, since we were struggling with the good old “we’ve got nowhere to hang around”, which most teenagers seem to run into one way or another.

I remember meeting the chairman of the community board who tried to explain to us the rules of the game and why we should go through the ordinary channels in the democratic system. But I figure it was a little bit too much to take in for an agitated punk rocker who thought that grey old men in ties were hopelessly lost and not worth the effort to bother about.

Looking back at it I think it’s a bit of a pity. All that youthful energy, all the “wanting”, could have been used better. I wonder what would have happened if I had encountered Mr Smith Goes to Washington at that point in my life. Would I have taken inspiration from the example of James Stewart’s idealistic senator Jefferson Smith, challenging the establishment from the inside? Or would I have taken the difficulties he faces as an evidence of how pointless it is to even try?

Still relevant
In any case – 30 years after my brief outbreak of activism, I finally got around seeing this movie. And how I fell in love with it! You can’t believe it’s over 70 years old. There is so much in it that still is relevant – especially it’s rather black view on the role of media and the PR machineries. If you’re right or not doesn’t matter. What matters is what the opinion thinks about you. You must get access to the media; you must set the agenda and put your name out there. You must get the buzz to work your way. The media landscape has obviously changed since the late 30s, with social media as a new and powerful factor. But beyond that, the questions are pretty much the same now as then.

I must admit that even if I’m a vivid fan of The West Wing, and I’ve heard Josh Lyman trying to explain all the rules for the senate and the congress, I still don’t quite get the intricate details about filibustering and how it works. But in the end it didn’t matter; the movie is just as enjoyable anyway and it walked straight into my top 100 list.

A different time
Olof Palme’s life ended as he was shot in an open street on his way home from a cinema in 1986. There were no lifeguards around him; he had sent them away. In those days Sweden  was still a country where you took for granted that the prime minister could walk around in public unprotected. This was the era before the risk for suicide bombers in Europe made authorities install supervision cameras everywhere. A time when no one could imagine that an airplane one day would fly into the World Trade Centre.

Things are different now. But our need for people who want something, who believe that one person actually can make a difference, is the same.

Somewhere out there, there is still a Mr or Mrs Smith, with a pure heart, fighting for a just cause. We can only pray for that he or she can make it through the media noise.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, US, 1939) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

October 5, 2011 at 1:00 am

16 Responses

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  1. Oh, how the political junkie in me wants to go through a detailed explanation of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules.

    It is nice to hear that “Mr. Smith…” holds up outside of America. Here in the states we pretty much grow up on Capra movies. Even if you haven’t seen the movie you probably know all the big scenes.

    It is kind of amusing though to look at this movie today. Back then a Senator conducting a filibuster could be cast as a hero. These days the filibuster is considered the sneaky act of despicable politicians that don’t have any courage to stand up and fight fair for what they claim to believe in.


    October 5, 2011 at 3:01 am

    • While I enjoy good rhetorics and classical speeches, I can’t stand meeting rules and that kind of surrounding administration. Yak. So I think you can save me the explanation. 🙂
      I guess with my lack of interest for those details, I’d make a lousy politician.

      I can’t tell for sure, since I don’t know how it is with older generations, but my guess would be that it’s only people with a special interest in movies who know about Capra in Sweden.


      October 5, 2011 at 9:31 am

      • Here’s how the filibuster works in a practical sense: Threatening to filibuster scares people enough that they won’t even bother to put a bill up for vote or debate because they think it will get filibustered. It’s a bit like during the Cold War when the physics behind the nuclear bombs was less important than the psychological impact.


        October 5, 2011 at 3:44 pm

        • Hehe. I think it’s weird that the concept even exists anymore. But I suppose it’s an institution. Can’t touch it anymore than you can touch bizarr Swedish food traditions as eating fermented herring. It’s a part of the national identity.


          October 5, 2011 at 3:54 pm

          • It wasn’t always like this. It used to be that a filibuster had to actually be carried out to have an effect. Now the mere threat of one causes legislation to be halted.


            October 5, 2011 at 5:18 pm

  2. I just caught Mr. Smith for the first time earlier this year, and it’s a great movie. What I really enjoyed was the way it painted him as a cornball idealist and then tore it down. The final sequence is so well-done, even if I also don’t really understand how everything works. Great post.

    Dan Heaton

    October 5, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    • Thank you!
      Yes, I loved the ending as well, even if the very end felt a little bit sudden and short. There was no time to cherish it. Suddenly it was over – bam. In one way I admit that is beautiful, but in another way it’s a little bit unsatisfying. I like to have a little happy dance that lasts more than a few seconds.


      October 5, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      • Jessica, you make a good point about the ending. There’s such a build-up that the quick turnaround of Claude Rains’ character feels sudden. And then it’s over.

        Generally speaking, I’ve found that older films end this way pretty often and can be abrupt at times. Barring a major twist ending in new films, you rarely see the climax immediately followed by the credits. I think the style of closing a movie has really changed over the years. I know that this is a generalization, but there is some truth to it.

        Dan Heaton

        October 5, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  3. There’s an excellent documentary (or so my wife tells me – I haven’t watched it) called “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” about campaign finances and so forth. She says it’s disheartening, but most of American politics is, so that doesn’t surprise me. You might want to check it out some time.


    October 7, 2011 at 1:42 am

    • Sounds interesting! Not sure if I easily can get hold of it, but I’ll definitely check it out if I see it somewhere.


      October 7, 2011 at 8:40 am

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  6. Mr. Smith is definitely one of Capra’s best, but I think he made the same points with considerably more of an interesting grey area in Meet John Doe. You should check it out if you get the chance.


    November 21, 2011 at 8:51 am

    • I haven’t seen that one, but I’d certainly like two. I’ve seen three Capra movies so far. I loved Smith and I loved It’s a wonderful life. It happened one night… not so very much. But hopefully Meet John Doe is another awesome one.


      November 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm

  7. I’ve just seen the movie for the first time (seen It’s a wonderful life Sunday) and it’s a great movie. I really felt myself supporting the protagonist.

    And above all, it holds up so well. Having all the media in power to control politics? Berlusconi, check. Filibustering for hours in the senate? We had a charade like that here in Belgium a few years ago (they spoke for hours from a bird book), check. Huge corporations who are involved in politics by sponsoring politicians? The US can’t have a president without billions of dollars from corporations, check.

    70 years late but politics haven’t changed much.


    December 14, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    • That’s awesome! I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. And that you even remember that I wrote about it earlier and bother enough to look up the post and write a comment on it.
      Cheers for my number 1 commenter!


      December 14, 2011 at 11:54 pm

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