Classic Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Producer: Frank Capra
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Lewis R. Foster, Sidney Buchman
Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi

Plot: In an unnamed western state the hand-picked senator of the local political machine dies and someone must take his place. The political machine orders the governor to appoint their man but the people refuse and demand their own candidate.

Frustrated beyond belief the governor sits down to dinner only to be confronted again by own children who suggest a complete unknown Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) a local hero who is the favorite of boys everywhere in the state.  The governor retires to his study where he flips a coin muttering heads or tails will decide who he sends.  The coin lands on its side right next to a newspaper telling about Jefferson Smith accomplishments seeing this as a sign the governor nominates Smith.  As he tells the political bosses Smith is perfect the people like him and his naiveté on how politics really works will make him the perfect patsy.

And it seems at first that the governor is right Jefferson Smith arrives by train in Washington, his traveling companion is the senior senator of the state Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) a man who Smith admires, a friend of Jefferson Smith’s father and unknown to Smith a corrupt member of the political machine.

So what does the junior senator do once he arrives in Washington D.C.?  He slips his handlers and begins a walking tour of Washington visiting the various monuments ending up at the Lincoln memorial.  From there he makes his way back to his office, where Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) meets him.  His enthusiasm for his new office and his honesty repels the cynical Saunders and she feeds him to the reporters who make him out to be a backwoods bumpkin.

To keep Smith busy Paine (Claude Rains) proposes that Jefferson write-up a bill and submit it to the senate.  Smith and Saunders do so and as Smith out lines the bill Saunders sees that Smith is the genuine article a man who is true and good and not a cog in the political machine.  Smith’s bill would set aside a piece of land so that boys could come across the nation and breathe fresh air, and learn about the country and how the nation was founded.  Unknown to Jefferson Smith the land he proposes to use is land set aside for by the political machine to erect an unneeded dam and line their pockets at the same time.

The machine whirls into motion and before he can turn around Jefferson Smith is accused by his father’s old friend Senator Paine of corruption and misuse of the office of a senator.  Trumped up charges are brought against him and he is condemned without being able to defend himself adequately.  Smith is prepared to leave Washington in disgrace when Saunders finds him and convinces him to fight and fight he does by filibustering on the senate floor refusing to give up until they listen to reason.

 

Commentary:

This is one of the best films that Frank Capra made, I am firmly convinced that it couldn’t be remade today. There was a belief that good men uncorrupted by the political machinations of the parties (and it really didn’t matter which one) existed.  That they weren’t too good to be true.  The cynicism of this age makes that impossible and that is what makes this a great movie.  Stewart plays a good man, a man who believes what the founding fathers said and wrote which makes him a dangerous person to the politicians in Washington.

Jean Arthur is perfect as the world-weary Saunders whose years of working with politicians  has made her cynical and hard.  And so when she comes across a good man she doesn’t what to make of him he isn’t like the rest of Washington society a man uncorrupted by politics and she changes from cynic to a someone who believes actually hopes that there can be change.

Claude Rains plays the senator Joseph Paine perfectly.  Here is a man who started with good intentions and was corrupted by the machine that runs Washington D.C.  He brings a certain gravitas to the role easily playing the elder statesman.

And I could go on but I won’t instead I would tell you that as we prepare for the silly season, where political ads will run twenty-four hours a day and sound bites take the place of reasoned debate,  where rows of candidates come and go promising the all manner of things. Take a break, sit down with your family, and watch Mr. Smith goes to Washington.  It will do you good.

Five stars.

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