MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
Review by Michael Jacobson
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold
Director: Frank Capra
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: February 22, 2000
It’s ironic that Frank Capra, the undisputed champion of
ideals and the feel-good film, created in Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington a movie that has grown more, not less, topical as
time has passed because of our mounting cynicism towards things political.
On one hand, it makes us react to the title character played by James
Stewart incredulously, yet in the end, I think that his fight for truth and
integrity in politics becomes all the more winning.
We don’t believe the guy has a snowball’s chance in hell, yet we root
for him wholeheartedly. Like he
says in the film, sometimes the lost causes really are the only ones worth
Critics have called the idealism and optimism that
permeates Frank Capra’s work as “Capra Corn”.
I don’t like that expression myself, but I can see where it comes from.
Capra wore his heart on his sleeve in his pictures, and was unafraid to
loudly trumpet his ideals. One
montage in the film made me laugh: when
Jefferson Smith arrives in Washington and goes on an impromptu sightseeing tour.
All the images flash before us…the liberty bell, the monuments, John
Hancock’s signature, and the big bold words “LIFE”, “LIBERTY” and
“PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS” come flying towards us from the screen in a march of
unbridled triumph. “Capra
Corn”? I suppose so. But there’s something about Capra’s ability to cut right
through the most hardened cynical shell of his audience and find the place in
our hearts that’s the most vulnerable to this kind of spirited idealism that
makes his films work, no matter how dated or old fashioned they may seem on the
As the film opens, a Senator from an unnamed state has
died, leaving the governor and other Senator, Paine (Rains) scrambling to
nominate a replacement. All of this
is under the supervision of a man named Taylor (Arnold).
At first, I thought I had missed something and re-started the film.
Who was this man? And why was he obviously in charge of such a delicate
Although not fully explained at first, it turns out Taylor
is one of those typical rich guys who pull the strings of the system.
His money got the governor elected, and Paine as well.
He has a bill in Congress involving the damming of a river in their
state, on land he secretly owns. It
needs to go through, therefore the new Senator has to be a man who won’t rock
The governor appoints a simple man, Jefferson Smith
(Stewart) to the job. He’s a
quiet fellow, well liked by people, and runs an organization called the Boy
Rangers. He’s not much of a
speaker, as evidenced by his first clumsy speech to accept his new position, but
he’s a true patriot. He knows
American history backwards and forwards, and his only concern in joining the
most prolific lawmaking body in the land is that he won’t do anything to
dishonor his office or the people he represents.
In Washington, he is teamed up with his new assistant, a
woman known only as Saunders (Arthur). She’s
been around, and seen how the political machine works.
She’s a bit cold and cynical, and doesn’t quite know what to make of
this new young wide-eyed idealistic patriot that’s been thrown into her life.
But she convinces him (while actually trying to talk him out of it) that
he can introduce a bill to support his idea of a big state-run summer camp for
boys, where they can learn the principles that will make them good citizens and
productive adults one day, and even start by earning the money to pay back the
government for the camp. It will
even be located near…you guessed it, the same river that Taylor wants
dammed—the bill that Paine will be fighting for.
It’s quite a blow for Smith to learn that the Senator,
whom he’s admired for years and considered a stalwart representative, is
nothing more than the puppet of a corrupt man, who’s controlling the
democratic process for his own gain.
At first, the two men try to reason with Smith…to let him
know what he’s up against, and try to convince him to play along.
When he doesn’t, Taylor and Payne fire up the political machine against
him. Papers run false stories about
him. They falsify documents and
accuse Smith of being the actual owner of the land in question, making it appear
that he’s the one trying to use the
Senate for his own profit. They
form a committee to have him expelled.
What follows are two of the film’s most powerful
sequences. One takes place at the
base of the Lincoln Memorial, where a weeping, frustrated Smith is pulled back
from quitting by Saunders. She’s
seen everything there is to see in Washington, and she believes that Smith might
just have the integrity, the character, and the guts to stand up to the
onslaught of the Taylor machine…and beat it.
It’s no secret that Saunders is meant to be representative of we, the
audience, and if Smith’s honesty and demeanor converts her, then we should
be—and are—converted too.
The second is the famous filibuster sequence.
Given the floor, the once meager and soft spoken Smith holds it for
almost 24 straight hours, trying to keep the corrupt bill from going through.
His character has been blackened in the Senate.
Taylor, back at home, gets the papers and media against him with lies and
attacks. Hate letters are pouring
in from his state telling him to stop. It
is one man against the world. Near
the end, exhausted, disheveled, with nary a friend in the world, he says in a
broken hoarse whisper, “You think I’m licked.
But you’re NOT going to lick me.”
Being a Capra film, there’s only one way it could end.
I was frankly lost as to how it could all work out at that point, with
the monstrosity of the forces aligned against Smith.
But work out it does, although in a way I couldn’t help but think was a
bit of cheating. In other words,
this is a four star movie not because it’s perfect, but because what’s great
about it adamantly outshines the weaker parts.
James Stewart may have given the performance of his career
as Mr. Smith. There was something
about Stewart that always made him come across as a perfect everyman that
audiences could identify with, and thankfully, it was an identity he embraced
and made fruitful time and time again. Nobody
else could have made this painfully idealistic, old fashioned, good fellow so
real and believable. Trust me, you
won’t be thinking “Capra Corn” when you rise up out of your seat to cheer
this man on in the face of destruction.
Overall, this black and white offering from Columbia Tri Star is pretty good, but not as good as some of their other ones. It purports to be a print restored by the Library of Congress, but it still shows some wear and tear in the form of debris, scratches and spots on the print. Those complaints aside, this is still a good rendering, with good sharp images and no evidence of distracting grain or compression. The grayscale exhibits a good range from whites to true darks.
The mono soundtrack is quite good…clear without much
noise, and rendering the dialogue and music very well. The dynamic range,
though limited, holds up fairly well for a film of this one's age.
The disc contains a few trailers, a showcase of vintage
advertising, a featurette starring and commentary track by Frank Capra Jr., and