Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains
Director: Frank Capra
Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is a simple, honest man, who is put forward as a senator in Washington. But Washington is no place for a man with ideals. Thinking that they have a easy to manipulate, country boy on their hands, the other senators find themselves up against him, and set out to ruin him when he won’t buckle under. But Jefferson is not so easily cowed, and makes a stand against corruption.
1939 was an interesting time. On the verge of war, this film was almost banned for attacking the political system at a time stability was perhaps so necessary. It is also known as a golden year in cinema, with Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz examples of the classic films released that year.
Frank Capra films have a certain quality about them, a yearning for simpler morals, higher ideals, and big feelings. He really moves his audience, and his films feel like they capture a certain American ideal. (Capra is most well known for his film It’s A Wonderful Life, for reference) This film certainly fits the bill, showing us one down home, honest guy being beaten over the head with the system. Jimmy Stewart seems to always give us the feeling that he’s a good guy that we can trust. I love that about him. (His work with Hitchcock shows his versatility and helps us enter into the darker parts of the mind, as he’s someone we feel we can relate to doing things we might not ever do)
There’s definitely a bit of cheese in this film, but it’s a pleasant ride, really. Jefferson is a guy who thinks about the people in his home state, and the kids there, who he wants to create an important camp for. But the other senators want to use the area as a pork factory. They forge documents against him and even threaten the press to make sure that he’s vilified. His mentor, played by Claude Rains, feels compelled to try to convince him and turn against him, but Jefferson stands tall, and with the help of his guide Saunders (Arthur) who knows the rules of the senate and the ins and outs of the system, he makes his stand. She’s a hilarious foil to the innocence of Jefferson, and really lifts this film from what could otherwise be a relentlessly crusading affair.
This film feels quite fresh, with it’s incisive and cutting look at the political games played in Washington, it makes statements that people are still making today, though most modern political films are much more cynical. It reminds us that the individual does count, that democracy is important, and that high ideals are what we should all strive for. It’s also quite fun, as the humour and the hint of romance add little subplots to this film. Frank Capra is a hard man to resist, it’s best to let go and let the film sweep you up, you’ll feel good at the end, even if it is all a bit dramatic and cheesey.
See It If: you need reminding of the power of the individual and the greatness of high ideals, it’s a really sweet film. Nice guys don’t finish last.
1 thought on “Classic Movie Of The Week: Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)”
This movie definitely deserves at least one comment. My wife and I checked it out of the local library a few weeks ago. I was certainly familiar with it, and had seen bits of the famous final scene many times, but I had never before seen the entire movie. As you note in your review, there are a few cheesy moments, but it is overall a powerful film about political corruption. James Stewart plays his “every man” persona to a “T” in this one. We also checked out and watched Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” which is another of Stewart’s classic film appearances. I am a huge fan of Hitch.
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