1939, Frank Capra
A stunning indictment of government corruption, an inspirational, hopeful tale of one man going up against that corruption, an informative lesson on how the U.S. Senate works and a wonderfully charming display of just how grand and beautiful our capitol city can be. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is all of these things and somehow even more. Fitting in its well-paced 130 minute running time, Frank Capra presents a remarkably told tale of a naive young man who is sent to the Senate and refuses to back down to the rampant injustice that he uncovers once within it.
Written by Sidney Buchman, off of a story by Lewis R. Foster, Capra’s film is loaded with rich themes about those things that are supposedly given to all American citizens; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the wide-eyed symbol of everything America should be; he is hopeful, he believes in what is right and he stands firm in his desire to get it all without ever being selfish in his goals. He aims to help others, particularly the boy scouts he is the head of, and when he is handed a seat in the U.S. Senate he meets it mostly with an endearingly innocent appreciation and desire to sit back and marvel at the system he thought was so great.
Given the seat next to Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), Smith is slowly exposed to the more nefarious dealings, as he realizes that Paine and others in his state have all been corrupted under the thumb of the powerful Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). They work to bring Smith down and sully his good name, but he refuses to be silenced and with the help of Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) he rises up and fights for the justice he believes that America stands for. In a time loaded with cynicism (I myself am about as cynical as they come), it’s incredibly refreshing to look back and see a story filled with such pure hope for the ideals that built this country I live in.
Jefferson Smith is everything an American should be, but his naivete gets him under hot water when he meets forces beyond his understanding. He doesn’t understand how you could have a seat of power in such a great country and use it maliciously for your own personal gain, and it’s this innocence in Smith that makes him such an endearing character. Jimmy Stewart turns in one of his greatest performances as a man who just wants everything to be proper, a character so morally correct that it could have turned out as a huge endeavor of preaching and sentimentality, yet somehow those involved here keep it far away from that.
With Stewart’s affable but still slightly flawed approach, the character is impossible to not root for but he’s never too good. He’s not perfect, he certainly needs help, and Jean Arthur is excellent as the woman who is fine with letting the corrupt system play itself out until she is turned into a believer by the purity of Smith. The two are a great pairing, and it’s easy to get right along with her as she cheers Smith on in the groundbreaking final act where Smith filibusters the crap out of the floor, refusing to be silent until he gets his voice heard.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is powerful, inspirational and informative all the way. It hits every note perfectly, setting up a main character who is so easy to root for and bringing us on a full journey with him, through a trial of the will that he won’t allow himself to surrender to. The cast is loaded with great performances, led by the superb Stewart but extending to Rains, Arnold and several more, like Harry Carey as the Senate President. This is just a marvelously crafted film at every level; the writing, acting and directing are all top notch work and create for a tremendous picture that has more than earned its status as a true American classic.
Film #259 of The 365 Film Challenge.