Sunday, March 4, 2012

#566. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Directed By: Frank Capra

Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains

Tag line: "Capra's Greatest Hit --- The Screen At Its Most Inspired!"

Trivia:  The novel on which the movie was based was titled "The Gentleman from Montana", but the state is not specified in the movie

Even today, the U.S. political system is in turmoil. Forged hundreds of years ago by men with the best of intentions, the American system of Government has, for all intents and purposes, gone sour. In director Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we meet a man on the inside, who identifies the corruption and doesn't take it lying down. He believes there's something left in the system worth fighting for, and it's in his fight - and his cause - that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has gone on to become a bona-fide American classic. 

The powers that be of an unspecified state are in a pickle. One of their Senators has unexpectedly died, and right before an important bill was set to go before the Senate that will make them all very wealthy men. 

With their potential payday in jeopardy, they scramble to appoint a replacement, and fast. Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a business mogul who stands to gain the most from this bill, pushes for one of his subordinates. Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) feel that would be a mistake, and convince Taylor that appointing an inexperienced man, one who is popular with the people yet can be easily controlled, is the way to go. 

Thus begins the political career of one Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). 

A local hero who founded a boys club, Jefferson Smith is new to government, and has no concept of the backroom deal-making that goes on in Washington. But even he isn't wet enough to miss the fact there's something odd about his appointment, and before long, Jefferson Smith is doing exactly what many hoped he would not do: he's asking questions. 

James Stewart, who had a knack for playing the everyman, brings a likability to Jefferson Smith that is tangible, a decency we identify with almost immediately. Proud to be an American, Smith can recite the speeches of Washington and Lincoln from memory, and on his first day in the nation's capital he stands in awe at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Neither his new assistant, Ms. Saunders (Jean Arthur), nor the cutthroat Washington press know what to make of him, but they soon discover Smith's innocence isn't an act, and his love for his country is very sincere. 

When Smith sees how things actually work in the hallowed halls of Congress, though, his down-home charms and polite manners are put on the back burner, and he rolls up his sleeves for the fight of his life. This courage in the face of adversity gives Mr. Smith Goes to Washington an infectious, uplifting tone that will have you cheering out loud. 

I know how hokey this all sounds, but it's the film's naive sensibilities that make it so endearing. Capra goes to great lengths to paint a bleak picture of American politics, then picks us up with the promise it can be different, that there's a chance to correct things before it's too late. 

Hokey or not, I predict you'll love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as much as I do!


Anonymous said...

Love this movie so much. Though I think most of the 1939 films deserved the Oscars they won, I still sort of wish Stewart had won the best actor that year.
It's one of his best performances.
Great review!

Pat Conolly said...

You got the personas of the initial premise backwards. The governor picked Smith on the urging of his children, and has to convince the mogul Taylor that the smartest move would be to appoint an inexperienced man, one they can control. Taylor had been strongly pushing for appointment of one of his already loyal cronies. I am enjoying reading your reviews though.