A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn't back down.
WINNER of the Best Original Story OSCAR
NOMINATED for 10 OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Musical Score, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Actor (Stewart), 2 Best Actors in a Supporting Role (Harry Carey, Claude Rains),
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Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is one of his best known films and one that exemplifies the theme of his films. It fits nicely between the two Capra films it has the most in common with— Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). It builds the idealism and makes the plight of the everyman against corruption much more serious than the former, but it doesn’t have the darkness that is visible in the latter; it’s in between the two other films, but also stands on its own as a statement about the government of this country and the possibility of its upholding the good old ideals brought about by its founding fathers.
Mr. Smith is the story of a naïve and idealistic young man Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) who is appointed to the senate by the governor of his state and another senior senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Raines), both of whom answer to a political boss named James Taylor (Edward Arnold). Smith recognizes Paine as his late father’s school chum, and Paine plays the part of mentor, even encouraging Smith to try get his bill passed— a bill to create a government-sponsored boy’s camp out in his home state (which is never specified), once he’s in Washington. To help write the bill, and show him the ins and outs of the senate, is the tough and hard-working Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith’s new secretary, who answers to Paine. Of course the bill is not as simple as it seems when it’s discovered that the camp would be on the property that Taylor and Paine are going to build a damn on for profit. Once the men on top find out Smith is more than just their puppet, but that he may mess with their political schemes, they show their claws and build a lecherous and untrue scandal around him, and Smith must, with Saunders’s help, stand against the corruption in his beloved Washington.
This plot summary is almost unnecessary, because the real heart of the story does not lie in the simple plotline (which can be confusing at times) but in the characters and treatment of the story, and the ideas it brought up with them. Capra manages to create a sense of possibility that is incredibly powerful in this film— the possibility of the human spirit reaching great heights. Even though there’s a sentimental treatment of Smith’s character in the beginning— he’s a starry eyed new senator who doesn’t know a thing about politics and only cares about seeing Lincoln memorial and the constitution up close, and who wants to capture the spirit of the Capitol dome in a simple bill for a boy’s camp— by the end, he’s a serious and almost realistic contender against political bosses who have a hold on the government. After he finds himself used and wronged, he has such a sense of purpose and such conviction that he starts his own revolution.
As to the characters Capra brings to life with his league of actors, the stars and the secondary or character actors, there is a great cast of them here. On the political side, there is the great Claude Rains who is perfect playing a corrupt (or corrupted) character who is also somehow very likable and still upstanding, and Edward Arnold, always the perfect heartless tycoon, as well as the understated Harry Carey as the compassionate President of the Senate. There is also a wide array of character actors playing the cynical journalists who at first attack, but then side with, Smith in his plight and who are all great friends with Saunders.
Now, for me, Jean Arthur as Saunders is the standout character and performance in the film. Stewart may hold the film in its last act with his incredible emotion and vitality, but Arthur holds him through most of it with her cynical wit, and tough-talking yet sensitive character. Without Saunders, Smith would never have even been able to logically write a bill at all, and would have gone home defeated after the scandal put up against him; she not only stands behind him, but she leads him to take action. Perhaps it’s because she’s falling for him and his idealistic spirit, after all, she’s actually quite a softy, but the role is not a simple-minded girl who’s in love, and Arthur plays her as anything but. She knows all the ins and outs of Washington, is plenty acquainted with the corruption in it, and capable of making a change— but she happens to be of the wrong gender to actually play a part in government. So, for all Capra’s lack of politically correct representations, I believe this film especially shows his respect for women, and he often chose Arthur to show it.
This film may have a familiar theme and even familiar characters, but it stands out with the ideas it brings forward, the treatment of the material, and the truthful performances by the actors (and actress). Capra creates something, that, even if it’s not completely new, resonates with the viewer—an indomitable spirit of an American. This, of course, sounds corny and overly patriotic, but it ends up being not only an American story, but a universal story of a person fighting for freedom and justice against all odds. It gets me every time.