Back to this running feature after a short break...
Today's movie is titled, very simply, "Politics." It's a pre-Code comedy (1931) starring Marie Dressler, who leads the women of the town in a revolt against the men, including Dressler's campaign for mayor and, eventually, a full women's strike against their husbands (focused on household tasks, but...Everything? Yes, everything, we're told -- as I said, pre-Code).
I'm sure that people could have a field day reading the gender politics of the movie, but that's not my concern here. The plot has to do (at that late date) with closing the speakeasies and thus beating the mob; the women are dries, the men are wets, and they mostly do their best to uphold gender stereotypes. What interests me is that the idea of politics in the movie is clearly pre-Mr. Smith. Yes, Dressler's Hattie Burns is an ordinary citizen who stands up for what she thinks is right. But she's not really, at least in my reading, standing up for what is right. And that's all the difference in the world. Sure, in this movie there are clearly good people (Burns, the women) and bad guys (the mob), but there are still recognizable legitimate interests -- the speakeasy is there because the men want to drink, and the women are mostly acting in their own self-interest, not on behalf of a disembodied public interest.
One can see, then, multiple paths from "Politics." One leads to Preston Sturges and his great political comedies, in which politics is an arena in which very fallible, but mostly well-meaning if self-interested, fools contend with each other. A second path is basically not taken -- it takes the substance of politics, the legitimate clash of interests and opinions, more seriously. And then, there's where virtually all American movies about politics have ended up, along the path that Mr. Smith gave us: politics is a clash between evil special interests and pure, innocent, representatives of The People.
One can see the seeds of Mr. Smith in "Politics." But the seeds to the better paths were there, too (sorry about the mixed metaphor, there). Sadly, very few movies have picked up those threads.
I didn't really talk about the movie itself...it's short, and very obviously an early talkie. You have to like that sort of thing to enjoy it. Dressler is great; most of the other comedic players are, to my eyes, pretty weak. On the other hand, it's very quick (73 minutes). I liked it well enough to give it a recommend, but it won't be to everyone's tastes.