Is MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON sexist?

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I just finished watching MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, and a few things about the Frank Capra-directed classic bother me. And I feel the need to vent about it. I hope you forgive me if my writing is a bit more stream of conscious today. What follows is a rough draft of thoughts I wanted to get down while the movie was still fresh in my mind:

First, the scene that threw me for a loop was the one where Jimmy Stewart gets schooled by Jean Arthur about the ways our government works. It’s hard to believe that even the most naive simpleton did not get some basic civics course in high school, or that he could not go to the local library and look up a few things when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. The fact of the matter is that Arthur’s character, a woman, knows more about the government and its processes than Stewart, a man. Clearly, she is ten times more qualified than him, yet he is the one who gets to be Senator? I know, I know, the goons (played by Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee and Claude Rains) want an idiot in the seat so they can manipulate him. But why doesn’t Arthur or the other women like her fight for the job themselves?

As if that is not enough, Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin keep hammering the point that Stewart can get a bill passed for a law that would benefit a boys scout-type group. This is repeated several times, and we even see a throng of clean cut all-American boys in the Senate chamber on the day that Stewart is trying to introduce the bill. They, of course, applaud him enthusiastically. Never mind the fact that there are no girls in attendance– they simply were overlooked or not invited. And why couldn’t Stewart introduce a bill that would benefit both boys and girls in America? There are long speeches where he talks about boys in nature, and how they need to know the way our government works. Again, aren’t girls allowed to know that, too?

The sexism of this movie becomes increasingly apparent when you realize that there are no women on the Senate floor. And none are seen even as extras in crowd scenes involving politicians. Surely Arthur’s character cannot be the only woman in the nation’s capital. The filmmakers give the impression that the boys club is running Washington while the female sex is back at home preparing dinner.

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I looked up a list of female U.S. Senators on wiki (see the link below). The first woman senator was appointed to fill a vacancy just like Stewart’s character, back in– wait for it– 1922. Granted, she was only in office for 24 hours (presumably so they could find a man to take the job full-time), but by 1931 a woman from Arkansas named Hattie Caraway became the first fully elected lady senator, a position she held until 1945.

Ms. Caraway was not the only female elected to the Senate in the 1930s. The year Columbia Pictures made MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, there were three other women in the Senate. So that’s four women who should have been seen in the Senate chamber scenes of this film. But they are not there, not even on the sidelines or in the background.

Just for the heck of it, I looked up whether or not there were women in the House of Representatives at this time. And from 1917 to 1939, there were 23 congresswomen serving in that capacity. One woman was an elected member of the House from 1925 to 1960. So there is no reason for Capra and Riskin to make it seem like there are no females in the legislative branch of our government in 1939.

I am not saying this film necessarily had to be called MISS SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but there is way too much gender bias in this film. And I don’t see the purpose of it, unless the goal is to show that women do not have any say in our way of life in America. Doesn’t that just seem wrong to you? I think it does.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_United_States_Senate#List_of_female_senators

Tyrannosaurus multiplex

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Not long ago I returned to Wisconsin.  I hadn’t been in the midwest for many years, though I had spent a major portion of my childhood here. I remember when I was a kid, how my sister and I were allowed to go to the local movie theatre, if we behaved well and earned good marks at school. We lived in a small community that had one theatre downtown. But if we drove thirty miles to a nearby college town, we could see a variety of films at the multiplex. In the 1980s, that was exciting, and we looked forward to it.

When I moved back earlier this year, I relocated to that college town.  I was eager to see what the old multiplex looked like. I think you can guess what happened next. As I drove by the mall and came upon the area where the multiplex was, I found it in complete disrepair. It was crumbling from neglect. Something that was so new and vibrant in 1989 was now showing signs of old age, and within a few weeks after my being here, bulldozers brought the entire structure tumbling down. I asked a neighbor when the multiplex had officially closed. She said it had just closed before I moved back here. I wish I had been able to see a movie there one more time. I brought this up with other people, and everyone agreed that it was the end of an era. Apparently, the multiplex could no longer compete with Netflix and cable.

During the summer months, a new building was erected in its place. I would drive by and see how quickly everything was changing. I still didn’t want to let go of the idea that maybe someone would come along and build an even better movie palace. But of course, that did not happen. It is now a sporting goods store. There are no traces of the old multiplex. It is a memory in the minds of those who used to patronize it.

