I didn’t realize that I’m doing another Frank Capra film back to back in the BlindSpot series! Well, I had initially wanted to do a James Stewart marathon after the Gregory Peck one, but I never got around to it. Well, I finally got to see it on President’s Day last weekend, what a fitting time it was and this film certainly lived up to its classic icon status. According to IMDb trivia, it’s ranked #5 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time (2006), and #26 Greatest Movie of All Time (2007) also by AFI.
It’s always wonderful to see when ‘the actor and the role meets,’ that is when a role seems to be tailor-made for an actor that it’s as he disappears into that character. I felt that was the case with Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and here, Stewart seemed to have become Jefferson Smith despite not being the first choice for the role. The role was for Gary Cooper who’s supposed to reprise a similar one he did in Mr Deeds Goes To Town (also by Capra), but he was unavailable. Having seen this film, I can’t picture anybody else but Stewart in the role.
What’s interesting about this film is that even though the subject matter is about American politics, it doesn’t concern a specific party, we’re never told if Jefferson Smith was a Republican or Democrat. The state that he and Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) come from was never mentioned, either. It’s a classic David vs Goliath story as Smith was a nobody in the grand political scheme when a governor of the unnamed western state picked him to replace a deceased senator. He’s picked because of his wholesome Boy Scout (or Boy Rangers in the film) image, the corrupt political boss Jim Taylor and his minions think Smith’s lack of experience think he’d be easy to manipulate. Of course things don’t go exactly to their plan.
The word ‘filibuster’ seems to have become a dirty word in Capitol Hill. Frankly I don’t know much about the intricate and twisted world of politics, so it was fascinating to see Smith getting lectured from his own secretary Clarissa Saunders on how to get a bill passed. It’s certainly one of my fave scenes from the entire film:
This is the first time I saw Jean Arthur in anything and her portrayal of Saunders is brilliant. Nice to see a smart and sassy female character, not unlike another heroine in another famous 1939 film, which took the Best Picture that year, Gone With The Wind. Now, Saunders is nowhere near as manipulative as Scarlett O’Hara of course, but she’s also beautiful and knows her way around a man’s world.
The whole conflict revolves around building of a dam by the Willett Creek, which is the same area of land where Smith wants to build his national boys camp. Naturally Smith is no match for the Taylor Machine in terms of money and clout, and the political Goliath is determined to crush David by any means possible. Having been *crucified* (that’s the exact word used by Rains’ character) by the Taylor Machine, Smith was ready to give it all up when Saunders persuaded him not to. That propels him to launch a filibuster to clear his name just before he’s kicked out of the Senate.
I was totally engrossed in the story from start to finish, and the third act is certainly the most rousing part. It’s certainly an inspiring story told with an unapologetic sense of virtue. A dissenting voice against this film is perhaps that it lacks subtlety. At times perhaps the audience, especially those on the cynical side might feel they’re being hit over the head with the morality lesson. But you know what, I happen to think it’s great to see a film that celebrates goodness and everything we should aspire to as a human being. I wrote in this post that people may find a hero that stands for truth, justice and the American way so darn boring. I beg to differ on that front. Smith is no superhero, he has no superpower of any kind, but he certainly has the power to inspire others to stand up for what’s right no matter what the cost. In essence, that’s what a true hero is all about.
As I mentioned before, Stewart is perfectly cast as Smith and he certainly makes for a protagonist worth rooting for. The supporting cast is superb all around. Speaking of GWTW earlier, well, it’s fun to see Pa O’Hara here, aka Thomas Mitchell as journalist Diz Moore who’s in love with Saunders. My favorite is Claude Rains as the Senator whom Smith looks up to but ends up betraying him. His emotional struggle throughout the film is palpable and fascinating to behold and Rains has the charisma and gravitas to own a scene. I’ve only seen him in Casablanca before this, so I’m hoping to catch more of his films.
This film is full of rousing scenes as well as humorous moments. Smith’s obvious naivete is amusing and endearing but never ludicrous. There’s a hint of romance between Saunders and Smith, but yet it never took over the story which I thought was refreshing.
The ending doesn’t end with a neat little bow as our protagonist collapsed in exhaustion after talking non-stop for 24 hours, but he remains defiant and even hopeful to the end.
