Sunday, August 5, 2007

Washington Merry-Go-Round

Washington Merry-Go-Round, 1932, 75 minutes. Director: James Cruze, Writers: Maxwell Anderson (story), Jo Swerling. Cast: Lee Tracy, Constance Cummings, Walter Connolly, Alan Dinehart, Arthur Vinton, Arthur Hoyt, Berton Churchill, Frank Sheridan, Clay Clement, Clarence Muse.

Note: Spoilers follow.

I have been wanting to see Washington Merry-Go-Round for years, since reading about it in various books about “socially relevant” films of the classic Hollywood era. Set in Washington, DC, the film details the story of a naive young man who is elected congressmen, and finds himself combating corrupt politicians. A friendly, dignified Senator who befriends and mentors him turns out to be the pawn of a big political boss, who is unelected to any office himself. Familiar plot, right? A dry run for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Interesting in itself, but especially interesting in that the naive young man is played by Lee Tracy.

Lee Tracy? For those who are not familiar with him, Lee Tracy, whose heyday in films was in the precode era, was not the kind of actor you would think of casting as a naive hick. He made his name on Broadway as the original Hildy Johnson in the first production of Front Page, and his film career generally consisted of fast-talking newspaper man, press agents, and carnival barkers. Today he seems like nothing less than a visual and audible cross between James Cagney and W.C. Fields. He combines Cagney’s bantam strut and rat-a-tat high speed delivery with Fields’ bulbous nose (like Fields, at least partly due to massive consumption of alcohol) and nasal sonorousness. And he always gave the impression of spending most of his energy trying to put something or other over on whomever he was talking to. Not to put a fine point on it, the man never radiated integrity.

So I was very curious to see how he would fit in this sort of part. Anyway, the film was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies last week, and I finally got around to seeing it recently. Well, he would never be believable as a total neophyte, so the character was not written as one, at least not all of the time. From the beginning of the film, Tracy comes off as a extremely naive and completely cynical at the same time. It sounds like a it could be an interesting, complex part, but really,
it was just inconsistent.

Tracy is Button Gwinett Brown, descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who has never held political office before being elected congressman. In the beginning of the film it is established that Tracy got into office with the help of a crooked local political boss, "Honest John" Kelleher. But unlike a Capra film, Tracy knows this. He used crooked political bosses to get into a position of power. Then he believes he can use that power against them. After a "meet-cute" scene with Tracy and Constance Cummings, and some scenes establishing the corrupt power of Boss Norton, Tracy arrives in town, checking out some local sites of Washington, DC via some very badly-done rear projection. After dismissing the hand-picked secretary from Kelleher, Tracy runs into a wartime pal, who is part of a group of bonus marchers, the true-life veteran's group that marched on Washington to receive a bonus from their World War I service to provide relief at the height of the depression.

Tracy's wonderfully delivered but completely incoherent speech to them sums up the film's point of view, or lack of it. First, he points out that he was put into office by totally corrupt means, that none of the "good people" voted for him, only people whose votes were for sale, because the government is totally corrupt. Then he says he plans on double-crossing the bosses who sent him here, on behalf of "the people." Then he says those people, including the bonus marchers he is speaking to at that moment, are all a bunch of self-centered grafters who care nothing about the honest working of government, just about their own handouts. Then he says that most of the government employees, from top to bottom, are actually honest, and that the bonus marchers should all go home and "tell the people" and go out and vote. At this point, the crowd of bonus marchers are pretty pissed at him, and the scene ends in a quick fade might wonder if he is about to be strung up by the crowd, but since the film continues after this, we can assume that did not happen.

Congressman Button starts at his job receiving a letter from a dead man. The dead man in question had been a prohibition officer who committed suicide rather than continue to serve the real political boss of Washington, Edward Norton, played by Alan Dinehart in a oily manner familiar to viewers of films like Jimmy the Gent. In some of the more interesting revelations in the film, we find that Norton has made much of his money from illegal liquor, and he is also involved in using the marines to foment revolution in a Central American country in order to protect his business interests. These are much more specific and realistic crimes than you will find from the crooked political bosses in Frank Capra's films of a few years later.

