An idealistic young politician is brought to Washington by crooked handlers from his state who assume he’s just another vote from their side of the aisle in aid of lining their own pockets. But the newcomer, sparked by his notions of American pride and history, has his own ideas and does his all to stand up to those already firmly entrenched in Washington from political puppets to the criminals who pull their strings.
There is a young woman on the scene, born and raised in Washington, who knows the ins and outs of the town and serves as guide and love interest for our hero. There’s the respected elder statesman that our hero eventually breaks with leading the old-timer to a moment of self-examination in which he realizes just what he has lost. Our young go-getter pushes too far, winds up disillusioned and wandering among Washington’s monuments, symbols of all that he's fighting for.
Washington Merry-Go-Round is the pre-Code era answer to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Any lover of the later film will find it impossible not to compare the two once they have the pleasure of happening upon this earlier title.
This is Washington during the Depression’s darkest hours. Released just weeks before the 1932 election, applauded for being so up to date as to include the Bonus Army, and featuring a villain who names Mussolini and Stalin as his heroes, Washington Merry-Go-Round would have eaten Jefferson Smith alive. While Button Gwinnett Brown may be idealistic he’s not quite so naive. Washington doesn’t disillusion him upon his arrival, in fact; he’s come prepared to fight.
Jimmy Stewart would have been trampled upon entrance to this city. But the world of Washington Merry-Go-Round suits the pre-Code era’s loudest star, Lee Tracy, to a T!
It’s Honest John Kelleher (Frank Sheridan) who has engineered Brown’s (Tracy) entry to Washington. He tells his boss Norton (Alan Dinehart), Washington’s biggest behind the scenes power broker, that Brown is “all front and no back. Wears star spangled underwear … His blood is bluer than one of Sophie Tucker’s songs.” The kid should be a pushover.
Kelleher is thrown for a loop when he finally meets up with Brown to offer him his welcome. First Brown thanks him, telling Kelleher that “I never could have gotten to Congress without you. I couldn’t have been elected dog catcher without you,” before really cutting into him.
“I know that our state is just one big contented cow that you’ve been milking for years. You get all the cream, the people get all the clabber.” Smug and humored by the upstart Kelleher replies, ”That’s right. Fifty-fifty.”
Brown gives it to him a little more, finally getting under Kelleher’s skin. He asks Brown how long he thinks he’s going to remain in Washington with this attitude and Brown replies, “Long enough to kick you out. That’s why I came to Washington.”
Kelleher is small potatoes though. Norton is the true muscle behind anything getting done in Washington. While there is no doubt we are to hiss at Alan Dinehart all throughout Washington Merry-Go-Round, it is not until near the end of the film, as his Norton rides with Senator Wylie’s granddaughter, Alice (Constance Cummings), that we find out how big he’s really thinking.
After assuring Alice that she can count on him “because there’s nothing I can’t do,” Norton elaborates:
“I have plans. Many plans. Never in the history of this country has there been a greater opportunity offered a strong man. Italy has her Mussolini, Russia her Stalin. Such a man will rise in America. A man, not a follower, but a leader. One strong enough to take the law into his own hands if necessary. A man of destiny.”
Alice Wylie (Cummings), having grown up in Washington, has become the key society woman in the town.
Through a chance meeting with Brown on the train into Washington—one that my autograph collecting friends will really appreciate—she winds up as love interest and, like Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the woman who shows the young politician the ropes of Washington.
After Brown discovers that Norton is the big fish that he’s really come to fight it is against Alice’s advice that he puts all of his energies into defeating a piece of pork that ostensibly spends two million taxpayer’s dollars to erect a statue to an obscure American pioneer named General Digger. Brown is physically escorted from the floor of Congress after one of those typically rousing Lee Tracy speeches causing a disappointed Alice to scold: “You can be anything but ridiculed.”
Washington Merry-Go-Round dispenses with the politeness and charm of the later Mr. Smith. Heck, a disgraced Senator Paine (Claude Rains) may have tried to kill himself in Mr. Smith, but Merry-Go-Round features no less than two suicides and one murder in its Washington setting. This movie is hard. Other than Walter Connolly’s old-timer Senator Wylie, Merry-Go-Round is populated by sharks who do very little to mask their intentions.
If Jean Arthur’s reporter Clarissa is jaded in Mr. Smith than just what is Constance Cummings’ Alice Wylie in Merry-Go-Round? If you don’t think Alice has seen everything Washington has to offer than keep an eye on her during Merry-Go-Round’s final scene, which I won’t spoil here, but remember: this is a happy ending.
I mentioned Washington Merry-Go-Round being so topical as to include the Bonus Army. They’re not just window-dressing, they play an important role. They’re led by Beef Brannigan (Arthur Vinton), who turns out to be an old army buddy of Tracy’s Congressman Brown. Beef, startled to hear what his old pal is doing in Washington, proudly gathers his fellow ex-servicemen around to introduce Brown to them. “I’m just an ex-serviceman looking for a fight,” Brown begins as Lee Tracy goes off on one of his longest speeches of the movie.