Jefferson Smith: I guess this is just another lost cause Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once. For the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule. Love thy neighbor. And in this world today of great hatred a man who knows that rule has a great trust. You know that rule Mr. Paine and I loved you for it just as my father did. And you know that you fight harder for the lost causes than for any others. Yes you’d even die for them. Like a man we both knew Mr. Paine. You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.
The change of heart of the antagonist may seem abrupt here but I think Mr. Paine have been convicted that what he did was wrong long before he finally had the courage to confess it.
[kap-ruh-esk] relating to or in the style of the movies of Frank Capra, focusing on courage and its positive effects and the triumph of the underdog.
Well, this is the third film from Frank Capra and I definitely see a definite pattern in his films. There’s a timeless quality about it, as his film seems to be relatable for any era because its message and its ideals are not confined by a specific time frame. No matter what year it is, greed, oppression and exploitation are never a good thing, and we’ll always root for someone who perseveres to rise above improbably odds.
I’m so glad I finally caught Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s definitely enjoyable and thought-provoking. A true classic that I certainly don’t mind watching again.
This is the first entry to my 2014 Blind Spot Series, as first started by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee, and continued by Dan Heaton at Public Transportation Snob .
Here’s my full Blindspot List.
What do you think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? I’d love to hear what you think!
67 thoughts on “February 2014 Blind Spot: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)”
Ruth, I’m glad you were able to see this movie. I caught up with it during a politics on film marathon that I did in the early days of my blog in 2011. It’s interesting to note the overly sentimental side of the movie; I found myself nearly laughing when Stewart was visiting all the landmarks. What makes it work is that Capra is showing us just how naive the guy really is and then pulls the rug out from under Smith. Jean Arthur is definitely a highlight.
Hi Dan! I actually don’t mind the oversentimental parts of this film, it kind of adds to its charm and Stewart’s naivete is so endearing. It’s such a rarity to see a character like him, even Stewart himself seems to have gravitated towards much darker roles later in his career. Smith definitely learned his lesson the hard way, but hey, he won over Saunders 😉 I love Arthur here, I want to see more of her as well.
I’m as cynical as the next man when it comes to politics, and I sometimes find Capra to be too melodramatic and sentimental, but man, I have to say this film never fails to bring a tear to my eye, and always leaves me full of hope.
Whenever I need a good dose of the good guys, this is my go-to film.
Glad you enjoyed this one Ruth!
Hello Paul! I don’t even care for politics and always think that a lot of them today are more like Jim Taylor. But yeah, this one got me teary eyed as well. I was so engrossed by it from start to finish. The dialog is quite witty & the schmaltzy-ness is endearing instead of infuriating. I can easily watch it again.
It is too bad that Capra-esque won’t fly in this era of instant gratification and communication. I have seen this film just the one time, and that was long after perusing the 100 Best Lists. Needless to say, I’ve never forgotten it.
Amazing what they can do without guns, explosions, car chases, and F-bombs. Since you liked this one – kindly try Capra’s Meet John Doe – that one starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and many of Capra’s stable of supporting players that appeared in Mr. Smith.
Yeah, I don’t think it would either sadly. You’re so right, it’s got a lot of drama, suspense and even comedy without resorting to bombastic action or crude humor. Oh thanks for the recommendation, I definitely want to see more Capra’s films!
I don’t think Capra knew the meaning of subtle.
Jean Arthur was one of Hollywood’s great funny ladies from the 30s and 40s. If you like her in this, you gotta see her in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, another politically-minded Capra film where she’s actually with Gary Cooper.
Ahah that’s what I thought, but hey, he’s got other qualities 🙂
Yep, I thought about checking out MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN after seeing this one, I need to see more Gary Cooper’s movies too!
So glad you were able to catch this one Ruth. It’s a fantastic film from start to finish. I love Capra and you’re right, there is a trend when it comes to his movies. Some have noted a cynicism that pops up through Capra’s later films and that’s true. But he also adds a sentimental touch that I really love. Sadly I’m not sure how some people these days would respond to a filmmaker like him. I adore his style. He can be in your face but he can also be heartwarming.
