Underdogs

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: written by Sidney Buchman, Lewis Foster, and Myles Connolly; directed by Frank Capra; starring Jean Arthur (Saunders), James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Claude Rains (Senator Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Thomas Mitchell (Diz), and Harry Carey (President of the Senate) (1939): When the forces of political evil and chicanery in the far-flung year of 1939 in America order the police to turn fire hoses on peaceful protesters and the police happily comply, when the bad guys start attacking and injuring children trying to get the truth out and the authorities do nothing to stop them, one is reminded that the authorities have been knobs for a long time in America.

Frank Capra’s beloved classic is a winning combination of Juvenalian political satire and gentle Horatian optimism — Jimmy Stewart’s character has a naivete that’s funny to begin with before experience (and the love of Girl Friday Jean Arthur) gives him the power to defy corruption. If you thinks it ends abruptly, well, boy does it ever! A 15-minute epilogue that tied off every loose end was cut by the studio before release, and I think the movie’s better for it. Capra’s usual cast of supporting actors, along with the always great Claude Rains as a senator gone wrong, are terrific, as are leads Stewart and Arthur. Highly recommended.


The Big Heat: adapted from the William P. McGivern serial novel by Sydney Boeham; directed by Fritz Lang; starring Glenn Ford (Sgt. Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Lee Marvin (Vince), and Alexander Scourby (Lagana) (1953): Almost the Ur-Text for every movie in which a heroic cop turns in his badge and goes it alone (or with one loyal partner) against the forces of Evil. Ford is terse and violent as Sgt. Bannion, who’s up against the Mob in an unnamed East Coast city. Gloria Grahame plays a mobster’s mistress who ends up siding with Ford. A young Lee Marvin plays Grahame’s gangster. This movie deals with many of German expatriate director Fritz (Metropolis, Fury, M) Lang’s dominant tropes, most notably the corruption of the Elite and the heroic efforts of a few to combat that corruption. As was always true of Lang’s direction, the movie looks terrific — it’s a dandy piece of police noir. Recommended.


The Mouse That Roared: adapted by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann from the novel by Leonard Wibberley; directed by Jack Arnold; starring Peter Sellers (Grand Duchess/ Prime Minister/ Tully Bascombe), Jean Seberg (Helen Kokintz), William Hartnell (Will Buckley), David Kossoff (Professor Kokintz), and Leo McKern (Benter) (1959): Peter Sellers plays three characters delightfully, with able supporting work from Leo McKern, First Doctor Who William Hartnell, and others. 

The tiny European country of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick finds itself bankrupt, so its Prime Minister hatches a plan. They will declare war on the United States, quickly surrender, and then watch the aid dollars flow in from the United States to its vanquished enemy. In theory, this explains the Iraq War. There’s some pointed satire here about atomic brinksmanship, but the whole thing is remarkably gentle and pleasant, with many laugh-out-loud moments. One of the early high points of the career of Peter Sellers, it wouldn’t be the last time he played multiple roles in a movie. Recommended.

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