Wednesday, June 5, 2013


"The ghosts of [the Founding Fathers] would turn in their graves if they could see how the crooks, the gangsters, the hypocrites have paralyzed our government. They made a scrap of paper out of the Declaration of Independence! They make a joke out of the Constitution of the United States of America!"
      -- Lee Tracy in Washington Merry-Go-Round

There's a special irony that the movie which best captures the zeitgeist of our cynical times was released over 80 years ago.  Far more bitter than any studio movie today, Washington Merry-Go-Round is a Rand Paul speech come to life, a Tea Party gathering writ large. No one gets off easy here, not the politicians who sell their votes to the highest bidder, the constituents who condone the system or those who prefer to complain rather take action. Frank Capra, it's not -- and yet, eventually was. But we'll get to that later.

Brown is shocked to discover that politicians
don't like hearing the truth.
Button Gwinett Brown is a freshman Congressman who's out to rid Washington of the corrupting influence peddlers who got him elected -- one of whom has committed suicide in shame of his own crooked ways. In his first Congressional speech, Brown single-handedly leads the defeat of a pork-barrel bill that power-broker Edward T. Norton was counting on for its kickbacks. The political machine retaliates by getting Brown kicked out of office via a phony vote recount. If only more politicians served hours rather than decades.

"Senator Wylie... are you sure you're not
Charlie Rangel in whiteface?"
Having thoroughly alienated Alice Wylie, a DC socialite who's trying hard not to fall for him, Brown cements his outlier reputation with her grandfather, Sen. Wylie. 

A basically-decent chap who, over 30 years, has been sucked into corruption without even realizing it, Wylie tries to guide Brown into the ways of Washington ("One never takes orders. One gathers by indirection that a certain course would be preferable"). Brown in return accuses him of being part of the problem because Norton pays him off by deliberately letting him win during their high-stakes poker games.

When he and Norton next play cards, Wylie realizes the truth in Brown's statement. Wylie promises to go public with all that he knows about Norton's dirty ways. Norton retaliates with a move that would make him the envy of lobbyists everywhere: arranging to have the Senator assassinated. Does this guy have juice or what? Norton, you see, has plans: "Italy has her Mussolini. Russia has her Stalin. Such a man will rise in America" -- namely, himself. Well, if you're going to dream, dream big.
Brown and the boys make an exception for
gun control when Norton shows up.

Luckily, Brown has one more trick up his sleeve, installing unemployed war veterans at Norton's regular watering holes in order to take notes on his conversations. They ultimately shanghai him to their campground, where Brown is holding captive the man who poisoned Wylie on Norton's orders. 

The assassin's written confession in his hands, Brown offers Norton a gun to make his next move that much easier. A moment later, Norton blows his brains out. That's the next best thing to term limits.

Taken just as a rough outline, Washington Merry-Go-Round appears to be a blueprint for Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington seven years later. A newly-elected Congressman named after a founding father. (Jefferson Smith vs Button Gwinett Brown, a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.) A sardonic woman who is at first amused by, then attracted to, the guy. A party elder who takes an interest in him, even as he himself is part of the problem. 

Smith and Brown even drop by the Lincoln Memorial at night for strength as they become pariahs among their colleagues. Both movies were made at Columbia Pictures, for heaven's sake. It's unthinkable that Capra wasn't at least aware of Washington Merry-Go-Round at the time he made his own movie.

Just once, I'd like to see this happen on C-SPAN.
Of course Capra being Capra, he wouldn't stomach just how nasty Congress is portrayed in Washington Merry-Go-Round. Time and again, Brown states how most Congressmen are decent, hard-working people, but we're not fooled. Senators read newspapers or talk about bridge games while their colleagues bloviate at the Congressional podium. Laws
pass without votes. Suicides and assassinations are just part of business. Edward T. Norton is even arranging his political puppets to authorize a military invasion of a Central American country to protect his business interests. (No! Congress would never do such a thing.) 

