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Hollywood, in the days of the studio system, was not a haven for
individualists. Much as film writers and egotistical filmmakers like to
ascribe authorship to one person, in truth cinema is by its very nature
a collaborative means of expression. Hollywood, in its golden age,
produced many of the greatest pictures ever, because the studios were
like well-oiled machines for making the most out of collaborations. Mr
Smith Goes to Washington is a great example.
Let's look a bit at the history of this picture. Frank Capra, he of the "name-above-the-title" had had his biggest successes so far in partnership with a wonderful yet rarely remembered screenwriter called Robert Riskin. The story of Mr Smith Goes to Washington would have been right up Riskin's street, but unfortunately the writer, fed up with working in Capra's shadow, had decided to go his own way. Still Capra and Columbia wanted a picture that could be a loose sequel to Riskin's Mr Deeds Goes to Town, and would say about politics what Deeds and You Can't Take It with You (another Riskin script) said about wealth. A skilled and experienced writer by the name of Sidney Buchman was brought in to adapt a story by Lewis Foster. The result, while neither as witty or as charming as genuine Riskin, nevertheless made up for it with the devastating power of its message.
Once you have your A-grade script, you must get the right cast. Nowadays typecasting is looked on as restrictive and unimaginative, but it's part of the beauty of classic era Hollywood. Look at Jimmy Stewart, with his innocent face and frame so spindly it looks like he might blow away in a strong gust of wind. And yet when he gets going he has this boyish enthusiasm that makes you believe in him all the way. Stewart had first come to public attention in the top box office hit You Can't Take It with You, and had had a number of lead roles since then. For audiences of 1939 it would have been like seeing a dear friend step into the senate, and any modern day viewer who has seen a handful of Jimmy's pictures will feel the same. That's how he works in the role, and that in turn makes the whole picture work.
It's not just Stewart. Everyone appearing in this picture is perfectly cast, admittedly to type. Jean Arthur as usual plays the sharp-witted tomboy with a good heart, an ideal partner for the honest yet sheepish Stewart. The bulky, pointy-nosed Edward Arnold, in his tiny circular glasses, is the very image of the callous businessmen, and frog-voiced Eugene Palette is just right as his pompous stooge. All told, Mr Smith Goes to Washington contains a treasure trove of familiar character actors Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, Guy Kibbee each doing business as usual, and it is the very acceptability of them as their typical personas that makes this picture feel so immediate.
And what about Mr Capra? Let's not play down his contribution, even if it isn't quite worthy of having his name above the title. Capra is like the conductor of the orchestra. Not only does he coax some great performances out of his cast, but he arranges things superbly to give emphasis as and where it's needed. In many of the early shots of Stewart he is shown in long shot in large spaces, like a little boy lost in a world he doesn't understand. In the first few scenes at the senate, Capra pulls a nifty trick with perspective, framing Stewart so that the top corner of the room converges with his head. The effect makes him appear very small, like those optical illusions you can make with two equal lines that appear to be of different sizes. As Smith gains more confidence and his words more resonance, he starts to emerge from this corner. In their quiet and intimate scene at Capitol Dome, Stewart and Arthur are shown against a plain background, so all focus is upon them and nothing will distract us from their words. All these techniques look very simple, but it takes a master craftsman to know when and how to use them.
Capra no doubt thought of himself as a Jefferson Smith-type character, a little man standing up and making a big splash through pluck and determination. That's why he fought to get his name above the title, and essentially marketed the "Capra touch". But Hollywood is not congress, and even Jefferson Smith couldn't have done it without Saunders. No, this delightful and nearly perfect picture is the work of a wonderful, Tinseltown team.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur stars in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington" (1939) as Jefferson Smith, a young, honest and very
patriotic senator; and Clarissa Saunders, Mr. Smith's secretary who
tries to teach the new senator how Washington works and assists him
when it seems everyone has turned against him. Immediately after his
arrival, the media attacks the former Boy Ranger's leader.
Unfortunately for Mr. Smith, this isn't the last time lies will come
against him. After proposing a bill for a summer camp for boys, a
fellow senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains) turns against Mr.