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Cars of the stars

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Joan Crawford drove a town car in 1929. In 1969, she drove this:

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Here is a Plymouth that James Stewart drove in the 1930s:

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In 1941, Rita Hayward got to and from the studio in her Lincoln:

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Here’s one of the many cars Clark Gable drove:

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Debbie Reynolds had a nice convertible in 1956:

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I think we all know what Adam West drove:

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Lucy’s movie star encounters

It all started with a November 1954 episode of I Love Lucy entitled Ricky’s Movie Offer. Bandleader Ricky Ricardo (played by real-life bandleader Desi Arnaz) was on his way to Hollywood, and joining him was his trouble-prone wife Lucy (Lucille Ball) and their friends the Mertzes (played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley). The inspired story arc ran for the next thirty episodes, during the show’s fourth and fifth seasons. American television would never be the same again, and neither would Ball’s career.

One reason the California-based episodes worked so well on I Love Lucy was because the show’s producers resorted to a lot of stunt casting– and it worked, because ratings were better than ever. They brought in a bevy of top movie stars who usually played themselves. Several of the special guests had been former costars of Lucille Ball’s during her own movie star days. There were ones she worked with at RKO (Harpo Marx from ROOM SERVICE); ones she worked with at MGM (Van Johnson from EASY TO WED); and some from her days at Columbia (William Holden from MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND).

Other guests were old friends the Arnazes they had worked with on radio like Hedda Hopper. Or they were celebrities that Lucy was eager to work with, because they were at the height of their popularity and would keep her series hot– people like Rock Hudson or John Wayne. In the case of John Wayne, Lucy invited him back to make another appearance on her later sitcom The Lucy Show. Again the Duke played himself and again, he had the misfortune of crossing paths with Lucy (no matter what her last name was at the time) to the great enjoyment of fans.

So which one of Lucy’s movie star encounters is your favorite? Mine is the one where she and Ethel try to get a grapefruit out of Richard Widmark’s backyard. Years later, when I was in West Hollywood, I went with one of my girlfriends to Beverly Hills to find the home where Lucy once lived on Roxbury Drive. Just like that classic episode of I Love Lucy, we walked along the wall of her former estate (and incidentally, that is the wall they used to film the Widmark episode– see the photos below). We rounded the corner to a back alley, and we found the gate wide open. We went up to the opening and looked into the backyard. There was a swimming pool and a guest house where Orson Welles once stayed (as you know, Orson also appeared with Lucy on her show).

A repairman was installing a new door on the guest house and he had opened the gate to bring the old door out and set it into the alley for pick up. I asked him if this really was where Lucille Ball once lived, and he said yes. There were no grapefruits around, and I asked if he could give us something he was throwing away, to keep as a souvenir. He seemed to understand and with a twinkle in his eye, he took the knob off the old door and handed it to us. All the way home, I kept admiring that knob in my hands. When I moved to Arizona a few months later, I made sure to pack it and take it with me. Doorknobs last longer than grapefruits anyway.

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Movies within movies

I watched REBECCA yesterday morning, and as it had been a few years since my previous viewing, I had forgotten there was a part where the de Winters watch home movies they apparently made at the start of their marriage touring Europe. There were two scenes with them watching the movies, reliving the memories of their honeymoon.

In a similar vein, Norma Shearer watches a home movie she made while taking a vacation in the Caribbean at the beginning of THE WOMEN. It might have been Tahiti– there were palm trees. She clowns on camera and back in a present-day scene, she laughs while watching it with her daughter (played by Virginia Weidler).

In MR. SKEFFINGTON, Fanny (played by Bette Davis) learns that her brother is still alive and has been flying in WWI, when she watches a newsreel in the comfort of her home with her husband and friends. I didn’t realize they had newsreels in the late 1910s, but apparently they did. The point is that the Skeffingtons had a home theater and watched movies together.

Then, there’s ADAM’S RIB, where the feuding couple remembers earlier, happier times watching home movies with guests one night at their home.

And what about the character played by Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO? She tries to forget her troubles by going to the movies. Conveniently, the actions of the characters she watches on screen at the matinees seem to parallel the situations which she is experiencing in her own life.

Best use of Technicolor

Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus did not consider GONE WITH THE WIND the best use of her company’s famous colour process. Probably because she had too many arguments with producer David Selznick, who ignored much of her advice. She also argued with Vincente Minnelli about the colour schemes he favored for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

While both these films ultimately turned out stunning Technicolor visuals, it was a British production that Mrs. Kalmus felt was the best use of the new technology.

She seemed to think BLACK NARCISSUS was most representative of Technicolor’s true capabilities. She admired its judicious use of neutral tones (with none of the garishness often found in Hollywood productions). BLACK NARCISSUS had only occasional splashes of colour meant to emphasize key objects; and she felt the film’s use of contrasting shades helped to achieve a sense of harmony.