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The hands-down audience favorite Mr. Smith Goes to Washington consistently makes the 'best-of' lists; it's always one of the first pictures mentioned when 1939 is acclaimed as the best-ever year for Hollywood movies. It's probably the pinnacle of Frank Capra's career, although his later It's a Wonderful Life goes neck-and-neck with it for overall popularity. Director and producer Capra, mister 'name above the title', is a unique figure in Hollywood history, a sentimentalist-scrapper who cut his teeth on silent comedy and had a flair for getting the best possible performances out of stars and bit players alike. Capra cared intensely about every scrap of film he shot and would never settle for an uninteresting scene.
Capra was keen to make movies of importance and substance even before sound came in. His autobiography is packed with questionable assertions but the director's belief in the power of movies and his own desire to do great works is undeniable. Out of his 'big five' monster hits of the 1930s, three are grouped together as political movies about the state of the country. Each appeals directly to the audience, seeking emotional answers to social issues. Mr. Smith is the most successful.
An unnamed American state is run by the crooked 'machine' overseen by business magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who controls things through his puppet governor, Hopper (Guy Kibbee).To rig his scams in Washington, Taylor has suborned the brilliant and respected Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who was once a man of dignity. The state's second Senator, also a handpicked lackey, suddenly dies, putting Paine/Taylor's crooked appropriations bill in jeopardy. Taylor has his own crony in mind to fill the vacant seat but Governor Hopper impulsively picks young Boy Ranger scoutmaster Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). The plan is that Smith is too clueless and innocent to mess anything up. Smith is also popular locally, which will mollify Hopper's critics. The idealistic Smith can't believe that he will become a Senator. He doesn't feel qualified to serve but promises Paine that he'll do his best. Washington greets Smith with jokes and cynical tricks. His secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) initially thinks she's babysitting an idiot, The predatory press corps eats him alive with insulting publicity. In response Smith tracks down the reporters that tricked him and punches several in the nose. All seems to be going well for Taylor's graft legislation until Smith discovers what a dupe he's been, and that he's expected to stay quiet and let the dirty deal go through.
There's plenty to applaud in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starting with Capra's spot-on direction of his leads. James Stewart finally comes together as a star, showing us the wonder-boy Jimmy, the gee-whiz stumbling Jimmy and the frantic-rage Jimmy, the three faces that would serve for his entire career. The marvelous Claude Rains is by far the most polished actor in sight, while top-billed Jean Arthur displays the most effortlessly natural screen presence. She and Edward Arnold are holdovers from Capra's previous big hit You Can't Take It With You.
Few movies before Mr. Smith had taken so close a look at the workings of government, as in, how a bill becomes a law. At a time when audiences didn't know (or just didn't think much about) how movies are made, Capra's full recreation of the Senate chamber complete with halls and anterooms surely convinced many that the movie was made right in the nation's capitol. So many recognizable supporting actors have so many one- or two-line parts, that the film's sheer size impresses. Slavko Vorkapich's montages and with Dimitri Tiomkin's music herald the sequences in which Jefferson Smith rhapsodizes about American history and the ideals of the Republic.
Capra experiments include the use of multiple cameras to film more than one character on his set, so that actors wouldn't have to pretend when reacting to Stewart's big speeches. In the filibuster sequence, this strategy may have helped inspire the engineering of multiple cameras for TV production. Capra was technically proficient yet placed performance above everything. Many scenes have odd cuts, with mismatched action, between almost identical angles. The man just did not believe in cutaways and would rather have a jump cut than let go of a good moment. He rightly decided that audiences would be too caught up in his drama to worry about such trivia.
Mr. Smith is nothing if not ambitious. Capra claimed to have been surprised when the Washington establishment took offense at his film's vision of the political status quo. In this David and Goliath story a political gangster runs an entire state. But the Senate has just one bad-apple member, a once-great man who has fallen under the spell of a racketeer. Most Americans thought their representatives to be honest and diligent. Most probably were honest, at least to the extent that staying in line with a political party is honest behavior. Capra couldn't lose, as the negative Washington reaction would only raise questions as to how many states had their own Jim Taylors, and how many congressmen saw their role as maximizing their yield of taxpayer dollars.
Critic Richard Corliss memorably called out an interesting trend in Capra's 'America' trilogy. Until Gary Cooper proved unavailable, Mr. Smith was initially conceived as a sequel to Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Down, a movie about the Depression that fronted even more potent populist themes. Cooper is Longfellow Deeds, a small town boy-man who makes his living writing greeting card homilies -- sweet thoughts for people who don't know what they think or how they feel. This is Capra's populist appeal in a nutshell. Deeds inherits a fortune, comes to New York as a country bumpkin and is quickly disillusioned by the patronizing cynics and intellectuals that treat him like a fool. His response is to punch people in the nose whenever he feels like it. Deeds is the perfect man, free of urban pretensions, the elitism of higher learning and the malice of 'the system'. A combo of Thoreau, Peter Pan and Popeye, he knows what's right intuitively and has no need of rules or laws. Evil evaporates before his humble manner and simple philosophy of 'being kind to one's neighbor'. Anybody claiming that things are more complex than that, is automatically a phony or a crook, and deserves a simple punching-out.