There aren't enough synonyms for "cynical" to do this movie justice. Congress was outraged by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, yet appeared to be too busy bloviating, deal-making and murdering colleagues to notice its far more eviscerating predecessor.

How the well-dressed troublemaker
carries himself.
And unlike the naif-bordering-on-simpleton Jefferson Smith, Brown is wide-eyed as to the ways of Washington even before he gets there: "The good people of my district didn't vote for me, some of them didn't vote at all... My only constituents are the crooks who put me in office, and I'm going to use that office to double-cross them the way they've been double-crossing the people!"  

As Brown, Lee Tracy is more abrasive than James Stewart's Smith, but there's a sharp reality in his delivery that jolts even today. He has at least a half-dozen juicy speeches to chew on, all of them quite effective.

How the well-dressed SOB carries himself.
Alan Dinehart's Norton is one-dimensional compared to Claude Rains' tortured Sen. Paine in Mr. Smith, but that's the way the part was written. I mean, the guy actually plays with swastika-engraved poker chips, so you're not going to get much hand-wringing from him. It's never made clear exactly who Norton is; depending on what you read about the movie, he's either a senator, lobbyist or just a bootlegger made good. Me, I go for evil bastard. Much more encompassing. (When writing about Dinehart's appearance in The Sin of Nora Moran, I stated he was in every other movie on TCM. I stand by that observation.)

Do 22 year-old women
look like this anymore?

Like her Smith counterpart Jean Arthur, Constance Cummings is the skeptical woman who's seen it all in Washington until this small-town upstart comes to town. This being a pre-Code picture, however, Cummings is far more sexy and interesting. She and Tracy have a slapsticky, Capraesque moment when they first meet aboard a train; unsurprisingly, it's the only scene that reeks of silliness. Cummings is a fine example of just how more mature and classy 22 year-old women were back in the day, when they weren't interested in being perpetual adolescents.  

Lee Tracy is concerned that, once again, Clarence Muse
is upstaging him.
I would be remiss without mentioning Clarence Muse as Brown's valet. A busy character actor, Muse tended to be stuck as butlers, porters and cleaners despite his background in law school and the New York theater. (That's what being black in 1932 did for you.)  Although given dialogue of the "Yassuh, boss" variety, Muse is wonderfully funny and human in his role which, unfortunately, disappears in the final half of the movie's 78-minute running time.

Always a lot of fun to watch -- he's hilarious in the 1932 farce The Half Naked Truth -- Lee Tracy was one of the more colorful actors of his time. Having originated the role of Hildy Johnson in The Front Page on Broadway, he spent much of his movie career playing fast-talking reporters and press agents, with a nasal whine that often makes him sound like a hopped-up W.C. Fields. Tracy had a late-in-life comeback in both the stage and movie versions of Gore Vidal's political satire The Best Man, earning him his only Oscar nomination. 

Washington Merry-Go-Round is one of those interesting, elusive movies unavailable on DVD and only rarely shown on TV. It can't be for a potential lack of audience. Democrats can hiss the bad guy who wants a military invasion to protect his bootlegging enterprise. (Imbibers in the movie are always raving about "the real embassy stuff.") Republicans will cheer Brown's patriotism. Libertarians can point to its portrayal of a broken two-party system. Tea Partiers would agree that Congress is an utterly corrupt institution in dire need of a good flushing-out. Readers of Alex Jones could point with satisfaction to its many references to "the hidden government" really running things. Movie fans would find fascinating its snappy patter and shockingly casual venality. 

Everybody, in fact, can find something to enjoy in Washington Merry-Go-Round. Everybody but the jokers currently in Congress, that is. All the more reason to rip the lid off the Columbia vaults the way Button Gwinett Brown rips the lid off the Capitol. Those "public servants" in Washington wouldn't notice anyway. They're too busy cutting deals with Edward T. Norton's grandchildren.


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