Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)


Not to state the obvious or anything, but holy shit, Jimmy Stewart was a good actor. I mean, good beyond all typical boundaries of good. He was amazing. In the film reviewed here, in which he plays a senator, he acts with his entire body, performing in full compliance with character and story in every possible way. And let’s debunk some of the myths about the guy, like the one about how he always played boy scouts. I’ll even ignore his impotent busybody in Rear Window and his psychotic necrophiliac in Vertigo and just look at Anatomy of a Murder — a man consumed by a career entirely separate from morality — and It’s a Wonderful Life, in which he runs a remarkable gamut from clueless sap to morbidly suicidal jerk. The crash course in Jimmy Stewart excellence may be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that has itself gathered up a set of myths that are worth throwing out.

Frank Capra, director of Smith as well as It’s a Wonderful Life, is himself one of Hollywood filmmaking’s greatest myths. His name is invariably associated with a kind of nostalgic sentiment, simplicity, willful irrelevance in the name of sugary sweetness. As with Walt Disney, this is a complete misnomer. While he’s hardly Billy Wilder, Capra’s films are marked by healthy, acidic cynicism. The critic Peter Travers has correctly noted that Capra would have thrown up if he’d lived to see the mawkish films now made supposedly in his tradition; It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Arsenic and Old Lace are not drippy little time capsules. Capra was a populist, not a sentimentalist, and this is never more evident than in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Idealistic Mr. Smith (that would, of course, be Stewart) is set up as a figurehead to replace a dead senator who functioned as a tool for commercial interests in his home state. When Smith unknowingly becomes a threat to the building of a dam, the forces of corrupt congress come down to smash him hard, making enemies of everyone, including the one man (Claude Rains!) he believed he could trust. All the while, Smith’s secretary, a hardened cynic played brilliantly by Jean Arthur, does her best to move mountains to make things better for him, once she’s finally figured out that his spirit is not a scheme or a lie.

Although rather long, the movie is far smarter than you expect, and considerably darker. Early on, Mr. Smith goes on a rampage, punching every member of the press he runs into for making him look like an idiot. Congress is shown to be corrupt to its very core, fear-mongering and completely lacking in decency, the film (and lead character)’s fervent patriotism undercut by all-too-realistic skepticism about the government’s ability to live up to ideals, and by extension the longevity of ideals to begin with. Arthur’s character says it best early on: “When I moved to Washington, my eyes were big blue questionmarks. Now, they’re big green dollarmarks.”

The treatment of the glittery political process is equally merciless, though nothing could really prepare you for just how desperate the villainous officials and their commercial bedfellows become toward the finale, even taunting and injuring small children. Several noted politicians of the ’30s walked out of screenings, and it’s not hard to see why. While the film isn’t particularly unfair, it’s also certainly a heightened-reality cartoon, and is fairly simple in its convictions about the failure of elected officials to keep their inherent promises and the resulting near-total secret collapse of societal structure. This could hardly be interpreted as a simplistic “pro-America” rally, though of course it does display a genuine affection for the country itself.

Capra does bring a few technical problems. The editing is excellent, but it’s often rather obvious that the 129-minute film was cut down from greater length; there are abrupt changes in rhythm, weird jump cuts, and a number of gaps in the narrative (we don’t even see Mr. Smith being informed about his new job). However, one place this doesn’t hurt is the rather sudden ending, which might seem a bit quick but in fact resolves everything with welcome subtlety and pace.

What’s best about the film is Capra’s reluctance to make suggestion of it as anything more than a great work of mythology while acknowledging the equally larger-than-life basis of America’s origins and ideals. The performances by Stewart, Arthur, and Rains are all phenomenal (Arthur probably deserved the ’39 Oscar more than Vivien Leigh, who was just playing herself in Gone with the Wind anyway), and the script is hard to fault, but the film’s real prescience is most obvious in an early scene when a spellbound Stewart is touring D.C. in the back of a taxi. “What’s that?” he shouts as he studies, memorizes every passing monument. A moment later, he relaxes. “Oh,” he says, smiling knowingly. “Movie houses.”


[Originally posted in 2006.]

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