A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn’t back down.
Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is still as relevant today as it was in 1939. Honestly, it’s probably more relevant now than it was then. I’d like to say that means the film aged well, but it’s in a bad way. And, really, that just makes me sad.
For those unfamiliar with the film, James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a boy’s camp leader who happens to get appointed to the United States Senate. We learn that he is a naive man, who doesn’t really question much, which is why he was chosen to fill a Senate vacancy at such a critical time. Those already in the Senate are up to some shady business and they need someone who will just do what they tell him, vote how they tell him, etc. Unfortunately for them, Jefferson Smith develops something of a back bone, which builds up to an outstandingly memorable Filibuster scene.
The funniest thing to me about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is how opposed to the film so many people were. When Nazi Germany began putting a ban on American films in the country’s they occupied, this film was on the list because they were afraid that it would show their people that democracy works. Meanwhile, in the United States of America, the film was opposed by many in government due to the depiction of corruption within. Which I find extremely telling.
What’s even funnier to me about those in the US Government who denounced this film, is that this film is so clearly pro-American. All the character of Jefferson Smith does is preach “American values”. Director Frank Capra constantly draws parallels between Jefferson Smith and “Honest Abe” himself, Abraham Lincoln.
Speaking of Capra, I think this is one of his better directed films. There’s a real attention to detail here, from showing the nervousness of Smith through his fidgety hands and his hat to the fantastic parallel editing between the different newspapers productions and headlines. This film I would definitely consider his greatest.
James Stewart did a phenomenal job in this film. In particular, he was captivating in the filibuster scene, from his dialogue to his body language. Claude Rains was another who did a phenomenal job. He played Senator Joseph Paine, the other senator from the same state as Smith. Rains as a semi-villain here was intense. The final scenes between Stewart and Rains are filled with so much tension, it’s palpable. But, the true genius in this film is Jean Arthur and her portrayal as Saunders. Arthur’s comedic timing and quick wit perfectly plays off of both the naive, innocent Smith and the intenseness of Paine. The chemistry between Arthur and Stewart was so tangible. It was nearly overwhelming.
I really really hate just how relevant this film still is at 82 years old. But, that’s why it’s on this list, the timelessness of the subject matter. And that’s why, I imagine, it will remain on this list for years to come.