08 August 2008

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

d. Frank Capra / USA / 129 mins.

Frank Capra's eloquent tribute to American idealism is perhaps the most splendid antidote to my occasional (OK, frequent) inflammations of cynicism. The film makes me sad then happy then sad and then happy again to live in a vibrant democracy, watching a lone soul take a stand against the powers-that-be. It's a rousing display of filmmaking, the sort of movie that reminds you why you like movies in the first place.

James Stewart – who else could it be? – stars as do-good Jefferson Smith, a local hero and "Boy Ranger" leader who is surprisingly appointed to a vacant Senate seat by corrupt governor. The idea is that an everyman-as-senator will be supremely easy to control and he'll do whatever his colleagues suggest. Ah, but the idealism: no one expects the idealism. Alongside his beautiful, sharp-tongued secretary (Jean Arthur in a snappy performance), Smith soon finds himself caught in the gears of political machinery when he and his fellow senator, Joseph Payne (a devilishly good Claude Rains), have differing plans for the same track of land. Smith wants to see it become a Boy Ranger camp; Payne and the other crooked politicians see dollar signs in its potential use as a dam.

Mr. Smith was released in 1939 – one of Hollywood's banner years – alongside the likes of Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Ninotchka. (The mediocre adaptation of Wuthering Heights hit screens that year, too, as well as Jean Renior's The Rules Of The Game in France.) Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, Mr. Smith lost all but the original screenplay category when Gone With The Wind blew through the ceremony. Stewart and Clark Gable split the ballot for male lead and Robert Donat took home the statuette instead. (Stewart would pick one up the following year for The Philadelphia Story, largely a consolation prize.)

The stellar films above from 1939 are all great, of course, but Mr. Smith is a sentimental favorite of mine. The film is not all heady back-room politics or legalese. It's straightforward and casual with strong heart. A fact that's frequently ignored in reviews of it is how effective it is as a comedy and how thrilling it is as a drama. In those regards it stands up well against contemporaries. The film is one Capra's best (running neck-and-neck with It's A Wonderful Life), and the performances are great across the board. I'll spotlight two: Rains as a senator grown morally calloused from his years in office, with such subtle resignation at the state of the government and the state of his role in it. Naturally, there's also Stewart's performance. We remember him in hindsight for his light and typecast roles, but he was a man of such fantastic acting abilities. Watch him in Harvey or The Man From Laramie or Vertigo and you'll see nuanced, distinct, well-defined, and utterly different performances. There's an argument to be made that Mr. Smith is his best role and when you watch the exhaustive speech near the film's end – one of the great scenes in movie history – it's difficult to disagree.

On a particularly patriotic side note: When the Nazis banned U.S. films from playing in then-occupied France, many French theaters picked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the last movie to be shown freely. One owner, in a wonderful tribute to the film's climactic filibuster, reportedly screened it for thirty consecutive days before the ban took effect.

Jefferson Smith would surely have been proud.


Brian McFillen 12 August, 2008  

Great review, Tony!

One of the amazing things about "Mr. Smith" is how well it holds even after 70 years. When I taught Politics and Film, I chose it as the first film we watched, and (as much as I love it) I was expecting some carping about its age, its idealism, etc. Instead, the students raved about it, picking up on its nuanced view of American politics and political institutions (I think people who know it by reputation without having actually watched it would be surprised by just how sharply the movie criticizes Washington, the press, etc.).

Also, to add to your note about it being the last film shown in Paris before the Nazi occupation: one of the great things about Capra is that he recognized totalitarianism's growing threat to democracy in the 1930's, and set out to counteract it. He was disturbed by Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" and feared (much as FDR did) that without action, the public would turn against democracy. Thus, he offered up "Mr. Smith" (and, later, the "Why We Fight" propaganda series) as a response. And, to his enormous credit, "Mr. Smith" makes a masterful counter-argument -- one that acknowledges the flaws of the American system, but nevertheless makes an intelligent and impassioned plea in its favor. Whereas "Triumph" seeks to subtly manipulate the audience's emotions, "Mr. Smith" is upfront but hardly simple-minded in its effort to convince the viewers. It not only seeks to bolster support for democracy, it does this by depending upon the wisdom of average citizens -- thus "Mr. Smith" isn't just telling people to have faith in democracy, it's a quintessential expression of that faith.

T.S. 12 August, 2008  

Excellent analysis, Brian. It's great to know younger viewers are still finding "Mr. Smith" a gratifying experience. I'd love to teach "Mr. Smith" one day; it's such a great film.

Also, your point about Capra's intentions in singling out the importance of individuals in a democracy – and their wisdom and ability to influence the process – is perfectly stated. I get that feeling watching the film but that's the first time I've seen expressed in such a crystalline manner.

Thanks for reading and posting, man.

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