Sunday, May 6, 2012

Movie – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

When Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was first released it generated a lot of hate from politicians because of the way some federal Senators and state government officials in the film were portrayed as corrupt.  At the same time, the Press also despised the film because some in their profession were shown to be opportunistic and in cahoots with the politicians – just making up stories for the sake of selling newspapers.  Hell, more than seven decades later the Press still tries to tar director Frank Capra as nothing more than a maker of cheesy, lightweight movies (despite his three Oscars for Best Director).  I say any film that simultaneously pisses off both politicians and the Press is one that is well worth seeing.

If the film feels like a close relative to Capra’s earlier movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), it’s because it started out as a vehicle for Gary Cooper to reprise his Mr. Deeds role.  Cooper ended up not being available, so the character name was changed.  Capra leading lady Jean Arthur still is the lead in this film, but not as her Mr. Deeds character.  She plays the same type, though – a cynical, seen it all woman who is finally won over by the inherent goodness in the man she encounters.  Of the many films she did, Mr. Smith was Jean Arthur’s favorite.

Cooper not being available was a big break for Jimmy Stewart and he made the most of it.  Yes, he had been in Capra’s earlier Best Picture winner You Can’t Take It with You (1938), but that was more of an ensemble cast.  Playing the character of Jefferson Smith would put Stewart front and center the entire movie.  He would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor – one of eleven nominations the film would receive.

The film opens with the governor of an unnamed western state needing to appoint a new Senator to serve out the remainder of the term for one who has just died.  His corrupt aide (Edward Arnold) wants him to pick someone already in their camp.  The governor ends up picking Jefferson Smith, a young man who has become a state hero for his work with the “Boy Rangers”.  (The film avoids association with pretty much every real group – i.e. Boy Scouts.  The political parties of everyone are also never mentioned.)  The governor figures appointing Smith will increase his own popularity and that Smith is so young and naïve that he will still be easy to control.

Smith arrives in Washington completely in awe of all the great people who have been there before him.  He meets his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur).  She can’t believe who has been sent there.  She considers the guy either the biggest dope she’s ever met, or a very smart conniver who is up to something with the nice guy act.  The Press is merciless in portraying him as nothing more than a country bumpkin who has no place in Washington.

At first the only solace Smith gets is working with the senior Senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains – The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Invisible Man).  Paine comes across as a good mentor and he suggests Smith channel some of his energy towards introducing a bill on the Senate floor.  Smith does just this – a proposal to buy some land in his home state for the Boy Rangers to use.  It would be paid for by donations from children all across the country; no tax dollars would be needed.

There’s a big problem with this; that land is already planned for a dam to be built on it, which would kick back a ton of money to the crooked politicians in the state.  Smith doesn’t know this.  He also doesn’t know that seemingly nice Senator Paine is one of these corrupt politicians.  Paine just crucifies Smith on the floor of the Senate in order to get the bill defeated.

Smith is dejected and is going to give up.  Clarissa, who has come to believe in him and even to fall in love with him, talks him into changing his mind.  She explains to him about filibusters – once a Senator has been granted the right to speak he can continue speaking for as long as he wants.  He cannot stop speaking for any reason, though, otherwise he would have to yield this right to speak and would never be allowed to start again.

Smith uses this opportunity to try to clear his name and to rally people back in his own state.  The corrupt political machine tries to oppose him.  After many hours Smith starts to break down physically and emotionally, just trying to hold out long enough for support from his state to make it to him.  In order to get the extremely raspy and worn out voice we hear in the film, Stewart had some horrible things done to his throat.  He really committed to the role.

The thing that is great about this movie is that even though both politicians and Press tried to destroy it (for reasons somewhat paralleling their counterparts’ attack on Smith in the film), it was the People who made it a hit then and the beloved classic that it is today.  Now that is a truly great example of democracy in action, which is also ultimately the message of the movie.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Since I first saw this film, I have wondered why it hasn't been remade. People on the fringes of either side of the aisle could take this story and make it into a propaganda piece without any problem.

    Every few weeks I expect to see it on somebody's "coming soon" list, and I'm always mildly surprised that it's not there.

    I love Jean Arthur in this--I think it's my favorite of her roles. And I'm always happy to see the sadly forgotten Claude Rains, who is a personal favorite of mine.

  2. @SJHoneywell - I shudder to think what a remake would look like, but you are correct that someone with an agenda on either side could easily turn it to their means. Thanks.

  3. Chip, I really like MSGW. I think Jefferson Smith might be Stewart's finest role.

  4. @KimWilson - You may be right.

  5. "Now that is a truly great example of democracy in action, which is also ultimately the message of the movie." Actually I think it's about the FAILURE of democracy in action. Stewart would have been soundly defeated by the political machine if Rains hadn't had a rather unbelievable crisis of conscience. It's not a feel-good sentiment about how great the democratic process works, it's a deeply cynical condemnation of political corruption.

  6. @martinteller - Thanks for the comment. I appreciate all thoughts on films, but I do request that spoiler warnings be placed at the beginnings of comments that will reveal something big for those who have not seen the film. I cannot edit your comment, only delete it, but I do not want to do that since it would look like I was trying to censor you for disagreeing with me on a point.

    If it would not be too much trouble, can you delete your comment and re-post it with a spoiler warning at the top? Thanks.

  7. I worked in politics for several years and now hate everything and everyone involved (bitter, me, nooooo?) but this film could make me believe again.

    Harry Carey as the President of the Senate is an under-rated gem in the film, an encouraging smile here and a disguised laugh there goes a long way to show the audience that poor Jefferson isn't alone in Washington.

    1. Thanks for the perspective from a former "political insider." Good point about Carey.