Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Sidney Buchman

There is so much made of director Frank Capra and his all-American style of filmmaking, telling stories of wholesome small town people who thrive in life and are loved for their honesty and ideals that truly make them Americans. There is so much made of actor James Stewart and his warm likability and amazing performances in pretty much every film he graced, which include many classics. One of those is the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which brings together these two legends for a film that, yes, a lot is made about it. And there is no blame to go around anywhere because Capra is a great director, Stewart a great actor, and Mr. Smith a great film.

The senator of an unnamed state tragically passes, which creates a bit of a crisis for the state’s governor, who is under the political thumb of Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), as is the senior senator from the state Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains). The governor must find the right man to appoint to fall into the corrupted plans of Taylor, but when his children berate him about the great honest man Jefferson Smith (Stewart), he finds a comfortable way to escape the pressures of Taylor and the people of his state. When Smith goes to Washington, as it were, he finds that his ideals and beliefs about the government may be tested, and he may be called upon to stand up for the bastions of democracy.

What makes a film like this so great is its familiarity. And familiarity is an attribute that also makes director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart so revered and respected. When I say familiar I mean that the characters, settings, and themes of the film are so personal. For Americans at least, Washington, D.C. and the Capital Building are places that are as important as any other place in America, and it is because of what they stand for. Democracy, Justice, Freedom and Liberty are all defended in D.C. and in the film. And they are defended by Jeffereson Smith and his right hand man Clarissa Saunders, his secretary who is played by the lovely Jean Arthur.

What stands at the center of this film is the performance of Jimmy Stewart. I have laid superlatives on him as an actor to this point, but his performance here is a perfect example of what I love so much about him as an actor. It may not be his best performance (I may have to say Harvey for that honestly), but it still stands as one of the most endearing I’ve seen because of his ability to fully embody the ideals for which the character is defending. He is so convincing that it might be hard to believe if I told you that James Stewart actually wasn’t a U.S. Senator in his lifetime, even if he could have been.

And Capra just handles the story so well, as he always does. What attracts me most to Capra is definitely the stories he tells. I completely buy into his wholesome, small town America tales which tell of characters with morals and dreams and the daring and courage to be able pursue those dreams. In the case of Mr. Smith, Capra captures everything patriotic about American all into the one film. Perhaps not his best, but a classic great nonetheless, it is a film that is so solid from start to finish that it would be difficult to find many flaws, and it would be harder still to point them out because of the greatness of everything else in the film, most notably Jean Arthur and James Stewart.

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