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'Dave' Isn't First Reel Politician by a Long Shot

June 03, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition. and

I don't go to many movies that end with applause, certainly not the blast of approval that followed a recent matinee of "Dave." The crowd's reaction surprised me, but it shouldn't have--over the years, populist pictures such as "Dave" have found sympathetic audiences as easily as some politicians find big campaign contributions.

The comedy, starring Kevin Kline as Dave Kovic, a nice guy who (thanks to another amazing Hollywood plot spin) poses as the President and all but saves the country, is good. Not good as in great, but good as in sweet and simple. "Dave" is a do-the-right-thing fantasy, where hypocrisy and corruption are ruined, all because of little people like Dave.

Everyone seems to like the snuggly humor, but they applaud because of something more obvious; they agree with Dave's notion that things can get better if you just approach problems straight-on. "Dave" is the film equivalent of a Ross Perot speech, especially when he gets folksy, with that gaze that seems to say "Hey, this is easy; how come you don't get it?" People do get it, and even though they know it can't really be that easy, they want to believe it is.

Frank Capra, a director who believed that America was Utopia just waiting to happen, mastered this kind of movie, although he certainly wasn't its only practitioner. Hollywood has routinely turned to the nation's capital, politics and the ideals behind "Dave" for inspiration, both for comedies and serious films. In fact, in creating "Dave," director Ivan Reitman could be accused of merely giving a colorful new paint job to a vehicle with thousands of miles on it.

Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) may not be the first model, but it's probably the best known. James Stewart played Mr. Smith the way he played most of Capra's symbols of human decency, with an enthusiasm and honesty that didn't leave room for anything bad. His Everyman stripped the gears of an insidious political machine, fainted from the exertion, but got the girl (Jean Arthur), a national constituency and more than a little good karma. People were said to have applauded at that movie, too.

Another Capra favorite is "Meet John Doe" (1941). Gary Cooper, like Stewart, epitomizes the director's notions of family values as he becomes a kindly derelict groomed for power by big-city bosses. John Doe strips the gears of a corrupt political machine, almost commits suicide from the exertion but gets the girl (Barbara Stanwyck), a national constituency and more than a little good karma. That sounds familiar.

Less known, but also by Capra, is "State of the Union" (1948). Although not one of the more famous Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn offerings, the picture makes the most of their charming volatility. Based on Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse's stage play of the same name, Tracy is a businessman running for President, Hepburn is his unhappy wife who puts on her best game face to help the cause, and Angela Lansbury plays a newspaper tycoon eager to see him in the White House.

Preston Sturges, who can stand as the anti-Capra of the era, took a look at many of the same issues, but more with a glare and a wink than a smile and a sigh. Sturges' directorial debut, "The Great McGinty" (1940) stars Brian Donlevy in the recycled plot--this time, Donlevy, a bum, is maneuvered not into the White House, but the governor's mansion. He goes straight, of course, but Sturges brings more comic bite, and less melodrama, to his vision of a better America.

In the classics category, or least the category of pictures that go back a ways, there's also Garson Kanin's "The Great Man Votes" (1939), starring John Barrymore (with his trademark patrician-gone-to-seed style) as a drunk entangled in political chicanery. Then there's "The Senator Was Indiscreet" (1947), directed by George S. Kaufman and starring William Powell as a dopey senator who gets in trouble with party bosses when his diary, full of sensitive information, is lost. In a prime example of Capitol overreaction, the movie prompted congressional hearings by senators and representatives alarmed at being portrayed as crooks and goofs.

Take a leap of a couple of decades and Washington lands on the psychiatrist's couch in "The President's Analyst" (1967), directed by Theodore J. Flicker. James Coburn is Dr. Sidney Shaefer, a shrink brought in to help relieve the President's anxieties until he gets some of his own. Privy to a thicket of Oval Office secrets, Shaefer becomes the target of global espionage in this broad satire tweaking our pristine notions of the American way of life.

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