Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey
I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Frank Capra’s remarkable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the big screen this afternoon, courtesy of Cineplex theaters’ Classic Film Series. It was my second time seeing the incredibly important and very timely Mr. Smith, and it inspired me to do some impromptu writing on the film. To my surprise, I was one of only three people in attendance for the screening, something that disappoints me greatly on the eve of Canada’s own Election Day. I hope everybody reading this gets something out of it, and decides to both see this important film and vote in tomorrow’s Federal election.
Frank Capra, one of America’s greatest directors in the 1930’s and 1940’s (his modern-day equivalent would be somebody like Steven Spielberg), coupled with the handsome, charming, and legendary actor James Stewart (whom Tom Hanks is often compared to) created three terrific and influential films together, including holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Oscar-winner You Can’t Take it With You, and this film. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the incredible story of a hero to the youth of America taking on the might of big business and all those who fall under their power. The film sees James Stewart’s wholesome Jefferson Smith be hand-picked to represent his state as a Senator in Washington, where he is quickly taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains). Paine and his corrupt partner Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) look to take advantage of Smith’s lack of political knowledge and his wholesome image and attitude in order to quietly pass a dam-building scheme held within an important appropriations bill framed by the corrupt Taylor. When nothing goes according to plan for the duo of Paine and Taylor, the two look to defame Jeff Smith’s image at any cost, having him kicked out of the Senate. The titular Mr. Smith, with help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders (played wonderfully by the incomparable Jean Arthur) hold a filibuster in the Senate as a last-ditch effort to save the land in Smith’s home state, and protect the interests of American’s everywhere.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a remarkably written film, never slowing down for a minute and never going out of its way to pander to the audience. Though the film may be seen as overly sentimental or patriotic by cynical audience members, Mr. Smith is a relentlessly romantic and passionate film about the importance of freedom and the absence of corruption in the political process. It perfects the classic David and Goliath story that has been told time and time again, and yet still feels fresh, inventive, and meaningful. Screenwriter Sidney Buchman puts his heart and soul into this film, and it can be felt on-screen by Frank Capra’s impeccable direction and the terrific acting from the entire cast. James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith is a revelation, and perhaps one of the greatest performances of the era, if not of all-time. The filibuster scene – the real showcase for Stewart’s abilities – brought tears to my eyes, as did some of Jeff Smith’s passionate speeches given throughout the movie. Backing up Jimmy Stewart are the incredibly talented Claude Rains (known most famously for his performance in Casablanca three years later), Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey, all of whom put in very good performances, with Rains and Carey both being nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances. Jean Arthur’s performance is almost on-par with Stewart’s in that she’s an incredibly strong woman, something that was rare for Hollywood at the time. Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders never sinks to just being the romantic interest of our lead character, but instead coaches Smith into being a powerhouse of a politician, supporting him from behind the scenes. The writing, direction, and acting resulted in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington being nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and a film nearly 80-years old still holding up to this very day.
I can’t stress how important Capra’s Mr. Smith is, especially at this point in time. It’s a film about the little man standing up to the bullies, liars, and cowards in big business and in politics, and standing up for everything he believes in. No matter what odds are stacked against him, he never gives up, and most importantly never gives in to the corruption going on all around him. We could all learn a lot from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I hope that a film such as this can still inspire the masses to persevere no matter how bad things can look sometimes. It is a film so full of hope and passion in a time where we need it the most. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a masterpiece of American cinema, and one of my all-time favorite films. I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough. Highest recommendation.