#155 Mr Smith Goes To Washington
(1939, Frank Capra)
“I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a collaboration between James Stewart and director Frank Capra. The first Christmas review I did was of another collaboration, It’s A Wonderful Life, and it was a fantastic film. So, how well did they pull off political drama together? Well, we’ll see what Mr Smith Goes To Washington has to offer.
Following the death of Senator Sam Foley, the Governor of his state has to pick a potential representative for the people to vote for. Faced with a choice between his corrupt political boss Jim Taylor’s (Edward Arnold) choice of a handpicked stooge and his children’s choice of the local boy-scout leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), he picks Smith, with the realisation that his naïveté could make him easily manipulated. However, when Smith’s plan of a national boy’s camp is shamed due to its conflict with corrupt plans for a dam, Smith’s good nature causes him to take a stand against the greed within the US government, with the assistance of his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this movie. I’d heard a lot about it through general pop culture osmosis, but I didn’t know how a political drama would work in Capra’s fairly idealistic style. In fact, when it started, it showed great signs of being an overly patriotic exercise in telling the world how great America is. Shots of James Stewart staring lovingly at Washington monuments didn’t particularly help this opinion.
But then the movie really found its footing and ended up being pretty thrilling to watch. When Smith gets wrapped up in the greed and corruption, it’s hard not to sympathise with him and get swept along in the drama. When he’s put on trial for allegedly being a fraud, it’s heart-breaking to watch as wave after wave of supposed “witnesses” come forward to back up the supposed “evidence” against him.
The final stages of the movie, when Smith makes his major stand, are truly gripping. Which is saying a lot, since his stand is a literal one – he’s pretty much just standing and talking. There’s just so much emotion in James Stewart’s performance, as he struggles to stay awake, standing against the huge amount of opposition he’s facing. Intercut scenes of the local boys back in his hometown staging protests against the false media attention he’s being given also add to the tension.
However, as exciting as the story is to watch, it’s rather simplistic. Smith is a simple man, and as such is instantly painted with a “good guy” brush. He seems almost too perfect. On the flipside, the corrupt senators and political bosses are also villainous to the point of silliness at times. They’re all cowardly and slightly stuck-up in their reactions to Smith, and as such the story feels like a story of black-and-white rather than a more realistic grey-on-grey scenario. It’s definitely a Hollywood story of the thirties.
It also shows its age rather considerably. The editing is rather choppy throughout, with some cuts rather obviously showing themselves to be different takes. Some of the scenes are also cluttered with thirties silliness, such as Smith venturing out and punching reporters in the face in a slightly over-the-top slapstick manner. The scene of Clarissa getting drunk also felt overly fake.
But, overall, the whole movie was entertaining. Just like Smith himself, it’s idealistic and naïve, but has a distinct charm and, gosh darn it, I liked it. Seems that, General Yen aside, Capra really was a fantastic director.
Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey & Claude Rains
Written by Lewis R. Foster (story) and Sidney Buchman
Produced by Frank Capra
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography by Joseph Walker
Edited by Gene Havlick & Al Clark
Favourite Scene: The second Smith walks back into the Senate after being shamed by his peers is the moment things get very interesting.
Scene That Bugged Me: The shots of Washington shortly after Smith gets there. I get it, he loves his country, do you need to keep showing the monuments?
Watch it if: You love seeing the little guy fight against great odds
Avoid it if: You’re allergic to AMERICA!