Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Release Date: October 19th, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Frank Capra Actors: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey
am Foley has died in Washington, and it’s up to easily controlled, pushover Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to elect a new official in his place. Meanwhile, kind-hearted Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains) and string-pulling, wealthy businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) have been using dummy names to quietly buy up all the land around Willet Creek, where a dam is to be built, in a lucrative, underhanded scheme. To avoid scandal and public outburst, they need to force the governor to appoint a candidate who won’t talk out of place or draw attention to their shady purchasing practices. The natural choices are shunned by the press, which coerces Hopper to make a split-second decision (influenced even by his own loud-mouthed children) and elect Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a local hero who leads the Boy Rangers. Smith is young, naïve, and a simpleton – a “big-eyed baby” who has never known politics in his whole life and wouldn’t interfere with real government dealings.
Smith is chaperoned by Chick McGann (gravelly-voiced Eugene Pallette) on his trip to Washington D.C. and later handed over to babysitter Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) and newspaperman Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) for safekeeping. The newcomer immediately loses his entourage to go sightseeing in the capital, all wide-eyed and enthusiastic. He’s laughed at and marked as an incompetent clown (an absent-minded boy wonder) by the swift members of the press anxious to make a mockery of his honorary appointment. He’s definitely out of his element, but quickly learns about negative publicity, progress-halting committees and conferences, the absence of actual voting, and over-idolizing his role model Senator Paine. He’s intended to waste time by developing his very own bill for the creation of a national camp for boys, which is miraculously introduced in the senate with the help of Saunders. When the site for the project is centered on Willet Creek, Taylor and Paine realize Mr. Smith isn’t going to be the no-questions-asked puppet they had hoped for.
James Stewart is perfect as the innocent, idealistic upper house entrant, full of awe, and “ghee-whiz” wonderment at the Capitol dome, the Lincoln Memorial, and other patriotic visuals of U.S. government. Once again, he shows his full range of power and emotion with a role that earned him a seemingly effortless Oscar nod. Jean Arthur also delivers a striking turn as the inspirational, championing force behind Smith’s gradual maturation and wizening. With few sets and little action, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” serves up its entertainment with knockout performances, exceptional character development, and intelligent (but never confusing or jargon-doused) scripting.
Even with the bold political statement at work, the transcending moral predicaments of largely outdated characters, and the slapstick-riddled humor of muddled situations or witty, fast-paced dialogue, Capra still has time to create artistic, humorous scenes. A particularly brilliant example arrives when Smith toys with his hat while nervously speaking with Paine’s beautiful daughter – all while the camera stays aimed at his fingertips as he stumbles over words and clumsily drops his hat. Another superb moment establishes an unavoidable romance between Smith and Saunders as she drunkenly admits the brutal truths behind persuasion, power, profiteering, graft, and corrupt politics.
Eventually, the cheerful attitude of the introduction gives way to poignant drama as a conspiracy unfolds to expulse Smith from his seat. And it’s the final showdown – Smith’s marathon-like filibuster, showcasing free speech in its most dramatic form – with the testing and matching of wits, wills, and character, that is most unforgettable. The film simultaneously and controversially criticizes the flaws in democracy (or rather its inherent attraction of corruption) and the strengths of the people’s active involvement (or an individual’s stand) in its governance, certainly showing United States politics/politicians in an unfavorable light (though with a glimmer of hope in Smith). Undoubtedly, it paved the way for future filmic strictures against unchecked bureaucratic oversight. But from a pure entertainment standpoint, with its depth, substance, and feel-good characters, it’s a compelling and notable classic that ranks alongside the very best cinema has to offer.
– Mike Massie