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American Politics In the Movies (Wednesdays in September)
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Washington Merry-Go-Round

Washington Merry-Go-Round

In many ways, Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) seems like a curious early version of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In both films, a freshman Congressman (Lee Tracy in the first, James Stewart in the second) arrives in the capital with idealistic notions only to discover rampant corruption and a brutal lack of ethics, with lawmakers beholden to lobbyists and other influence peddlers. There are even similarities on more specific fronts; both films, for example, have their leading men go to the Lincoln Memorial for inspiration and to combat feelings of despair. The characters played by the female leads (Constance Cummings and Jean Arthur) are comparable, too.

All that being said, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the later film was actually spawned by the earlier one. The writing credits of Mr. Smith make no reference to Washington Merry-Go-Round's screenplay or source material (though they also don't reference the novel The Gentleman from Montana, which is where the idea for Mr. Smith sprang from).

Washington Merry-Go-Round's source material actually provided nothing more than a title and some general inspiration. In 1931, newspaper reporters Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen published an anonymous book entitled Washington Merry-Go-Round, which was a gossipy exposé of politicians and other public figures in the news. The book was successful enough to bring forth a sequel, More Merry-Go-Round. Soon thereafter, Pearson started a newspaper column called "Washington Merry-Go-Round," which quickly became widely syndicated, influential and notorious. He also hosted a radio show of the same name. Over the following decades Pearson developed into one of the era's most widely known pundits, both admired and reviled for exposing corruption and graft in the halls of Congress and public institutions. He was both showman and newsman, and in later years he created television programs which were the precursors of shows like Meet the Press.

This movie was produced following the publication of Pearson's two books and around the time his original newspaper column began. The title was certainly fresh enough in the public discourse to tell audiences that the film would probably address political corruption. Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the title and commissioned a fictional story of Congressman Button Gwinnett Brown, who draws the ire of his crooked colleagues to the extent that they trump up a recount to try and unseat him. The character's name comes from real-life Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Directed by James Cruze (The Covered Wagon, 1923), the film was well-received, with The New York Times calling it "a sturdy piece of work with melodramatic interludes" and praising the "excellent performances." Look for Jane Darwell in a small role, eight years before she won her Oscar® for The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: James Cruze
Screenplay: Jo Swerling; Maxwell Anderson (story)
Cinematography: Ira Morgan, Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editing: Richard Cahoon
Cast: Lee Tracy (Button Gwinett Brown), Constance Cummings (Alice Wylie), Walter Connolly (Senator Wylie), Alan Dinehart (Edward T. Norton), Arthur Vinton (Beef Brannigan), Arthur Hoyt (Willis), Berton Churchill (Speaker of the House), Frank Sheridan (John Kelleher), Clay Clement (Ambassador Conti), Clarence Muse (Clarence).
BW-79m.

by Jeremy Arnold

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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