He riles the men up, not by promising his aid but by telling them that they’re lazy and no better than panhandlers in a damning bit of bluster that feels like it was scripted by President Hoover.
“This isn’t just a Depression, this is a crisis!” he declares. Meanwhile Beef tries to calm down the crowd by telling them that Brown has had a little too much to drink. Brown waves him off and finishes by telling them that the best thing they could do would be to go home and tell people what’s really happening in Washington: “You call yourselves ex-servicemen, well why don’t you become servicemen?”
The Bonus Army had come to Washington in 1932 seeking an immediate payout on their bonus certificates. These certificates were issued to Veterans by a 1924 Act of Congress awarding payments for each day of service during World War I. While smaller amounts were immediately paid out anyone having earned over $50 was given a Certificate of Service, payable in 20 years time. Servicemen were able to borrow against their certificates with the maximum loan more than doubled to 50% of full value by Congress in 1931. Despite President Hoover’s protests, many ex-servicemen needed more. They marched on Washington with hopes of getting the date for their full payout moved up to present. While the Bonus Bill passed the House it was crushed in the Senate. After a skirmish with the police led the the deaths of two veterans Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to evict the Bonus Army from Washington in late July of that year.
Washington Merry-Go-Round entered production just a few days later and so they were up to the moment with the inclusion of the Bonus Army, but kept them firmly entrenched in Washington throughout. While the Columbia film didn’t go so far as to demonize the Bonus Army they did have them eat a bit of humble pie later in the film when they joined up with the Lee Tracy character after admitting that he had been right about them in the first place.
The real Bonus Army would receive their payouts later, in 1936.
And so Lee Tracy’s Brown is no populist. He’s every bit of what Kelleher described him as right down to the “star spangled underwear.” He has no political agenda. He has only come to Washington to flush out corruption and expose it.
As usual Lee Tracy proves an acquired taste. He tells everyone off, right down to the girl he’s fallen for, Alice Wylie: “You think you know your Washington. Your Washington is just a Vassar daisy chain. To you it’s all a merry-go-round. Embassies, parties, teas, dances. Why if you got in a covered wagon you’d ask for a chauffeur. You’re like all the rest of the people around here, soft and dizzy, and useless.” Who loves you, baby?
Columbia purchased the title of the film from a popular book by Robert S. Allen and Drew Pearson. Pearson would soon be penning a political column under the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” name. The content of the film had nothing to do with the book beyond the title though. Maxwell Anderson was hired to write an original story which was turned into a script by Jo Swerling that was directed by James Cruze.
Film Daily originally reported Donald Woods as being cast in the lead, but Columbia eventually selected Tracy, hot off of Blessed Event (1932) and in retrospect the obvious choice. While I said Tracy is an acquired taste the same goes for this film.
A less forceful lead wouldn’t have stood a chance carrying this one. No problem for Lee Tracy who never minds making himself as big a fool as the forces he’s fighting against. Besides that I can’t picture another actor who could rattle off some of these lengthy bits of dialogue better than Tracy, who does so in typical fashion, with no pause for breath.
We recently took a detailed look at Alan Dinehart on the site and if you can get your hands on a copy there is no better showcase for his talents than Washington Merry-Go-Round. He gets a ton of camera time in this one and is shifty from the first time we see him. Keeping his cool throughout Dinehart’s Norton doesn’t let his guard down until towards the end where in talking himself up to Cummings an insane gleam comes over his eyes. He’d have been goose-stepping by this point were he not sitting down! An intimidating figure who becomes frightening once fully absorbed by his own ideas and ambitions.
A-plus for Constance Cummings in a performance that left me wanting more. She’s very mature in her role as Washington society hostess and unlike some of the other roles I’ve seen her in, every bit as self-assured as the men she interacts with throughout this film.
Walter Connolly comes off well in what is really Washington Merry-Go-Round’s only sympathetic part. While Connolly has a handful of film credits to his name by the time of Merry-Go-Round, including those few stray silent titles so common for Broadway actors of his time, Washington Merry-Go-Round is the first feature he appears in during what will be his extremely successful run in Hollywood throughout the remainder of the decade until his 1940 death. The 45-year-old actor is made up a few decades older than he really is in Merry-Go-Round and slows himself down so much that you’d expect this to be his final film and not one of his first. Very convincing as the kindly elder statesman.
Also noteworthy are Arthur Vinton as Beef Brannigan, leader of the Bonus Army, and Frank Sheridan as Honest John Kelleher, the slimy politician who engineers Brown’s entry to Washington. Clarence Muse gets off to a good start, especially in a hilarious opening exchange with John Larkin, but despite seemingly elevating himself from Brown’s valet to his Washington secretary he slowly disappears from Merry-Go-Round.
Washington Merry-Go-Round never offers the hope we find in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There is no climactic moment of inspiration in this one. The good guy really loses here but the bad guy loses worse. Rather than a happy ending Washington Merry-Go-Round boasts an ugly ending.
My friend Jacqueline T. Lynch just wrote a magnificent post about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) at Another Old Movie Blog - Check it out HERE.