Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (original review)

Directed by Frank Capra

The movies of Frank Capra are wonderful anodynes to the this era’s obligatory cynicism and fashionable pessimism. They’re also terrific for the internal conflict they create in a modern viewer.

Your day-to-day facade sees the film and knows it is sentimental. It knows its corney and manipulative. You see it and understand it’s informed by an “Ah, shucks” Americana so treacly it’s a wonder why no one has burned the film in order to spare future generations the experience. And yet …

Despite what your “cool” self thinks, you love the movies. Somehow Capra manages to make what should be sentimental tripe into a compelling and joyous film. The question is, how does he do it?

A good example of a Capra film, and one of his best, is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It’s so sentimenal, patriotic and sweet, in a Norman Rockwell way, you can’t imagine how it was made with a straight face. And you don’t understand why you like it so much.

I think there are a number of reasons for why the movie is so good but I think first and foremost is Capra’s storytelling ability. While stories like Mr. Smith may be ultimately sweet, they aren’t all sweet and the sweetness isn’t achieved easily.

Capra uses a traditional, conventional narrative approach. The story of Mr. Smith is linear and progressive – it’s starts at one place (an event that kick starts the film) and then moves to its finish step-by-step.

A junior senator is killed in an auto accident. He must be replaced. However, he has been part of a corrupt political machine (businessman Jim Taylor’s played by Edward Arnold) and his replacement will also have to “play ball” in order to complete a plan to scam money from the government. The problem is that the man who they want to put in place is a known stooge. The public doesn’t want him and the governor, who must make the appointment, is afraid to name him.

In a desparate move, he names an unknown – Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) – a leader of a boy’s club movement, an innocent and an unknown. It seems a workable idea; it’s believed the new young senator’s naivete will allow him to be manipulated.

But Mr. Smith becomes an unexpected wild card. Despite his innocence, he stumbles on the deception and, feeling a patriotic responsibility, determines to expose the deception and put an end to the Taylor machine.

Taylor’s machine goes on the offensive and try to ruin Jefferson Smith. In the end, Smith winds up on the floor of the U.S. Senate creating a filibuster and passionately speaks for hours, trying to win support.

There’s a great deal more, of course, including the key role played by Jean Arthur (as Clarissa Saunders).

She’s the wise-cracking, cynical young woman who knows how Washington works and sees Mr. Smith as a hopeless Don Quixote. But as she gets to know Smith she begins to discover both love and hope again.

Ultimately, she becomes Smith’s political guide to Washington and tells him what he must do in order to have a chance against the Taylor machine.

Capra knows his story and how to tell it. There is little that is extraneous to it (except for some patriotic shots of Washington monuments). Everything moves the story forward and moves in that direction briskly. The pace is quick and this helps to keep the audience engaged.

The other key is the cast. Both Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are flawless. But the supporting roles are also terrific and are keys to the movie’s success. Claude Rains is great as the corrupt and guilt-ridden older Senator, and Edward Arnold’s Jim Taylor tightly encapsulates the indifferent corruption at the heart of it all.

The movie also benefits from a certain degree of nostalgia. Being an older, black and white film from an earlier period, one seen as a more innocent time (correctly or incorrectly), I think we approach the film wanting to like it and perhaps not so critically.

The movie is essentially a “rah-rah America” film. But it’s not just that, or at least it isn’t quite that simple. Capra made a movie celebrating the essential ideals at the heart of the U.S., but the film is also a warning of how they can be lost and how easily.

Because of this, and because it is done so well, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands as one of the essential and classic American films.

Note on the DVD:

The movie was restored by the Library of Congress National Film Registry (Motion Picture Conservation Center). The result is a pretty good transfer to the DVD though hardly flawless. There are scratches, flickering etc. present and certainly some sections are cleaner than others. However, overall, it looks and sounds pretty good for a film of this age. I don’t know what the original condition was like but it couldn’t have been very good.

This version (Columbia Classics series) is about as good as it’s going to get.

(Originally published in 2002.)

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