Friday, March 13, 2009

The Washington Masquerade (1932)

In The Washington Masquerade, Lionel Barrymore plays a relentlessly uncompromising lawyer who is elected to the Senate only to falter due to a moment (or moments) of moral weakness. In this, the film is more realistic and in some ways more interesting than the later Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Frank Capra would have filmed a movie standing on his head before he would have corrupted his Jefferson Smith character (played by James Stewart) who, in Capra's world, signified All that Was Right and True. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie and a good one, too, but it doesn't have the sort of melancholy grasps at realism that The Washington Masquerade contains.

Based on Henry Bernstein's play "The Claw," (Barrymore played the role on stage ten years earlier), The Washington Masquerade sets up Karen Morley as a manipulative, seductive opportunist, the fine Diane Sinclair as Barrymore's wise daughter, and a wide array of character actors playing corrupt government officials, not least of which is Nils Asther, who excelled in playing smarmy, predatory, illicit lovers.

Wouldn't you know it, but the film has some faults that keep it from being first-rate: the over-the-top speeches Barrymore spouts about God and Country and the Common Good would have made even Jefferson Smith do a double-take. These bromides had to have been dated when this film was made and even when the play was written. Secondly, MGM continued to shoot itself in the foot with hurried, out-of-the-blue wrap-up endings guaranteed to make your jaw drop. I won't give away the ending of this one, but don't expect much.

The good acting shines through, though, and even those who find Barrymore's acting over-done (I don't) may enjoy this one for its uncompromising tone.

The Washington Masquerade is not available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.