#7. 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
Frank Capra’s inspirational Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a magical, patriotic, and incredibly progressive example of how much power films can hold while still being fun and humorous. The first time I saw Mr. Smith was during a sleepless night at film school – it was my very first exposure to Frank Capra, and one of the oldest films I had ever seen up to that point. The magic held by the film still hasn’t worn itself out, as evidenced by its position on my list. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of the wholesome young Jeff Smith (James Stewart) who is unexpectedly hand-picked to be the Senator of his home state of Washington. Once he arrives in D.C., he is taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who pushes the young man to keep busy by proposing his own bill. The ambitious but dearly naive young man is very quickly taken advantage of by the press, and by other Senators. Senator Paine and the sinister Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) plan on passing a dam-building bill through the Senate, and find Jeff Smith as their only form of opposition. With the help of his tough secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff will do whatever it takes to stop the dam from being built. When people bring up patriotism in movies being a negative, I often tell them about how effectively it is used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – perhaps one of the most patriotic and proud films about America ever made. It wears its patriotism and sentimentality on its sleeve, and yet manages to be full of compelling characters, situations, and heart. Frank Capra’s films were very often wholesome and playful in nature, with themes of identity and camaraderie often coming into play, and Mr. Smith is no different. While it may not be as sweeping and epic as something like It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith’s small scale story is personal enough to be every bit as effective as Capra’s holiday classic. Sidney Buchman’s script brings the classic fast-talking dialogue that Capra was so famous for, establishing a number of strong and smooth talking characters in Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders and Claude Rains’ Joseph Paine, both of whom talk circles around Stewart’s Jeff Smith at first. The young hand-picked Senator is quickly able to match their speed, ultimately leading to the film’s incredible filibuster scene – one of James Stewart’s finest moments as an actor. Stewart’s performance as Jeff Smith is phenomenal – he easily portrays the quintessential screen underdog, biting off far more than he can chew and doing battle with the most powerful men in America. Stewart brings his usual “aw, shucks” attitude and amplifies it for Smith’s naivety in the first act of the film, but the rose-colored glasses eventually come off and Jeff Smith’s romantic idea of America is crushed before his very eyes. Watching the evolution of Smith over the period of just two hours is one of the most profound experiences you’ll find in Hollywood history. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential Frank Capra film – it’s filled with broad humor, memorable characters, and some of the most iconic and inspirational moments in movie history. To read my full thoughts on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you can check out my full review here.