Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Retro Review

John Cassavetes said, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America, it was only Frank Capra.” That’s not a bad legacy.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the story of a simple man elevated to the rank of United States Senator after the sudden death of his state’s incumbent representative. The leader of essentially a Boy Scout troop, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is picked by the governor to fill in for the deceased congressman. The governor as well as the remaining state senator and several other politicians are all in the pocket of a Mr. Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Taylor wants to build a dam and has spent the last few years quietly buying up all the land around it, doling out favors and reelections to his friends. When it becomes clear that the naive junior senator isn’t willing to play ball, they seek to damn Smith’s reputation and kick him out of Washington. But Mr. Smith isn’t going down without a fight.

In 1939, when Mr. Smith was released, the real-life Senate Majority Leader said the film was “silly and stupid” and “showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record.” Well, Mr. Barkley, as Prince says, “If the bra fits…”

Alben Barkley and his colleagues took the film personally as a scathing rebuke of corruption in Washington. We can look at it that way. We can also look at it as a film reviewer might and say it’s a well-written comedy-drama full of passionate performances and a universal message: “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.”

According to IMDB, the film was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. The American Ambassador to Britain said the film would damage America’s reputation in Europe. Various politicians in the United States tried several methods of blocking the film from general audiences, including the elimination of studio-owned theater chains in the late 1940s. It’s good to see the men and women charged with representing the common people have such a high opinion of themselves that they’d censor a work of fiction to avoid anybody getting the wrong idea.

Politics aside, Mr. Smith is a classic of the Old Hollywood era. From a purely visual standpoint, Capra uses soft focuses and shadows to stirring effect. What seems to be forgotten by the general public when protesting black and white films is that the lack of color was something good directors had to negotiate with. There is a very noticeable difference between black and whites directed by Capra and Kurosawa and those of their more popcorn-oriented contemporaries. They would have liked to represent real colors if they could, but lacking that they made their films appealing with composition and innovation. And, oh yeah, compelling drama.

Smith is a 1939 work so yes our protagonists and villains do speak in eloquent sentences that would be right at home on a live stage. This does nothing to detract from and in fact focuses the marvelous performances of its leads. James Stewart got what is any actor’s dream role, with lines and business that allow him to be both vulnerable and stalwart. He doesn’t even show up until several minutes into the film, a nobody being pushed into place by massive government powers, and when he does show up he is meek and overtly respectful, a wide-eyed lookeeloo touring the nation’s capitol. I think Stewart’s reputation these days has him being a big old sweetheart but in both this film and It’s a Wonderful Life that softness is tempered by an explosive passion. Stewart was a tremendous actor because his compassion was what saved his passion from becoming terrifying. There is an aggressive righteousness in him that is captivating.

Claude Rains as Senator Joseph Paine, an old friend of Smith’s father, also gives a great performance that hews tight to the balance of corruption and honor so well written for this character. The standout however is an actress I’ve never heard of. Jean Arthur plays Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary who’s been in Washington a long time and fed up with politics. She is utterly delightful, doing with a simple look things I don’t think they can even write for women today. She is a strong female lead and provides a great counterpart to Stewart. She’s also very funny and, let’s face it, beautiful. I’m in love with this woman.

The film itself also has a bunch of great comedy moments, so many that it’s only half-drama. But that only goes to show how comfortable the film is with itself, how strong the material and how skilled the director. There is a scene that is both a mark of its time and emblematic of the no-nonsense message when Senator Smith finds out that the D.C. press corps has made a fool of him in the papers. He immediately goes around the capitol punching them in the face. There’s no way this could happen today without massive legal action but damn it this was the 1930s. If you insulted a man you were gonna take your licks and by God Jefferson Smith was not going to stand for that kind of flimflammery. The image of Jimmy Stewart marching around Washington punching the hats off of cowardly journalists is one of the many takeaways of this American classic.

Maybe there really wasn’t an America. Capra’s movie is real enough.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra
Columbia Pictures
129 Minutes

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2 Comments on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Retro Review

    • Mine as well for the longest time. It’s much funnier than I was expecting. I knew Stewart would be great but the excellence of the supporting actors was a wonderful surprise. Thanks for the like!

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