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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // January 1, 1999
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Hughes | posted April 14, 2000 | E-mail the Author
Features: Full Screen (Standard) - 1.33:1. Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Portuguese (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono). Subtitles: English, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, Chinese-Traditional, Thai. Theatrical trailer. Retrospective Featurette: Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Vintage Advertising. Bonus Trailers.

The Movie:
In 1939 Frank Capra was in top form. He'd made a string of successful films including You Can't Take It with You (1938), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It Happened One Night (1934). Capra's career at Columbia studios was coming to an end but he had one more film to make for the studio, a film that many would come to regard as his very best. That film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

As Mr. Smith Goes to Washington opens we learn that a Senator from an unnamed Midwestern state has died, leaving a seat vacant that must be filled through special appointment by the governor. Early on it's revealed that the state's other senator (Joseph Paine as played by Claude Rains) is involved with the governor and newspaper magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) in a complex graft scheme centering on the construction of a dam on Willett Creek. The two men need to appoint a yes man in order to keep their wrongdoing secret. After a couple of false starts they appoint a country Boy Scout leader named Jefferson Smith to the position. Smith is a patriotic and idealistic man who knows nothing of the inner workings of political influence peddling. Smith seems like the perfect boob to serve out the dead Senator's term but before too long his pursuit of a dream to create a boy's camp near Willett Creek leads to Smith's discovery of the graft plot. Will Rookie Senator Smith be able to take on the establishment, stop his corrupted colleagues from completing their plan or will the system squash him under foot and send him home a broken man?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a finely crafted film in every respect. Capra exerts complete control of the audience's reactions with carefully tuned dialogue, calculated editing and perfect pacing that all lead to a dramatic and unforgettable resolution. The film features outstanding performances by both the lead and supporting actors and thought the super patriotic themes read somewhat campy on paper it all seems to come together on the screen.

The Picture:
First let me say that this print of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably the best you're likely to see in any format. It comes from elements restored by the Library of Congress at a cost of approximately $100,000. That being said, there are a number of problems with the film. The most noticeable flaw comes in the form of excessive streaking and fading. The streaking manifests itself as constant vertical lines that give the persistent impression of film running through the camera. The fading produces a subtle but noticeable flashing effect that can be seen clearly in the background of most scenes. As if those two problems weren't enough there's a great deal of film grain to be seen in this transfer, so much so that the mid-value grays seem to boil with it. You'll also see a number of rough splices and jump cuts where frames seem to be missing from the print. Be that as it may, the film is far from unwatchable. The transfer itself is very well done and exhibits good contrast, shadow level and a general lack of digital artifacts and edge enhancement effects. Don't shy away from the movie based on the problems outlined above. Chances are that this is the best print available.

The Sound:
Considering the battered condition of the print you'd expect the sound to be in less than stunning shape but that's not the case. There is some hiss in the mono soundtrack but not enough to be distracting and there are only a very few pops and distortions. The soundtrack has a surprisingly broad dynamic range and is easy on the ear from beginning to end.

The Extras:
This is Columbia's latest addition to the Frank Capra Collection and it includes the same kind of extras you'll find on the other titles. To start with there's a 25 minute featurette entitled 'Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in which the younger Capra offers a great deal of insight on his fathers technique, the motivation of the actors and the production of the film. Capra Jr. is a student of his father's work and speaks with great authority about all of the films in this series. Next there's a commentary track by Capra Jr. He has plenty of interesting things to say about the film but the gaps between comments are very long. In addition to these extras you'll find previews for Mr. Smith and two other Capra films, cast bios and still images of some of the original publicity materials for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an American classic that belongs in any serious film fans library. After more than sixty years the film seems just as fresh as the day it was released. The only drawback to this solid release is the sub standard condition of the film itself but, as stated above, this is a better print than you are likely to see anywhere else. I give Mr. Smith Goes to Washington my highest rating.
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