Monday, December 06, 2010

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"..... PART TWO

 (This is the second of a two part story about  Frank Capra's ground breaking 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Please read part one (found here) first. The National Press Club sponsored the premier of the film and this is Frank Capra's description of that memorial day...from his autobiography, THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE copyright 1971)

By Frank Capra

How I wished Papa could have lived to see the day when America’s leaders would honor the work of his youngest son. I grinned and grinned , blew my nose, and took surreptitious handkerchief swipes at my eyes.

There they were…army searchlights; their beams playing tag among the low-scudding clouds. Constitution Hall was a fairy palace of splendor. A marine band belted out the pulse-stirring strains of Halls of Montezuma; huge throungs of oroped off bystanders cheered their favorite government dignitaries as they stepped out of the low-license numbered official cars.

Inside, the great Hall glittered with all the opulence of a new seasons opening at the Met. Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet officers, Senators, Congressmen, generals, pundits . We were introduced to Senator and Mrs. Burton K. Wheeler and their teen-aged daughter. Mr. Smith, in the film, allegedly came from Montana, so it was thought fitting that Montana’s Senator Wheeler should sit in the official box with us.

When the lights dimmed, a spotlight hit our box. There was a thunderous applause. Good Lord. I stood up, took a bow, and sat down Columbia’s Torch Lady flashed on the screen Another thrunderous applause at the title: Frank Capra’s MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. I crossed all my fingers and prayed a little that nothing would go wrong.

I hadn’t prayed enough.

The ominous signs that strike terror into the hearts of filmmakers…whispering and fidgeting…became evident about two thirds of the way into the picture. Walk-outs would confirm the omens. There was the first one..a couple rose, headed for the exit, the man making thumbs down motions with his hand. Another twosome followed suit, then a foursome. The scaffold was being erected…and I had a box seat.

When Jimmy Stewart started filibustering, the whispering swelled into a provoked buzz. Mrs. Wheeler and her daughter withered us with hostile glances, then whispered into Senator Wheelers ear. Arthur Hachten,( President of the National Press Club) chief sponsor of the film, dropped his twisted program, ran a finger around the inside of his wilted collar as he watched his guests move like picket lines toward the exits …flaunting furs instead of placards, Flying words, such as “Outrage,” ” Insult”….must have zinged into him like ice-tipped arrows.

By the time Mr Smith sputtered to the end music, about one-third of Washington’s finest had left. Of those who remained, some applauded, some laughed, but most pressed grimly for the doors. The Wheeler family, having courteously stuck it out, now rose and huffily left our box; but not before Senator Wheeler had thrown me a polite, but curt, over –the- shoulder “Good Evening.” He was not amused.

Later, sitting in the back of one of the Press Club’s restaurant bar booths, with my good wife next to me, I took the worst shellacking of my professional life. Shifts of hopping-mad Washington press correspondents belittled, berated, sconrned, vilified, and ripped me open from stem to stern as a villainous Hollywood traducer.

For much to my surprise..I was accused of double-sinning in Mr Smith. Sin number one was just a mortal sin: showing that graft could raise its ugly head in the august Senate chamber. But sin number two: depicting one of their own Press Club members as being too fond of the juice of the grape…WELL! That was heresy; punishable by being burned at the stake in the fires of their wrath.

It didn’t make sense. The average reporter I knew would have laughed at himself under the circumstances. But these gentlemen were not average reporters. They were demi-gods, “by-liners,” "opinion makers". What they wrote was instantly printed in hundreds of newspapers at home and abroad. Their irrational attack on Mr. Smith was not an attack against entertainment, or against me personally. It was a attack against a new, perhaps superior, power invading their empire… power.

Clearly, they detested Mr. Smith Goes to Washington because it was the first important film to muscle in on their private Washington preserve. So resentful were those Olympian cuff-shooters, that they could take this hypocritical stance: Holding a Martini in angry fingers, they looked me right in the eye and said, “There isn’t one Washington correspondent in the room that drinks on duty, or off duty!!

This crazy scene had to end with an unexpected topper

Our attention was arrested by a clamorous voice, loud enough to be heard over the tumult. It came from the direction of the two-deep bar.

“Where’s that Hollywood jerk!” he snarled, “Where do you get off telling the world that all reporters are drunken bums? He was fighting off restraining hands. “No, the Hell with you. I want to meet the son-of-a bitch that made that goddam picture. Where is he?” Someone pointed to our booth. “Oh there you are you Hollywood jerk, where do you get off telling the world that all reporters are drunken bums? I’m gonna bust you…” He made a wild pass with a hand and sprawled flat on his face on the table sending drinks and flying glass all over us.

In the uproar Lu and I made our way to the elevator; then ran like fugitives to the Willard Hotel.

What a daffy day.

At dinner we had been toasted, honored, and welcomed by the National Press Club. At midnight we had been roasted, dishonored, and given the bum’s rush by the same club.

There’s no dizziness like show dizziness. -FC