Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director: Frank Capra


Jimmy Stewart breaks through in his most iconic role as Mr. Smith, an every man, who meets the world of politics and learns of its hidden, dirtier side in one of cinema’s all time classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At a time when much of the world was beginning to go at war with each other this American motion picture paints a portrait of how the people running the nation are not always the most upright citizens. A comedy with the mid-western charm of Stewart and the direction of the Hollywood’s morally decent and American-centered filmmaker, Frank Capra, the picture was a controversial film in its day, but would rise up to become one of the most beloved and revered motion pictures in American history. For many later generations it would a tool of introduction into just how the political system can be ran, giving audiences a glimpse into the world of Washington in form that is entertaining, with a heroes and villains, as well as the ideal of decent American morals.

Jefferson Smith filibusters on the Senate floor in the film's climax
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political comedy/drama of a naïve, patriotic everyman appointed to serve in the US Senate and his discovery into how businessmen and crooks play the political system to their favor and his attempt to prevent it. The exuberant youth leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to replace a deceased US Senator for his state. Trying his hand at learning the system of government for the betterment of people Smith inadvertently begins to impede the actions of backroom deal between Smith’s fellow Senator, Sen. Joe Paine (Claude Rains), and corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), based on a land deal Smith wants to donate to his young boys group, the Boy Rangers. Together Taylor and Paine attempt to destroy Smith’s reputation, which throws the naïve junior Senator for a loop with the unthinkable idea that such public servants of America would do such a thing to an honest man like himself. With the aid of his jaded secretary, Clarissa Sauders (Jean Arthur), Smith tries everything he can to stop a bill that would devastate his plans to give to the youth organization he once served for and furthermore forever tarnish his name. His efforts culminate with a filibuster where Smith takes the floor of the Senate and holds onto it in hope to postpone the vote for his corrupt bill. His exhaustive attempt takes a toll on him physically, but his words and strong beliefs win out as Paine is overcome by guilt and confesses his misdeeds, saving Smith and faith in democracy.

The film is a near perfect introduction for many into Washington DC and the world of politics. For inexperienced Americans Mr. Smith is the vehicle that allows many to take a wide-eyed look into the realm of how the political world, in a way, is in this dramatization of Frank Capra. For most politics may be that stuff you read in articles and here about purely through the news, as rooms of stiff suited men run the overall show that is our government. In American history classes many of the nation’s leaders are held in high esteem, glorifying them as great men that rise up and lead the nation into further greatness. Politics may appear intangible to the masses because many have never seen it in action and do not understand all of the processes that it takes to make laws that run the land. With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Frank Capra makes politics palpable and comprehensible to a novice extent, further manifesting the evils that take place behind the scenes as our hero comes under fire for doing no wrong, but simply being in the way of a crooked backroom deal and naiveté.

For Frank Capra, Columbia’s greatest director, this was still in line with his series of American ideals features. As seen in such pictures as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Lady for a Day, Capra had a positive outlook at the world, filled with decent people that honestly care for the sake of others. Here in Mr. Smith Capra delves a little bit into the more crooked side of the world that actually lies within the clean world he presents us. The world of puppet-makers in the backrooms of the most powerful places in the land, this does not paint a bright picture of American ideals, but Capra good morals win out as they stand their ground in the form of Jefferson Smith.

When Columbia original bought the rights to the story that would become Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Frank Capra had the mindset to make the story a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, bringing back Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper as Mr. Deeds would become the US Senator. As it became apparent that Cooper would not reprise his role in such a case Deeds became Smith and Capra saw James Stewart, whom he had worked with in You Can’t Take It With You, as the leading man while bringing Jean Arthur aboard as the female co-star as his secretary that helps him learn the system.

Arthur, Stewart, and Mitchell
Mr. Smith would be the role of a lifetime for James Stewart. As he went for film to film Stewart was not the most glamorous man that was common during this period of Hollywood. Leading men of the day were the likes of Clark Gable, William Powell, or Charles Boyer. Each were suave men with a special way with words. Stewart lent to a charm of a youthful, inexperienced man that tripped on words or hesitated in actions, which made him perfect for Smith. As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart would gain major attention, including an Academy Award nomination, as he would quickly become one of the biggest leading men in Hollywood in the coming years especially after his service in World War II.

