Second Time Around

Washington Merry-Go-Round
Fast-talking Lee Tracy plays a descendent of Founding Father Button Gwinett who's shoved into Congress by a corrupt gang in this startling Depression-era feature of 1932. Finding the political institutions too far gone to be salvageable, Tracy orchestrates a little vigilante action in order to guarantee that justice gets done. Crisply directed by silent film vet James Cruze, Jo Swerling's script draws on contemporary events like the Bonus Army then occupying Washington and the same fear of gangster rule that drove other period films like Gabriel Over the White House. There are too many similarities to another Columbia Pictures film made seven years later to be accidental: This movie anticipates Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in many of its plot elements, down to Congressman Brown's ridicule and expulsion by the powerful forces he opposes. Swerling isn't credited on the later Capra film but did write several of Capra's best early 1930s films and also contributed to It's a Wonderful Life. But unlike James Stewart in Mr. Smith, Tracy is never presented as an object of sympathy or even much appeal. This film's endorsement of half-fascist, half-populist, and half-baked ideas may well have more resonance than we'd like to admit -- Tracy will remind many of Pat Buchanan with a shave, and a bigger heart.

-- Gregg Rickman

Washington Merry-Go-Round screens Monday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m. (with Night Mayor at 6:05 and 9:05 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $6.50; call (510) 843-3456.

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