I love Jean Arthur and she is great here. She had such a good career before this film but this is one of my favorite performances from her. As for Claude Rains, he’s always good. You should see him in The Adventures of Robin Hood! In it he has hair you’ll never forget! 😉
Anxious to hear your takes on your other Blind Spot picks. I have seen all but two of them. Double Indemnity is smoking. The Apartment has a pretty sharp edge. The Philadelphia Story is the greatest romantic comedy of ALL TIME (Yes, I just said it). 🙂
I’m so glad I finally caught this Keith! Can’t believe it took me THIS long. I love Capra style and Stewart is so perfect in this. You’re right that Capra might not be as appreciated as he was back in the day, people have gotten so cynical and prefer much darker films these days.
Oooh I have to see The Adventures of Robin Hood now! He’s such an awesome character actor! I might do either a Hitchcock or Billy Wilder film next, not sure which one 😀
Ooooo! I can’t wait. You can’t go wrong with either one of those choices.
I have such a massive blind spot on Wilder it’s embarrassing! Can’t wait to see The Apartment!
It has some good humor in it but it also has a pretty sharp edge to its story.
All righty then, that’ll be my next Blind Spot movie 😀
I’ve never seen this film but it cracks me up every time people mentioned it. There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Mel Gibson was the guess voice and Homer convinced him to do a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington but with lots of action, it’s one of the best Simpsons episodes. Here’s a clip I found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DKV-fGjLU0
Since I don’t watch movies from that era, I’ve never seen any of Capra’s films.
I’ve heard about this! I’ll watch that clip over lunch, I bet it’s a hoot!! Ha..ha.. that’d be interesting if Gibson were to remake it, but then again it’s best that he didn’t.
What Capra lacks in subtlety he more than makes up for with sincerity, which is more important in my book anyway.
I haven’t seen this since high school; we watched it in government class. I’ve been meaning to see it again for a while as it is such a heartwarming story. Stewart fits in well as the boy scout, and Jean Arthur is very sassy (another role of hers that I love is in Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant, I would recommend that if you want to see more of her) as always. I had forgotten that Mitchell was in this as well! I agree that it’s something that would probably not work as well today, but even so it’s a classic that is still beloved today so maybe we’re wrong?
“What Capra lacks in subtlety he more than makes up for with sincerity …” I can’t say it better myself, Melissa, that is spot on!
Thanks for the recommendation, Only Angels Have Wings sounds great! I think people today are far more cynical so though they may appreciate a classic film, if this were to be made now I doubt it’d be as well-received. Who knows though, I hope I’m wrong.
Good review. I consider this an all-time classic and it’s a film that I’ve enjoyed every time I’ve seen it.
Glad to hear it, Chip!
Hi, Ruth. That is some high praise indeed. I guess I need to add this one to the ever-expanding list of the movies I need to see. 🙂
Hi Josh! Yeah, I have a super long list too, that’s why the Blind Spot series is such a great idea to catch up.
A lovely classic, one of my favorites and your stellar review encapsulates all that is wonderful about Capra, Stewart, and Claude Rains. Capra films always make me feel warm and gooey inside. 🙂
Warm and gooey indeed! I was tearing up, laughing, clapping as I was watching this, it’s such a wonderful experience, seems that Capra’s films have that effect on me.
Great review, I haven’t watched this but it’s interesting how this movie has become part of our popular culture , like Ted mentioned above there’s a funny Simpson spoof I saw. Capra is a big blindspot for me, I don’t think I’ve seen any of his stuff not even It’s A Wonderful Life haha.
I think this one is as great as It’s A Wonderful Life, which you absolutely MUST check out at some point. Trust me, it’ll be worth it! Never too late to catch a classic 🙂
Love Frank Capra movies. This one is no different. I loved that you quoted Smith at the end of your voice…I can just hear Jimmy Stewart speak those lines…so powerful. Cheers.
Hey thanks for the lovely comment! I just thought it’s such a great quote to feature. Stewart’s delivery made the script come alive, powerful & moving indeed!
Capra has a master’s touch with comedy and drama. And excels when both are mixed!
Fun fact and piece of trivia regarding Mr. Smith Goes To Washington . When France fell to the Germans. Mr. Smith… was playing in the city’s theaters. As Paris came under occupation. Theaters were forbidden to play the film. Or anything other than German authorized films.
Once Paris was liberated by the Allies. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was the fist film selected to play again.
Hi Kevin! Yes he’s definitely a master director, no wonder he won so many awards!
Wow, fascinating trivia, very cool! Thanks for that.
