Washington Story, 1952. 6/10

Spot-on title for this Van Johnson Patricia Neal political drama. He’s congressman Joe Gresham. She’s tabloid reporter Alice Kingsley; hired by Gilbert Nunnally (Philip Ober) to dig dirt on Joe, she, well, you know, falls in love with him instead. Shot on location in D.C. The deal is that the Congressman might be greasing the wheels with a bill that exclusively favors his state–will it fly?

In supporting roles, we have, respectively, Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer, and Patricia Collinge as Charles Bird, Philip Emory, and Miss Galbreath.

Thanks to the review (07/02/1952) from inestimable Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, we have a nice road map for navigating this film. His pithy overall comment that this is “idealized simplicity” says it all. Gresham’s character comes off as so squeaky-clean that he’s “seducable only in the area of romance.” Joe’s colleague, Congressman Birch, makes a penetrating impression as a “circumloquacious windbag.”

After a condescending, impatient introduction, Nunnally escorts Alice into a congressional session. Apparently, it’s some sort of filibuster; they get bored quickly. A congressman mentions to her in an aside that Nunnally is “just interested in the seamy side.” Joe blows by, in a huff, and in a hurry.

She confesses to Nunnally that “if I find the right [Congress]man, I could do a whole series around him.” Thus the premise outlined. Actually, Nunnally offers that ‘No-comment’ Joe is the perfect subject. Next thing, she’s waiting in his office with Miss Galbreth. She gets in.

Alice gives her spiel. And he shuts her down. “I make it a rule not to give opinions to the press.” She doesn’t give up so easily; and wins him over, sort of… Obviously, he feels she’s ok. He calls her back (actually Nunnally). Shazam! She on-the-spot in his office next morning. A bunch of silly, slice of life bits ensue, very light and breezy.

That night, she sarcastically goes on about “if I don’t get a smear job on him by next week, I’ll be out on my little pink ear…” But Nunnally disagrees, he thinks Emery is pushing a little too hard against Joe’s home-state ship-building interest. The accusation includes the possibility that payola could come in the form of a swanky job if/when Joe gets voted out.

Anyway, he’s practicing a presentation…she goes on about The Three Little Bears. Even Galbreth thinks it’s funny. But in the hearing, Emery, the lobbyist, who admits his job has “sinister overtones,” takes the floor. The windbag Birch just wants to torpedo the dissent, so he wants Emery to ramble on.

The crux of the issue is the apparent favoritism of the Navy contract for his state alone. Later, Alice fills in Nunnally on the dope in chambers. Out in the hallway, Birch tries sweet-talking Alice. Despite their differences, Joe protests that he and Birch are friends. “Television sure does things to people” says Birch. True enough.

Anyway, Joe and Alice skedaddle back to New England. His mom says he shouldn’t “pussy foot” on the shipbuilding deal. In other words, favoritism is ascendant locally. They go out on the town later. That is, nothing like a midnight speedboat ride, and a party on a yacht “this is what you call rustic” she quips.

He starts reminiscing…at this point, I wouldn’t mind meeting the cigarette girl; things are just too squeaky-clean. Alice and Joe haven’t even made out yet. Luckily, a strange old guy, Kralick (Reinhold Schunzel), is waiting for him back at the white-picket-fence homestead. Sounds like a legitimate immigration issue; Joe does promise to look into it.

Back in D.C., the happy couple’s at a swanky ball. There’s Birch, dancing with Alice. It’s only now that she hears that Joe’s involved in a libel suit with Nunnally over Joe’s alleged graft. Kind of explains her assignment–after the fact. She makes the obvious conclusion that her role is to provide malefeasence ammo for his defense.

“Find the skeleton and toss me a bone” is his colorful, though unwelcome metaphor. Joe can’t get a break–Verlick’s deportation hearing can’t be put off. Then, Emery gets Joe’s attention with the contract for a cushy job scenario–getting “paid off”–he doesn’t mind saying. We still don’t know whom he represents, except his vague expression “the country.”

Has he been “biased and prejudice”? She meets Nunnally in the morning. He’s got tips and tails all over town on Joe. The bill passes committee, meaning a defeat for him; next it will be on the House floor. Local journalists are sympathetic, but he’s in a snit. Time to see Congress in action. The Senate passes the bill–requesting concurrence from the House–is this correct?

Anyway, some more last second sparring between Birch and Joe. Our hero makes an about-face, suddenly approving the bill. It’s not clear if Joe has something to hide, or he’s being “Santa Claus” as is suggested. He squares everything with Emery–by punching him. Now he’s going a bit far by grand-standing his ‘conversion’; “you dig your own grave, Joe” say the homey journalists.

Only now does he learn who Alice really works for–betrayal is absolute now. Finally some drama and pathos. Who shows up now but Verlick…looks like he’s going to win his case after all.

Well, here’s the showdown scene with Joe and Alice. She admits her culpability but insists that he’s won her over, but he’s adamant. He figures he’s done as a politician. Charlie tries to talk him out of giving it up.

The old guy knows just what to say, trying all the angles. From the look on Joe’s face, he’s about to flip-flop again. Especially once he learns that Alice wrote (probably the only) a favorable article about him. She’s in, he’s in–the end.

The last part of this movie was certainly the best–it felt like an overly-drawn-out short subject until the bill starts ramping up. The danger of the premise is this documentary motif settles over much of the film. The tone says it all: sort of a highschool level upbeat and informative subject for civics classes.

Nonetheless, Neal holds this together as a feisty strong-willed, and comely personality. Strangely, Johnson, who usually has a commanding screen presence, is almost nebbish here. Calhern is much more interesting as his antagonist. Blackmer is fairly good as a semi-slimy lobbyist; Ober does well enough. But just barely–he’s Joe’s real antagonist, but is just barely menacing.

It might’ve been better to make Johnson a local politician. The trappings of Congress overwhelm the movie; that’s inevitable. But, it gets in the way of the romance, and the vaguely sordid stuff. So what we have is a hodge-podge of plots and genres; a pretty good romance/melodrama.


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