Capra's first two political films are comedies, so he gets away with a great deal of exaggeration. Jefferson Smith is an immediate challenge to our expectations. He's a spirited, energetic idealist who incarnates the concept of Ma and Apple Pie. Our hearts melt when tall, handsome and naturally graceful James Stewart puts on a rosy-cheeked gee-whiz act. Smith is every unspoiled kid who doesn't yet know how the world looks. He makes us remember the purity of our own childhood ideals. Jefferson Smith is basically Longfellow Deeds... Jimmy Stewart even borrows some of Cooper's "cute" mannerisms, and nobody knew how to abuse a Cute Act better than Gary Cooper.
Stewart's innocent Boy Scout is Capra's David, who until Act III doesn't even know there is a Goliath to be smitten. The problem is that Capra expects us to accept that this impossible buffoon is by definition the best Senator in the chamber. Smith begins as a satirical character and by 'emotional conversion' becomes a great patriot, orator and reformer. All he must do is be himself, speak a few old-fashioned truths and endure a trial by fire, the filibuster.
To pull off this circus, Capra resorts to gags he wouldn't put past the Our Gang kids. He uses children shamelessly, as when Governor Hopper's brood of boys hectors and browbeats him to appoint their Boy Ranger leader. Hopper's own kids think he's an ass, and we're supposed to agree with them - how's that for condemning a character out of hand? It also seems disturbing that both Longfellow Deeds and Jefferson Smith reserve the right to pop people in the nose when they feel they've been cheated. Yes, Smith's rampage knocking down reporters and elderly public servants is meant as comedy exaggeration, but it panders to our secret desire to strike back at the people who annoy us in daily life. This is the point at which Mr. Smith starts to become uncomfortable. It stops being a satire and starts insisting that it's imparting The Truth.
At the beginning we see a notably vocal opposition to the corrupt Taylor mob, but are later told that it is being suppressed by Taylor's Evil media empire. Capra goes altogether too far when he shows the Boy Rangers' grassroots 'tell the truth' campaign being quashed by Taylor's goons, in montages that look like they were sourced from a Republic serial. Kids are roughed up, slapped and finally run off the road. The compression of time in these montages is dizzying. Pulling out the "Hurting Children" card is the final affront that pushes Mr. Smith into all-out propaganda territory. One look at those montages and it's clear that Capra is the man to make the wartime Why We Fight public information films. He can really whip up a fury of outrage.
Taylor's corrupt machine is so ruthless that it can get away with harming children? Where is the local public that so hated Taylor? Capra is saying that Smith's home state is really a criminal dictatorship, and that Washington can't or won't do anything about it. Was the director thinking of Louisiana under Huey Long? Richard Corliss felt that Capra was really selling a kind of low-profile demagoguery that hints at Fascism. Our institutions are corrupt and unnatural, but there exist natural, uncomplicated men with all the right answers. The incorruptible Jefferson Smith is a perfect candidate to sweep away the cobwebs. He embodies all of our better qualities. 'Professional' politicians need to be banished, and replaced by magical men that 'know what's right' by virtue of something good in their blood. Andrew Sarris mentioned Capra's recurring motif of making his anointed heroes earn their laurels by going through the most profound public humiliation possible. Longfellow Deeds goes on trial accused of insanity and poor Smith is framed for corruption. A little scandal won't suffice; our entire self-identity must be caught up in the drama of what will happen to Jefferson Smith. 1
So what's the big deal? Mr. Smith isn't a pernicious film, and Capra has no political intention beyond making us feel good about our country -- his emotions and sincerity are genuine. Capra is by no means a Fascist, yet his movie has disturbing ideas. Capra's autobiography tells us that he consciously needed to make socially uplifting movies. His awareness of his audience was second to none and his filmmaking is brilliant, but his judgment is often highly questionable. 2
Sony's deluxe Blu-ray of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been beautifully remastered; we're told that the 4k transfer was made from mix 'n' match sources but it all looks very smooth to these eyes. Dimitri Tiomkin's music sticks to patriotic themes and sounds great in the carefully cleaned-up audio track.
The single Blu-ray disc's features celebrate Frank Capra's career and legacy. Frank Capra Jr. is heavily involved in several featurettes and a full-length documentary hosted by Ron Howard. Jeanine Basinger offers more personal memories of Capra in another featurette. They're all produced in the "Wonderful Life" spirit that Capra can do no wrong. Both domestic and international trailers are included.
The disc comes in a sturdy book packaging with a glossy 26-page souvenir booklet. The main essay ("Democracy's Finest Show!") by Jeremy Arnold offers a thorough overview of the film's making and its near-universal appeal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Blu-ray
1. The opposite but equally strained answer to Mr. Smith is Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, with Andy Griffith as the power-mad country bum Lonesome Rhodes. Its 'natural man' is a craven opportunist who foists a slick 'gee whiz' act on the gullible public and becomes a media and political monster. He's finally brought down in a similarly dramatic public spectacle.
2. Call me a cynic, but I've always wanted to see an alternate version of the Mr. Smith scene that confronts James Stewart with all those negative letters from his hometown (boy those arrived quickly). But this time Jefferson Smith is surprised to discover that they're all letters to Santa Claus ... there's been a mix-up with the mail intended for Edmund Gwenn in the courtroom next door! Capra's 'perfect American' is as fanciful a creation as Santa Claus.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.