I was determined to witness the moment when Joe Biden overtook the Orange Thug in Pennsylvania. I plopped down on the sofa in the living room under the illusion that this might happen at 2AM (which is about the time I usually go to sleep). I didn’t want to watch TV nonstop, so I thought I’d knock off another play in my ongoing tromp through American dramatic writing of the past.
As it happened, the next play on my plate was Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses. Never heard of it? It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933. You’ve probably heard of Maxwell Anderson, though, right? The guy who wrote some of those attempts at verse plays about English royalty. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?
Well, Both Your Houses is a surprising work. Not a verse play. It is about an idealistic young Congressman named Alan McLean who comes to Washington DC and discovers, to his dismay, that much of the business of government is based in corruption and payoffs to people who only occasionally think of their responsibility to the people. He decides to fight the corruption around one particular bill, and, though he has his innings, he finds the system is designed to frustrate reform.
I’m guessing this sounds familiar. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, right? Both Your Houses, as I say, dates from 1933. Mr. Smith, the classic Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, from 1939. My friend, the film historian Joseph McBride, who wrote the definitive biography of Frank Capra, tells me that this is not accidental. Mr. Smith is an unacknowledged adaptation of Both Your Houses. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Anderson’s play but gave no credit to Anderson in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Sidney Buchman and the story to Lewis R. Foster. No mention of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that preceded it. Kinda stinks.
But, to be fair, Buchman and Capra added stuff that wasn’t in Both Your Houses, particularly the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both Your Houses is sharp and rigorous, but as I read it I had no emotional investment in anybody’s relationship. Alan McLean was indeed the hero, but he was also a charmless pain-in-the-ass. I was on his side because he was right, not because I had any particular affection of him as a character. (His sidekick, a woman nicknamed Bus, was a lot more fun, but there’s no romance there.) Both Your Houses is admirable and surprisingly cynical, but …
But Mr. Smith grabs you emotionally and doesn’t let you go. The developing love story is deeply affecting, and the sight of Jimmy Stewart fighting to the point of exhaustion on the Senate floor is one of the great images in film history.
Contemporary audiences tend to think of Mr. Smith as a rah-rah patriotic film, but in fact it offended a lot of Washington when it premiered. Even Capra-sized, the view of casual corruption in the legislature was pretty strong stuff. It took for the film to reach a general public to be embraced and loved.
Anyway, I alternated between reading Both Your Houses and checking out the TV. And grabbing the odd nap. And then it was nearly 5AM and the Pennsylvania drama wasn’t finished. At this point, I decided to haul my weary tail to bed. I woke up at about 11AM to find that the moment I hoped to witness happened about two hours earlier.
The news that our contemporary Jimmy Stewart has prevailed against the most corrupt, vicious asshole in presidential politics (beating even Richard Nixon for the title of chief villain among presidents) … Yeah, I know Stewart was a conservative, but he was also a genuine hero and had integrity, and I think he’d be better casting for Biden than Carrey.
Oh God, I get to hope realistically for this country for the first time in years.