So Brown makes his first and last speech in congress, attacking a crooked appropriation bill for a memorial to General Digger "An old scoundrel who stole the land from the Indians." It's typical of the contradictions of the film that despite his low opinion of the political system, Brown thinks making this speech will actually make a difference. It's a very odd scene, where Brown is applauded by congress, who chant "Down with General Digger" and ask Brown for his autograph. It is apparently a strange form of ridicule, and Brown is depicted in the newspapers the next day as a disruptive "boy congressman." He is also promptly kicked out of congress via a recount engineered by Kelleher and Norton.

He nevertheless continues on his self-righteous crusade, attacking the only two people who have befriended him since arriving in Washington, Walter Connolly as Senator Wylie, and Constance Cummings as his granddaughter Alice. To Connolly, he points out Norton's subtle method of long-term bribery: losing card games. It turns out that Senator Wylie is a bought man who doesn't know he is bought.

Things start to speed up. Norton proposes marriage to Alice Wylie. Meanwhile, the Senator finally realizes he's been bought--by seeing that Norton has "lost" a hand where he actually had four aces. Incensed, he tells Norton he will do whatever he has to to stop him. Which turns out not to be much. Senator Wylie's secretary is actually in Norton's employ and promptly poisons him. As Norton hovers over Alice Wylie during the funeral, it appears she will marry him.

Meanwhile, were is Button Gwinett Brown?

At this point we have reached the same problem that often occurs in Capra's "serious" films. We have established a system so corrupt, a boss so powerful, that there is no way that the hero can ever triumph over him. So there has to be some cheating in the script. The type of cheating they do here is particularly indicative of the time the film was made.

Before the last two scenes described, there is a scene of Brown, meeting once more with the bonus marchers, who for some reason don't toss him out, but now agree he was right that it was pointless for them to petition Washington for their bonuses, But he has another job for them. He enlists them in a secret vigilante army.

This is one of the many films from this period with a whiff of fascism surrounding them. Even crime melodramas like This Day and Age and slapstick comedies like The Monkey's Paw hint that in the depths of the depression, with years of inaction or feeble action from the government, that the only way to solve the problems in this country might just be to follow the lessons of Europe, and toss all legalisms away and get tough. The most extreme version of this would be in the amazing Gabriel Over the White House, where President Walter Huston's shutting down of congress and establishment of martial law is not seen as a criminal usurpation, but an act of God.

But just to play to both sides of the aisle, it turns out that Norton is an incipient fascist himself, who suddenly starts ranting about how the country needs a strong man to take the law into his own hands, mentioning Mussolini and Stalin, but not Hitler, as this was still 1932. So we have a vaguely-fascist private army facing a would-be fascist dictator

So Brown's army captures Norton, and he finds that he has been followed for weeks, as these war veterans gathered evidence against him. It turns out Wylie's secretary has confessed to his murder, and Norton's ordering of it. Somehow we suspect the confession was granted under duress.

Tracy gives Norton one chance; giving him the same gun that the Prohibition agent used at the beginning of the movie, he gives Norton the chance to commit suicide, we he takes. Aside from a brief reconciliation between Brown and Alice Wylie, that is the end of the film. We don't know what Brown or the army does about the problems facing Washington. Hopefully, they don't march on the capital, but it's hard to see Lee Tracy as the leader of a Putsch. But at this point the film, wobbly throughout, has finally gone off the deep end.

There are many things to like about this film; Tracy in this period was always incredibly watchable, a really exciting actor who manages to sweep you along with him even when his character makes no sense. The supporting cast, Connolly, Cummings, Dinehart and others, are all fine. James Cruze, who was nearing the end of a career that was much more prominent in silent films, directs with great speed and dash, aside from the awkward rear projections mentioned earlier.

This was an interesting film, but a disappointing one. The early thirties was a great period both for Lee Tracy (see his dynamic, sardonic performances in films like Blessed Event, Half-Naked Truth and Bombshell) and hard-hitting socially relevant films (in addition to others mentioned above, there was Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road and many others), but this combination of both categories is a miss.

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