REVIEW: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Classic Movie SpotlightSMITH POSTERSome 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.



One of my favorite movie actors of all time is the great Jimmy Stewart. Throughout his career which spanned almost 60 years, Stewart compiled an incredible resume full of some truly classic movies. Known as an everyday man, Stewart had a great charisma and a wonderful likability on-screen. But his greatness wasn’t just restricted to the movies. He had an impressive military career serving his country during World War 2 and the Vietnam War. But keeping with his movies, I thought I would show this great actor some love by looking at five phenomenal movies of his. Now it’s hard to call this the definitive list. But I have no problems saying that these five Jimmy Stewart films are simple phenomenal.

#5 – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

This is the movie that made Jimmy Stewart into a big time movie star. “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” is the story of a simple but honest man who is sent to Washington to fill the position of a recently deceased Senator. Supposedly Stewart’s character would be easy to control and corrupt but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. This gem from Frank Capra caused a huge stir in Washington with several Senators and other government officials slamming it for daring to address possible corruption in our system. Regardless, Stewart is fantastic and his performance earned him a much deserved Oscar nomination.

#4 – “Vertigo”

Heralded by many (including the new Sight and Sound Magazine’s Greatest Movies list) as the best film of all time, this Hitchcock and Stewart collaboration has reached an iconic status. Personally, I don’t see it as the best movie of all time or even the best Hitchcock film but there’s no denying how wonderful Stewart is in the picture. The story is intriguing and suspenseful although at times slow and with a unfullfilling conclusion. But watching Stewart handle the material is a joy and I still say that his performance is the best thing about the film.

#3 – “The Philadelphia Story”

In 1940, Jimmy Stewart played in one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time – “The Philadelphia Story”. Teaming up with greats Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Stewart still shines as a reporter who ends up in a tangled and sometimes hilarious web of love with Hepburn in the center. Grant and Hepburn are just as good as you would expect but I love Stewart’s performance. This is a great film and Stewart won his only Best Actor Academy Award for this role.

#2 – “It’s a Wonderful Life”

By now everyone knows “It’s a Wonderful Life” because of its status as a Christmas classic and I certainly wouldn’t take anything away from that. But it’s also a brilliant movie that’s driven by Jimmy Stewart’s fantastic work as George Bailey. From his onscreen chemistry with the gorgeous Donna Reed to his believable fall and eventual rise, Stewart owns every scene. He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast and Capra’s direction is spot-on. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” wouldn’t be the classic it is without Jimmy Stewart.

#1 – “Rear Window”

While “Vertigo” gets most of the love between Stewart’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” is my personal favorite movie from Stewart as well as my favorite Hitchcock film. Elaborately staged and at times incredibly tense, “Rear Window” confines Stewart to one room where he becomes a voyeur, peeping into the lives of his numerous neighbors. He soon suspects one neighbor of foul play and as the story unfolds we wonder if he’s right or if he’s allowed his snooping to manufacture something that’s really not there. Stewart has a tricky role but he nails it and this is one of those movies that I can sit down and watch at any time. Stewart and Hitchcock at their best.

There ya go folks. My 5 phenomenal Jimmy Stewart movies. So what are your thoughts on this tremendous actor? Are you a fan or is he not your cup of tea? Please share your thoughts.

REVIEW: “Rear Window”

Classic Movie SpotlightREARAlfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller “Rear Window” is revered by many as one of the director’s finest films. You would have a hard time getting me to disagree. “Rear Window” is a voyeuristic mystery picture that takes place in one single confined location and is all shown from the perspective of the main character. It’s an interesting approach to storytelling but one that’s very effective. There are many recognizable Hitchcockian touches throughout the picture yet it retains a uniqueness that separates it from most of his other films.

The story is seen through the eyes of L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, an accomplished photographer who is confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg while on assignment. He spends his time observing his neighbors through the window of his small Greenwich Village apartment. It grows into an obsession for him as he becomes infatuated with what he sees while peeping through their windows. Jeff is a man filled with insecurities and he seems more comfortable living out his life through the lens of his binoculars. In many ways he’s a sad individual who has so many good things within his grasp yet he lacks the confidence to reach out and take them. He begins to suspect a possible murder in one of the apartments and the second half of the film follows his attempt to either prove it or be disproved.

Hitchcock hits head-on the peeping tom mentality that certainly existed then but that’s even more prevalent in today’s reality tv-fueled society. Jeff crosses the boundaries of simple curiosity into full-blown voyeurism and we are right there with him. I found myself just as riveted by what’s on the other end of the binoculars as he was. Several people try to tell Jeff what he’s doing is wrong including his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his home nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), but even they fall victim to this creepy temptation. Yet it’s hard to look down on these three characters. Hitchcock exposes some levels of the same voyeuristic compulsions within the audience as we watch things unfold with the same curiosity-driven intensity as Jeff, Lisa, and Stella. Hitchcock causes us to ask if we’re really that different from them?


I was also intrigued with the way Hitchcock introduces and develops some of his characters. We get to know several people simply by watching them through Jeff’s window. There’s the beautiful Miss Torso, a dancer who occasionally practices in her undies and parties with several male suitors; Miss Lonelyhearts, a sad, depressed woman who has dinner dates with imaginary men; Mr. Thorvald and his bedridden wife; a struggling songwriter, a newlywed couple, and several others. What’s amazing is that we learn a lot about these characters simply by what we observe. It’s a beautiful method of storytelling that adds so much to the picture.

“Rear Window” was filmed on what was at the time the largest constructed set at Paramount. The entire picture takes place in this elaborate neighborhood and, with the exception of a small courtyard, it’s close-quartered construction gives it an almost claustrophobic feel. Hitchcock’s camera sleekly captures the characters as they move from window to window and down strategically placed hallways and alleys. Equally impressive is his skillful use of lighting combined with sound that’s centered around a natural ambiance. Simply put, “Rear Window” is a technically savvy picture that accomplishes a lot within a small compact environment.

For my money “Rear Window” is some of Hitchcock’s best work. It’s straightforward and mysterious at the same time and features characters that are more complex than they appear on the surface. It’s really a simple story that’s a little slow out of the gate but soon has you peeping over Jeff’s shoulder gazing into the living rooms of his neighbors. The intensity ratchets up in the final few scenes and the payoff is very satisfying. “Rear Window” is certainly near the top of Hitchcock’s resume and features a special brand of artistry that’s impossible to dislike.