Nominated for eleven Academy Awards but having the misfortune of being released in the same year as Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political comedy-drama that stands the test of time. Though produced and set in 1939, the film feels as fresh and relevant as the day of its release and contains the breakthrough performance of one of Hollywood’s greats, James Stewart. Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers, local newspaper owner and all around good guy. When one of his state’s Senators unexpectedly dies, the local political machine looks for a replacement that will be popular with the people but keep his nose out of their shady political dealings. After much deliberation it’s decided that Smith is their man and he heads off to Washington, wide eyed and wet behind the ears.
Although this is very much Jimmy Stewart’s film, he was given second billing to co-star Jean Arthur. Arthur was already a star by 1939 whereas Stewart was very much on his way up, on the back of strong supporting roles in the likes of Navy Blue and Gold and You Can’t Take It With You, which as with Mr. Smith was directed by Frank Capra. Stewart launches himself with this role though and despite his long and successful career, this is remains one of his defining performances.
Alongside the two stars, the film also features a wonderful array of supporting actors. Claude Rains is fantastic as the shifty Senator Payne, although his natural English accent occasionally seeps through. Edward Arnold is tremendously wicked as Jim Taylor, the head of the vicious Taylor Political Machine while Harry Carey is quite the opposite in his Oscar nominated role of President of the Senate. Beulah Bondi has a small role as Senator Smith’s mother, a role she’d repeat seven years later when called upon to play Stewart’s mother in another one of Capra’s great works, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jean Arthur expertly plays the modern woman type, slightly older than her co-star but unmarried, with a strong head on her shoulders and the ability to grab the world by the scruff of its neck. She’s particularly strong when nudging the Senator towards his destiny and almost feels like the opposite of a femme fatale. She has all the strength and wit but uses it for good.
Stewart excels when playing the middle class everyman who is up against it. There’s something relatable about his face, his mannerisms and his personality that comes through on screen. When he talks, he feels like he’s saying what you’re thinking and when he preaches it seems as though he’s preaching directly at you. He uses his trademark uneasiness to comic and dramatic effect early on before finding his feet in the final act. There’s a scene which I was particularly fond of in which Stewart is engaging in conversation with his colleague’s beautiful daughter and gets all in a bother. Capra films the scene from waist height and focuses on Smith’s hat as Stewart fumbles and repeatedly drops it while desperately grasping for charming and insightful conversation. It perfectly sums up Stewart’s performance in the early part of the film. He’s shy, unsure of himself and out of his depth. This makes the final pay off all the better as he suddenly transforms into a steady, passionate and idealistic orator.
The film is crammed full of patriotic fervour and American political iconography. This is first exemplified by Senator Smith’s vehement enthusiasm displayed when he arrives in his nation’s Capital. He briefly loses sight of his immediate political duty and takes flight, hopping on a tourist bus to visit the sights and monuments that dot the centre of Washington. Even as a European citizen, I couldn’t help but get swept away in the character’s passion and amazement at the historical monuments and their political significance. I actually felt it more watching this film than when visiting the monuments myself. I can only imagine how one of the most patriotic nations on Earth must have reacted to the scene. The patriotism continues to flow through the film as Smith stands up to the giant Washington machine, representing the little guy, as the script puts it, “David without a slight against Goliath”.
Although the film from today’s standpoint seems to be extremely pro-American, pro-democracy and anti-corruption, upon its release it generated criticism from Washington’s political classes, some of whom considered it Communist propaganda. This might seem ridiculous today but the film does lampoon the American Senate to some extent and there are numerous accusations of duplicity and subterfuge. Although the opening titles carry the obligatory “All persons and events are entirely fictitious” etc, the film was nonetheless met with objection. Strangely there was no such objection from the dreaded Breen Office. Usually quick to block any film deemed in any way negative to American ideals, Breen’s office wholeheartedly approved of the movie’s message. Disappointingly, the message seems lost today amongst an ever increasingly right wing America which is once again wary of any man or party considered slightly to the left of centre. For all the freedoms and liberties that Senator Smith so passionately advocates, America is still a place in which those who criticize are met with deep distrust and many blindly believe themselves to be part of the greatest country on Earth despite high crime, disparity between rich and poor and poor social welfare.
Frank Capra directs Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with flair and assurance. As well as including the necessary patriotic iconography, he captures some mesmerizing shots of Mr. Smith in the Senate and the final act is a tour de force of both direction and acting. Capra was rightly nominated for an Oscar but like four other of his film’s nominations, lost to Gone with the Wind. Nevertheless, his film is a masterful piece of political satire and deep drama with its heart in the right place and a message that will carry though the ages. It’s a magnificent film.
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