Jean Arthur was given top billing as she was the better known name in the picture. She had worked with Stewart before in the previous year’s winner for best picture, Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, where her role overshadowed Stewart’s time on screen. Her leading lady demeanor would be more of a name grabber as Stewart’s performance was the catalyst of the picture. However, her role as Clarissa would be a major part as a romantic and psychological anchor to the story of a small fish in a big pond.

The feature contained a large cast of wonderful character actors as well. Including the like of Guy Kibbee as the happy governor that appoints Smith, Claude Rains as the antagonist in Senator Paine, Thomas Mitchell as Clarissa’s often inebriated and equally jaded reporter friend Diz, and Harry Carey as the Senate President who is somewhat entertained by Smith’s actions on the Senate floor. Both Rains and Cary would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, manifesting just how much acting ability was in this supporting cast.

Great detail was taken into account in production of the picture down to the tiniest details with the Senator chamber and even the National Press Club in Washington recreated by the talented art direction. The city of Washington and its many monuments and memorials would play an inspirational role to Mr. Smith as they are meant to with the American public. In a way the film is in part a short travelogue as the audience receives a brief tour of the nation’s capital with shots either made on the fly in Washington or recreated on sound stages in the studio recreated by the Oscar nominated team of art directors.

While war was emerging throughout the world here in the late 1930s, many had doubts whether Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should be made. Frank Capra even began to have his doubts as the film was in production while news in Asia with Japan and Europe with Germany began to dominate the headlines. A film that manifested the weakness of America’s leaders displaying them as crooks or a room full of fools could possibility make the nation and democracy look weak in a world in transaction. At this time monarchies were giving away to other forms of government and Communism and Fascism began to spread, and Mr. Smith displays how mishandlings can flaw democracy.

Headlines shows Mr. Smith's premiere at Constitutional Hall.
As the filmed premiered in Washington DC’s Constitutional Hall, just walking distance from the White House, many invited Congressmen and Washington insiders were appalled. To have a film at this time when the world is looking for answers, this made democracy in America look weak and corrupt. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, former Hollywood executive and father of future President Robert F. Kennedy, wrote Capra and Columbia pleading that they not release the feature in Europe, as it would weaken the morals that America preached in democracy.

As time would prove the film was quite the contrary to what these hesitant critics believed. Mr. Smith manifests all that is good with America. The film allowed people to see how the political machine worked and perhaps give audiences the opportunity to make better, well informed decisions of their elected officials based on the happens in their states and towns, as well as the nation. With war coming close to the front door American s needs to be surer of who ran their country more than ever. During World War II the picture was banned throughout many of the nations fighting against America.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would in fact make Americans and democracy look stronger with a brighter future with faith that good would win out when people are asked to do the right thing.

The picture would go on to be nominated for 11 categories at the Academy Awards, one of the most celebrated films for the year, but only walked away with the award for Best Original Story. The picture would be elected to the inaugural class of pictures for the National Film Registry in 1989 and would find itself on the AFI list of best American films both in 1998 and 2007, moving from #29 to #26 in that time. It would also find its way onto the AFI list of most inspirational films, listed at #5. Clearly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington lasts as a highly praised film well after the days when it first was released.
Frank Capra shooting a scene with James Stewart in the recreation of the Senate.

The picture would inspire countless numbers into becoming evolved in politics and inspired many filmmakers and other mediums into reimagining the story or paying homage to this great film that remains in high regard by many. At one time in the 1950s there was a proposed sequel to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which happily never came to fruition, however there would be a 1960s television show inspired by the picture, which starred Fess Parker of Davey Crockett fame.

For many this picture stands as one of the three finest features to come out of the greatest year in Hollywood history. This period was known as “Hollywood’s Gold Age” and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the one that shined the brightest from those that were still in black and white. Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz seemingly stand as the most popular of 1939 as time would manifest, perhaps out of there Technicolor spectacles that they were. Mr. Smith would be an all time classic movie with a classic main character that portrays the good and simple side that makes America in a world of corruption and war.

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