Even though I own a copy of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) on DVD—and even though Turner Classic Movies showcases the film on a regular basis (if memory serves me correct, it popped up in August during a day-long salute to Claude Rains)—I’m sort of surprised that it’s been so long since I revisited this landmark American film. I caught it last night as part of TCM’s salute to political movies on Wednesday nights this September.
I’m sure everybody’s familiar with the plot, but for the uninformed: a young idealist named Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to fill out the unfinished term of a recently departed Senator beholden to a big honkin’ political machine run by Jim Taylor (played by the poster boy for fat-cat capitalists, Edward Arnold). Taylor isn’t convinced that Smith will “follow orders” but senior Senator Joseph Paine (Rains) assures Taylor he can keep Smith in line. Smith’s first day in Washington finds him sight-seeing around D.C., checking out all the monuments—much to the amazement of his assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), whose jaded, seen-it-all outlook on life contrasts sharply with her new boss’ starry-eyed idealism. A mob of reporters—led by tipsy, cynical Thomas Mitchell—“interview” Smith and paint a picture of the new meat as an outright buffoon in their newspapers. An outraged Smith looks to Paine for advice, and Paine suggests he find a project to work on his own; Smith has such a project—a “boys’ camp” to be built and run in their home state—but it will conflict with a proposed dam to be built on the same site…a project that will line the pockets of “Big” Jim Taylor and all his other political pals. When Smith refuses to back down from his bill, Paine sets him up as the fall guy in Taylor’s graft scheme…and the novice senator resorts to a Senate floor filibuster to prove his innocence.
In introducing this movie last night, TCM icon Robert Osborne referred to Smith as “the greatest film about Congress”—an appellation that I think is a little unfair, considering there’s not a whole of lot of competition in that category. I do, however, think that Smith is the one movie that we wish best represented our idealization of how democracy should function; it’s a marvelous movie, even though we all know doggone well it isn’t the way the system really works. (In fact, were if it not for the overwrought “confession” by Raines’ senior senator that Stewart’s Smith is innocent, Mr. Smith would end up having to resign, a patsy to the end.)
Jimmy Stewart knew instinctively that the part of Jefferson Smith was the acting opportunity of a lifetime, and even classic movie buffs not normally sold on Stewart have to grudgingly admit he was aces as the gosh-all-fishhooks country boy who gets a lesson on the (un)niceties of the democratic process. In a sane world, Stewart would have nabbed an Best Actor Oscar for Smith (or at the very least, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life) instead of taking his pal Henry Fonda’s Oscar (for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) with what I consider to be one of Stewart’s lesser showcases, the fast-talking (see what I mean?) reporter in The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Naturally, I’ve always been a fan of this movie because of the mere presence of Jean Arthur (interestingly, she gets top billing here), who was equally wonderful alongside Stewart in the previous example of Capra-corn, You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Why she never won an Oscar during her lengthy career (she was nominated only once, for 1943’s The More the Merrier) is a mystery left to the ages but she does her usual outstanding work in Smith as a cynic transformed by Stewart’s wide-eyed innocence. Frank Capra’s spot-on direction and Sidney Buchman’s Oscar-nominated script (the story, written by Lewis R. Foster, did nab a bit of Oscar gold) are just two of the assets in a film whose real strength, I think, is its stellar supporting cast: Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette (memorably described by Arthur as “a gorilla in a suit”), Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, Jack Carson, Charles Lane and William Demarest. (The presence of Hall, Demarest and Al Bridge convinced me briefly that I had stumbled into a Preston Sturges film by accident.)
As the story goes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had a gala premiere at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and stirred up some controversy when several reporters and senators walked out on the film in protest. Apparently the members of the Fourth Estate were ticked because the newshounds in the film were depicted as heavy drinkers (but honestly: reporters in movies of that era were always portrayed as lushes—you mean to tell me that’s the first time real newshounds noticed?), and the senators were a bit nonplussed that the movie suggested that there might be corruption (shocking!) lurking about in the halls of Congress. (Personally, I think they were cheesed off at the depiction of an honest senator among that august body…but then people have always remarked that I’m a bit of a cynic.)