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Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

While Frank Capra is best known today for making It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his three Oscar awards came from three films he directed during The Great Depression; It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it with You (1938),

“From Mr. Deeds on my films were pretty much alike. I mean the same things kept cropping up. But they were not just escapist films. Love thy neighbor is a very deep-seated quality in the human race. It’s something that unless we can get more of that into our everyday lives we’re just going to go down the rat hole.”
Three-time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra (1897-1991)
1971 Interview

Since this is a political season in the United States, I’ll pick a clip to show from his 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (for which Brookfield, Missouri-born screenwriter Lewis R. Foster won an Oscar for writing). 

The origin of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the short story The Gentleman from Montana also written by Foster. According to Life magazine that short story was loosely based on the early career of Burton K. Wheeler, a Senator from Butte, Montana “who was attacked and falsely indicted when as a freshman Senator in the 1920’s, he fought corruption in the Presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.”

P.S. Many years ago I saw a billboard—for I think the TV show Melrose Place— that read “Loving thy neighbor is cool.” While provocative, I don’t think that was quite what Jesus had in mind when giving the great commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and, “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #27 “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”—Capra
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earning Your Ending (Tip #76) Edward Burns on It’s a Wonderful Life
Writing from Theme
More Thoughts on Theme
It’s a Wonderful Prison 
(“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont)

Related link:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington article by Turner Classic Movies 

Scott W. Smith

 

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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?'”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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