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.
Here’s my full Blindspot List.
What do you think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? I’d love to hear what you think!