This is a massive blind spot for me too Ruth and your review has made me really want to check it out!
Hi Chris! It’s never too late y’know, there are just soo many to choose from. I’ve never seen a Billy Wilder film either and that’s a huge Blind Spot I hope to rectify soon.
I can’t recommend Some Like it Hot enough, it’s absolutely brilliant!
Oh I have the dvd of that at home that my friend lent me, can’t wait to see that one as well. Glad to hear you recommend it highly!
Great piece Ruth. I’ve always meant to get around this film yet somehow I’ve never managed it. I always hear good things.
Hi Mark! The hype is justified which is always nice. I was so engrossed by it despite not being a fan of political movies. But this is more about a David vs Goliath tale that is relatable and timeless.
Happy you enjoyed it Ruth! Has aged so well, no need to remake 🙂 Agree the last act is the strongest, and yes, what a performance by J Stewart, perhaps his best.
When I saw the film last year, I wondered if the quote “wild horses aren’t gonna drag me off this floor” inspired the classic Wild Horses song by The Rolling Stones, maybe so, or maybe it’s just a common phrase.
Hi Chris! I’m glad I caught this and though I had a high expectation for it I was still pleasantly surprised how enjoyable it is.
Oh I didn’t know about that Rolling Stones song, hmmm not sure if they’d be influenced by a Capra film but who knows, ahah.
Great to have your take of this Capra classic, Ruth. Well done.
This is a fantastic write up of a fantastic movie.
However I prefer Homer Simpson and Mel Gibson’s remake 🙂
Say it ain’t so Mikey! 😀
Aaah, great stuff Ruth. This is moviemaking at it’s very best. Capra/Stewart; what more do you need?
Exactly! I wonder how many films did they collaborate with, I’m sure this isn’t the only one. I should look that up and watch ’em.
Well, It’s a Wonderful Life is a great place to go next! I’ve given it some Reddit love by the way 🙂
Oh right I’ve seen that one, d’ Oh! I mean besides those two.
Thanks for the upvote!!
That’s it really. If you want more Capra, check out Lost Horizon (1937). Great film.
I definitely will. Thanks for the recommendation Mark!
Great review. As you know, I love Stewart, so I don’t know why I haven’t seen what is probably his most iconic role yet!
Hi Fernando! Oh you MUST see this one if you love Stewart, he’s sooo good and so easy to root for. It’s iconic for a reason, I’m glad I finally got around to seeing this.
I’ll definitely check it out.
I think you’ll like it Fernando, Stewart is as charming as ever here and Jean Arthur is fabulous!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jean Arthur before either. Will try to check this one out soon.
A classic indeed. James Stewart was great in the role. I also couldn’t picture someone else playing Jefferson Smith.
I agree with you in terms of the lack of subtlety, which rings true throughout the film and in most of Capra’s work that I’ve seen.
As for Claude Raines, he’s also pretty great in Hitchcock’s Notorious which I watched late last year. If you haven’t checked his performance there, I encourage you to do so even if it’s not the best Hitchcock you’ll find out there. I also believe he played Julius Caesar opposite Vivien Leigh, who played Cleopatra, in what was probably his first major role.
Hi Niels! Oh I still need to see Notorious, glad to see Raines is in that one as well. He played Julius Caesar w/ Vivien Leigh? WOW, I definitely need to see that one, thanks for the tip!
Great review! Been a long time since I saw this. Should give it a re-watch! : )
Hi there! You should indeed, but I’m glad you have seen this film!
Awesome. I had much the same reaction to this film as you did the first time I saw it. I was really taken by surprise at how charmed I was by it.
Now if it would only be released on Blu-ray….
Hi Ian, yeah it’d be great to see this on BD, I bet it’d still look beautiful! But the story is the real beauty.
Yay! Glad you enjoyed it, Ruth! I hope you get a chance to see more Capra films. He made several great ones. 🙂
I have seen 2 so far, definitely will check out more. Really curious to see Mr Deed Goes to Town which has a similar story like this one, but probably more comedic.
Great writeup, Ruth. Glad you enjoyed this one. I have a Capra box set sitting here that I have yet to dig into. Love the term “Capra-esque”. 🙂
Thanks Eric! Well I didn’t coin that Capra-esque term, wish I did, ahah. So you haven’t seen this one either? I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
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