Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director:  Frank Capra 
Cast:  James StewartJean ArthurClaude Rains
Plot:  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.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Original Story.  Nom. for 10 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor (x2), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Sound.
Runtime:  129min
Rating:  PG

Does anyone still remember Frank Capra, the late Oscar-winning director of sentimental social comedies back in the 1930s and 1940s? A legend in classic American cinema, Capra made one of the most popular films of all time - It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a feel-good melodrama that is essential viewing for everyone and has left critics coining up the term ‘Capraesque’ to describe his films. 

Seven years earlier in 1939, Capra directed a young James Stewart in the title role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film that evokes the American Dream through which, as Ronald Bergan says in his book ‘Film’, “any honest, decent, and patriotic American could overcome corruption and disappointment to prove the power of the individual.” 

James Stewart was perhaps the most natural actor of his generation; he had an air of confidence surrounding him and he exuded tremendous charisma. His portrayal of Jefferson Smith was an excellent, early example of his acting prowess. He had a unique laidback style towards acting and often chose roles that over the decades cemented his image as a charming and likable film persona whose audiences found easy to identify with. 

Smith is a well-known Boy Scout hero selected and thrust into political action, taking over the mantle of a Senator who has recently died. Inexperienced, naive, but idealistic, Smith solitarily battles ruthless and corrupt politicians out to destroy him.

His battle is a lost cause. But as a character points out in the film, “Lost causes are most worth fighting for”. This becomes the central theme of Capra’s picture. Smith is more than dismayed by the state of American politics and its stranglehold over the national press. Where is the freedom of speech? Why are greedy, power-hungry people with tainted morals allowed to hold key appointments in Congress? Smith knows that he is staring defeat in the eyes yet he fights with the courage of a Boy Scout, attempting to expose the truth and bring down these backstabbing political snobs. 

The second half of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is mostly shot in the style of a courtroom drama. Tirades are thrown at one another while the Senate President watches the farce with a sheepish smile. The comic wit and timing of the screenplay is brilliant, and Capra’s quickly-paced direction ushers the film on with a high tempo. The result is a highly enjoyable two hours of intellectual entertainment. Although the ending is rightly optimistic, it feels too abrupt like a speeding roadster screeching to a halt after an hour cruising at top speed.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington withstands the test of time easily, and like many Capra films, they leave a sweet aftertaste - one that leaves us with a bright ray of hope and faith that while humans are sometimes fallible, they are capable of great things as well.


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