Some say that 1939 was the greatest year for movies. It’s hard to argue with them. I mean listen to this list of films that came out that year: “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Ninotchka”, “Stagecoach”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Dark Victory”. Oh, and there was also a little movie called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. This Frank Capra classic was a bit controversial when first released due to its strong look at the American political system. Yet over time it has earned its status as a classic and continues to be remembered as a glorious showcase for the great Jimmy Stewart.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” initially ruffled a few feathers among U.S. Senators and a select few among the Washington press. Numerous complaints were hurled its way including accusations that this film was pro-Communist and anti-American. It was said the film would damage our standing in Europe and in other countries. Others stated it was a shameful distortion of the United States Senate. But others felt the movie was a revelation. They viewed it as one of the first movies to expose a side of the political system never seen before.
The story itself centers around a simple and naive boy scout leader (called Boy Rangers in the film because the Scouts refused to lend their name) who is appointed by the governor to fill in a recently vacated Senate seat. The governor has a crooked political boss named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) pressuring him to appoint a controllable stooge while others seek someone who will bring meaningful change to Washington. The governor plays it down the middle and chooses Jefferson Smith (Stewart), an honest and good-hearted bumpkin with strong patriotic beliefs in American exceptionalism.
But the core of the movie deals with Smith’s principled ideals coming face-to-face with the political corruption of a powerful Washington machine. It’s pure ideals versus the thirst for prominence and power. Smith first seeks council from a respected Senator and family friend Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). He also looks for help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). She served Smith’s predecessor and she’s well versed on how things work on Capitol Hill. But Smith quickly learns that trusting people in Washington, whether they are politicians or the press, is a hard thing to do.
Despite its detractors, “Mr. Smith” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. But due to the crowded field of amazing movies it only took home one statue. Lewis Foster won for Best Original Story, an Oscar that is no longer awarded. Still the recognition of the film and its achievements was warranted. Foster’s story was great but so was Sydney Buchman’s brilliant screenplay. Buchman perfectly creates a political fish-out-of-water story that balances slight doses of humor with compelling and thought-provoking drama. He also gives us the right amount of political jargon and atmosphere that immerses us instead of drowning us. He takes a scalpel and opens up the system and asks us to see a side of the political landscape that at the time had never been seen. This made some squirm but others found it to be wonderful and powerful cinema.
And then there are the performances led by Jimmy Stewart. I swear he’s one of the best actors to ever grace a big screen. This role seems tailor-made for him. Smith is a humble, sincere, and down to earth – all qualities that Stewart has always been able to bring out of his characters with ease. This is called the role that made him a star and his performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination. The film also featured an impeccable supporting cast including Claude Rains and Harry Carey who played the head of the Senate. Both received supporting actor Oscar nominations. We also get Thomas Mitchell, Dick Elliott, Beulah Bondi, and H.B. Warner – all who Capra would later bring back to join Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
But I also have to take time to praise Jean Arthur. I think she is fantastic and her performance is one of my favorite things about this film. Arthur began her career as a silent movie star but was able to make the transition to the talkies. Capra had used her prior to “Mr. Smith” so he knew her sharp and unshakable talents. Arthur defines her role by bringing charm, wit, sarcasm, and energy to the character. She has such a natural enthusiasm that bleeds over into the performance which in turn is a real strength of the film.
I could go on and on about the Oscar nominated art direction from Lionel Banks or Joseph Walker’s inspiring cinematography. There is just so much to love about this film. One of the only gripes I’ve had with the movie was with the ending. Capra abruptly pulls the plug and closes up shop leaving several loose ends untied. It’s not a frustrating or unsatisfying ending at all. I just really would have liked to see a bit more considering what has taken place. Aside from that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a true classic and a testament to the smart and capable filmmaking that we so often lack today. If you haven’t taken time to see this gem, you owe it to yourself. It’s that good.