Opinion

Check out this 1943 Film that’s as Modern as Today’s Political Debates

Most people have heard of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), about a naïve Senator who ends up taking on the establishment. It’s one of AMC’s Top 100 films. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur.

It was not popular with the political establishment crowd when it first came out:

“The wonderfully-acted, absorbing and human film was popular at the box-office and critically successful too. However, the film caused some controversy and pressure was brought to bear to hinder its release (two months after the outbreak of WWII in Europe), due to the fact that Capra’s film was propagandistic, depicted political corruption, and appeared to paint an anti-democratic picture of the US government and its inner workings. But the film also called for faith in traditional American values of patriotism and faith in the people, and provided an educational lesson in how bills are passed through Congress.”

A little-known film, not as well acted as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and with no major stars, has a wonderful scene that sums up the importance of citizenship, electoral participation, and overturning political corruption.

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The 1943 film A Stranger in Town stars Frank Morgan. Morgan played the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

I couldn’t sleep one evening. I was up around 3:30 AM. I turned on TV, and A Stranger in Town was on. I had never heard of the film. Since watching it, I have added it to my list of must-see films. The closing courtroom scene is a great summary of why political participation is so important.

Morgan is Associate Supreme Court Justice John Josephus Grant who finishes with the final case of the year and heads off for a hunting vacation in the out-of-the-way town of Crown Port. Keep in mind that in the 1940s most people had no idea what a Supreme Court Justice looked like. There was no television.

Hiding his identity, he assists an inexperienced lawyer who’s running for mayor but is ground into political dust by the political machine operated by the mayor and a bought-off judge.

Through some legal strategizing based on existing law, Grant and his young legal protégé swear out arrest warrants for the mayor and his enforcement thugs. But it’s the short speech that Judge Grant offers that makes watching A Stranger in Town worthwhile, including his comments on being a citizen. Today’s Supreme Court justices could learn a few lessons as well as people who claim that there’s no use getting involved politically:

“Mr. Connison, you have asked by what right I have interfered in this situation. You still want an answer? . . . It’s only right that you should know why I, a stranger, have become involved in your affairs. Believe me, it’s not because I am a justice of the Supreme Court. It’s because, like all of you here, I’m a citizen of this country. That is no little honor. Men have fought revolutions and died to be called citizen.

“As citizens, we carry a burning responsibility. It means when we elect men to public office we cannot do it as lightly as we flip a coin. It means that after we’ve elected them, we can’t sit back and say ‘Our job is done. What they do now doesn’t concern us.’ That philosophy of indifference is what the enemies of decent government want. If we allow them to have their way and grow strong and vicious, then the heroic struggle which welded thousands of lovely towns like this into a great nation means nothing. Then we are not citizens . . . We’re traitors.

“The great liberties by which we live have been bought with blood. The kind of government we get is the kind of government we want. Government ‘of the people, by the people’ can mean any kind of government. It’s our duty to make it only one kind . . . uncorrupted, free, united. I believe, Mayor Connison, I’ve answered your question.”

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