Sunday, November 10, 2013

Don't Make a Scene: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Story:  "How do you do that?" Frank Capra once asked Howard Hawks. "...that "talking around" thing you do."

"I call it 'three-corner' dialog," like the pool shot, said Hawks.  "People dance around what's important by talking about anything else, but eventually they come back to the subject."

Hawks was adept at it.  And he chose actors with enough sense of play that the technique was always more fun than just hearing them talk.  Bogart excelled at it, but not Jimmy Stewart—he was more direct, as was Gary Cooper, both of them "straight-shooters."  Cary Grant and John Wayne thrived on it, both giving and receiving; Grant, usually duplicitously, and Wayne, charitably when driving it, but funnier when he was on the receiving end of the "8-ball." Hawks' patter felt real, but it was also, conversely, efficient. Modern movies these days have a way of avoiding the subjects of conversations entirely, or will blurt them out with exclamation marks.  Hawks movies got to the point—eventually—but not before building a platform to show it off.

Here's Capra's version of Howard Hawks' "three-corner dialog," between two of the best actors at the time, Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell, and one wishes one could show the pauses, the comic timing, the slurred dialog, the drunken dopiness that both play in the scene.  It's always a good idea to re-view Mr. Smith..., especially when its name has been used in vain by folks who've probably never watched it.

The Set-Up: Junior Senator (and hapless political appointee) Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) has a bill to build a boy's camp in his state, but the political machine that got him to the Senate has plans for a boondoggle water project that they wanted to sneak into an efficiency bill.  To keep the idealistic Smith off the Senate floor when the bill is brought up, the machine way-lays him with the daughter of his mentor Senator Paine (Claude Rains), a typical move that rubs senate aide Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) the wrong way.  She thinks Smith is something of a rube, but his love of country and his ability to express it takes her aback.  Now, this maneuver has her thinking about quitting again (as she often threatens) and she is encouraged by her friend in the office, the cynical "newsie" "Diz" Moore (Thomas Mitchell). 


Script sections not included in the film are in red or crossed out.

The scene dissolves to a RESTAURANT at night, with SAUNDERS AND DIZ at a corner table--drinks in front of them--both feeling pretty high and loose-tongued. Saunders is alternating lightness with grimness. (Music from someplace off). Diz is finishing a story. 

DIZ --and the guy sees a drunk, lookin' around under the street lamp, see-- and he says--whatsa matter?--lose somethin'? Yeah--my cigarette case-- dropped it in the next block. (Pointing way over) Next block!--the guy says to the drunk--whaddaya lookin' for it here for?... 'Cause there's more light here, the drunk says-- 

They laugh.  

SAUNDERS Why do I always laugh at that?  

DIZ "There's more light here," he says--  
SAUNDERS Drunks are funny--  
DIZ Yeah. Funny--  
SAUNDERS (reflectively--sober suddenly) Yeah.  
DIZ Yeah. Some of my best friends are funny.  
SAUNDERS Every time I think of it, I get a laugh, Diz.  
DIZ My friends?  
SAUNDERS Old Don Quixote--man of the people Smith--  
DIZ (calling) Waiter!  
SAUNDERS --followin' Miss Susan Fass-Pass around--his little heart poundin' away--the sound of angels' wings in his ears. 
The waiter comes over.  
DIZ Now, you've gone and let Don Quixote in here again. I told you to keep him out!  
SAUNDERS Shut up, Diz.  
DIZ (to waiter) Mind, now! Keep Don Quixote out of here! 

The waiter backs away--shaking his head.  

SAUNDERS And I got him all dressed up, too-- to go way up in a balloon--so they can drop him a long way--make sure they break his heart. Why, not all the Boy Rangers in the world, working night shifts, 'll be able to put Humpty-Dumpty together again--  

DIZ Now--how'd Humpty-Dumpty get in here? 

SAUNDERS Do you know how I felt, Diz? 

DIZ No. How'd you feel? Quick.  
SAUNDERS Like a mother sending her kid off to school for the first time--

SAUNDERS --watchin' the little fella toddling off--in his best bib and tucker--and you sink in the middle--hoping he can stand up to the other kids--won't get his feeling hurt--and--if you could only spare him the knocks he's gotta take-- 

SAUNDERS(Catching herself) Say--who started this?
DIZ *I'm* just waiting for a street car-- 

SAUNDERS Well--cut it out. See? 

SAUNDERS Who *cares* anyway? 

DIZ I apologize.  

SAUNDERS *All right*, then. 

SAUNDERS After all, what's it to me? So they *drop* him out of a balloon. All I care is--I don't want to be around. See? 

SAUNDERS Squeamish. See? That's what I am. No, sir. I don't have to take it. Won't be a party to no murder. 

SAUNDERS I'm gonna quit. I'm through.  

DIZ Again? 

DIZ Good idea.  

DIZ Yeah.  

SAUNDERS How about getting married?  
DIZ (same tone) Good idea. 

DIZ When?  

SAUNDERS Any time.  

DIZ Tonight?  

SAUNDERS Okay. You don't mind? 

DIZ I'll cherish ya. 

SAUNDERS You--you've been a good egg, Diz. 
DIZ I know.

SAUNDERS Maybe we could clear out of this town--get to feel like *people*--get the habit of lifting up our eyes-- live like we just got out of a tunnel.  

DIZ (startled) Tunnel?  
SAUNDERS A tunnel. You've never seen prairie grass with the wind leaning on it, have you, Diz? 

DIZ Is the wind tired out there?
SAUNDERS Or angry little mountain streams-- and cattle moving against the sun. You haven't seen any of that, have you, Diz?
DIZ Have *you*?  

DIZ Do we *have* to?  

SAUNDERS (flinging the mood off) No! I can't think of anything more sappy!  

DIZ Well, let's get going.  

DIZ We're gonna get married.  

SAUNDERS (getting her purse and hat together) Oooh. Yeah--that's right. 

DIZ What?  

SAUNDERS I case you don't know--I want to give ya a chance to back out if you don't like it--  
DIZ What?  

SAUNDERS My first name's--Clarissa.  
DIZ Yeah, I know. That's okay. 

SAUNDERS Don't say "okay," Diz. Say you think it's beautiful.  
DIZ Okay--I mean--  

SAUNDERS You don't know a name off-hand you like better, do you, Diz?  
DIZ (thinking) No--not offhand--  
SAUNDERS Nothing like--uh--Susan--or anything like that, huh? 

DIZ Susan? Nah!  

SAUNDERS (breaking into Diz violently) I won't take it! See? I won't be party to murder. See? Steering a poor dope up blind alleys for that grafting Taylor mob is low enough. 

SAUNDERS But helping that dame cut him up in little pieces besides--

SAUNDERS ...nobody's gonna make me do that. No, sir.
DIZ You said it!  

SAUNDERS I'm getting out of there. Right now, Diz. Right now. Bonus or no bonus. 

SAUNDERS I'm gonna clear outta that office-- everything I own--my extra hat-- everything-- 

She starts to scramble out from behind the table. Diz is startled by her sudden, furious movements.
DIZ Hey! We're gettin' married--!  

SAUNDERS (without pausing) Right now--everything I own--! 

She is on her way. Diz, with a great effort, scrambles out from behind the table after her.

DIZ See you later.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Words by Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly

Pictures by Joseph Walker and Frank Capra

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is available on DVD from Columbia Home Video.

1 comment:

MeredithBixby said...

Thank you for making this -- Well worth your time & effort, IMMostHO.