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MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  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

Film ****

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 fighting for.

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 surface.

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 political system? 

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 boat.

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.

Video ***

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. 

Audio **1/2

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.

Features ***

The disc contains a few trailers, a showcase of vintage advertising, a featurette starring and commentary track by Frank Capra Jr., and talent files.

Summary:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington deserves to stand alongside It’s a Wonderful Life as the best work of both Frank Capra’s and James Stewart’s careers.  Though not above wallowing a bit in the old fashioned and the idealistic, this is above all a picture that reminds us just how much fun it can be to root for the underdog.  It is a superb triumph over the forces of cynicism, even if only for a couple of hours.