• U.S.

Cinema: The New Pictures: Oct. 23, 1939

6 minute read

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia). Last week U. S. audiences, smiling in anticipation, trooped into movie houses to see smart Director Frank Capra repeat his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in a Boy Scout uniform and a Senator’s ten-gallon hat. What they saw was just as funny as Mr. Deeds, but it did not leave them smiling.

Thirty-year-old, baby-eyed Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is head of the Boy Rangers, and a simpletonian Democrat. His fuzzy ideas make Governor Hopper (foxy-grandpopsical Guy Kibbee) and Political Boss Taylor (Edward Arnold) think Jeff the ideal Senator to cover up their graft.

Appointed, Jeff arrives in Washington with a crate of carrier pigeons and a flock of unfledged ideas. First is to hop a rubberneck bus, inspect Daniel Chester French’s noble statue of Lincoln. But when his hardboiled Secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him why the gang sent him to Washington, dumbellicose Jeff really goes to town on Boss Taylor. Framed on misconduct charges, Jeff filibusters all night by reading to bored, sleepy Senators from the Declaration of Independence, .the U. S. Constitution, the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. At dawn he wins.

This new Capra fable is as whimsical, the Capra directing as slick, the script as fast and funny as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The acting of the brilliant cast is sometimes superb. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is bigger than any of these things. Its real hero is not calfy Jeff Smith, but the things he believes, as embodied in the hero of U. S. democracy’s first crisis, Abraham Lincoln. Its big moment is not the melodramatic windup, but when Jefferson Smith stands gawking in the Lincoln Memorial, listening to a small boy read from a tablet the question with which this film faces everyone who sees it: “Whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” The question, not the answer, makes Mr, Smith Goes to Washington much more than just another top-rank Frank Capra film.

Hollywood Cavalcade (20th Century-Fox) is a rather tiresome Technicolored sentimentalizing of Hollywood history under the guise of a love story about a cap-backwards movie director and a star with doorknob eyes. But it contains two silent, black & white remakes of oldtime flicker comedies, complete with piano banging, which make this picture a must for people who appreciate the art of plastering the human face with custard pie at 30 paces.

For this nostalgic peep backward by Hollywood at its age of innocence, 20th Century-Fox studios appropriated $2,000,000, took more than three months for shooting, built 80 sets (average for a feature is 40), replaced the 1913 custard pie with a new-style, squshier, stickier, whipped-cream pie, summoned oldtime Pie-slinger Buster Keaton to hurl 56 of them; called in Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Jed Prouty, many another old-timer to impersonate themselves, resurrected Keystone Cops*and Bathing Beauties, the bewitchingly crossed eyes of Bartender Ben Turpin. Many a fan sat twice through the heartthrob antics of 1939 to see the side-splitting antics of 1913.

Good shot: Keystone Cops stalling their 1913 Ford (it cost $1,350 in 1939) on a railroad crossing with the train coming. When they puff, push and crank, but the car will not budge, the cops throw themselves in a ditch, cover their eyes and ears. With the train a foot away, the Ford starts by itself, rolls gracefully off the track.

Harvest (French Cinema Center). Halfway down the aisles last week fans were standing, many of them to see: 1) why the New York State Board of Motion Picture Censors had banned this picture; 2) why the Board of Regents had then lifted the ban without cutting a foot of the film. Answer to Question No. 1: The main characters are common-law man & wife. Answer to Question No. 2: In spite of this unHollywooden realism, the picture is as conservative as a marriage license and just about as exciting. People who came for a peep-show had a boring 80 minutes. Others saw one of the finest French films to reach the U. S. this year.

Based on a Jean Giono novel of peasant life, this unarty picture told with great art the story of a primitive man and woman, of their growth in relation to each other, to the barren soil they make yield, to the deserted village they make live again. Like growth, which was its theme, the picture was slow-moving; like growth, it looked simple and obvious; like growth, it was not. Speech was almost out of place in this account of manual people who, in their need to save their energy for work, have created a pantomime that can express violence, contempt, pity, by a shrug, a grunt, or just by silence. Even the actors seemed to have no special importance when an old stone wall, a tree, a cloud were almost as much a part of the cast, where a big round loaf of peasant bread was a climax.

Hulking, hairy Peasant Panturle (Gabriel Gabrio), last survivor of the ghost village of Aubignane, has reverted to skulking savagery. Up & down the lonely mountain roads go a knife grinder, Gedemus (Fernandel) and the girl who pulls his cart, Arsule (Orane Demazis). When Arsule is missing one morning, jittery Gedemus decides she has been murdered, runs away. But Panturle has found her, taken her to live with him. She restores his home, he restores the fields, both restore the village. Later, when Gedemus claims the girl, Panturle buys Arsule from him for the price of a donkey. While he is seeding wheat with her after this bargain, Arsule stumbles; Panturle learns she is pregnant. Against the backdrop of Europe’s war-wrecked villages, this parable of the restoration of a village, the basic unit of Europe’s civilization, through a peasant’s labor and love, had some of the primitive Biblical grandeur of the story of Creation. In a French jail meantime sat the man who wrote the parable, Author Jean Giono—for refusing to obey the mobilization order.

* Salaries for Keystone Cops in 1913 ranged between $60 and $125. In 1939 Cops got $550 a week, were one of the highest priced police forces in the world.

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