Smith. His bill, it turns out, interferes with one for a dam to be
built on the same plot of land the camp would be located. With the
assistance of Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt man in charge of
the media and politics in Mr. Smith's home state, false evidence is
planted against him and the reality of Washington comes crashing down.
Refusing to back down, Mr. Smith continues to fight the corruption, not
just for his innocence, but for the future generations.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a bold and direct attack of the government's corruption. Frank Capra exposed the greed, lies and lack of interest in the real American people. It wasn't, however, a film to destroy the democracy, but to try and save it. There is a patriotic feel about the movie, one that shows what America is really about. Frank Capra was simply trying to remind the American people what the founding principles were, and that anybody could change the country if they had the will and determination to believe in what was right and not let anything stand in the way of it.
The character Jefferson Smith was shown as a regular man with a strong belief in what America was founded on. He developed quite well throughout the film, starting as a naïve man and ending a strong, determined senator. Mr. Smith is seen at his strongest during the filibuster, which he does to expose the corruption to his home state, and prove his innocence. He stands, talking and quoting the constitution for over twenty-three hours straight. By the end, he is hoarse and growing weak. It isn't until Senator Paine has piles of telegrams bought in does Mr. Smith become quiet. As he digs through them, it is obvious just how tired he is, and though determined, his body just shuts down, and he collapsed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Frank Capra's movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is from 1939. At the same time, other non-American born film directors either made confused war-chaser movies like Zinnemann did, or they delivered filthy patriotic crap on the lowest possible level like the Hungarian Michael Kertesz did in his so highly-praised "Yankee Doodle" (1942). However, stop and think what Capra is showing us in the movie: It starts with a sight-seeing tour that leads into the National Capitol of Washington, directly at the basis of American history. But the rest of the movie is dedicated to present the US Senate as a bunch of liars, betrayers and crooks who are as far away from the initial American ideas and ideals as anyone just can get. Hope comes for this continent in the person of the bum-chuck Jefferson Smith whose name is, of course, not arbitrarily chosen. However, it takes even him until to the last minute, before one of the criminal leaders who had misused American freedom, welfare and thrust of the public, breaks together. I would say: This is a very brave little movie, it exudes exactly the same miraculous atmosphere of hope even in the most proceeded situations as "It is a Wonderful World", Capras unsurmountable masterpiece, does. Such form of non-trivial, non-stupid and non-unnatural form of hope only such a director could inject into his movies who had it really deep in his heart.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some of the best movies ever made are the ones that can have a great overall message, but still be loose enough for someone to enjoy it on a basic level. One example is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Another is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This movie is without a doubt a classic, and, in my opinion, Frank Capra's masterpiece. The inocence of Mr. Smith just draws you to him. This movie makes you hate the most powerful people in the nation. It also helped to show the world what political machines were capable of. But, most of all, it is yet another, and maybe the best, movie about a small man standing up to a huge adversary. The ending is one of the best ever. It ranks up their with Citizen Cane, Vertigo, Wonderful Life, and Dr. Caligari. It is a pretty basic scene, but it is executed perfectly. If I had to pick a scene to emulate James Stewart's whole career it would have to be this one. The passion in his face right before he falls to the floor is really heart-wrenching. I would recommend everyone sees this film, and then buy it, if it suits you.
Classic Americana about a young senator whose idealistic view of politics is shattered upon seeing corruption in Washington. Stewart has one of his best roles as the earnest, gawky fellow from a state that is never identified. Arthur is fabulous as his knowing secretary, and Rains, Arnold, Mitchell, and Carey fill out the fine supporting cast. As he's prone to do, Capra goes a bit overboard with sentiment and melodrama at times, but overall manages to create a film that ranks only behind "It Happened One Night" and "It's a Wonderful Life" in his oeuvre. The scenes inside the senate are well executed, although the ending is somewhat abrupt.
The best way to learn about the history and government of the United
States is to visit Washington, D.C.; Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington invites viewers to experience this through film.
The plot is interesting, if not a little absurd. When a senator from a state dies in office, a Boy Ranger head, Jefferson Smith, is appointed to replace him. Mr. Smith has no experience whatsoever with politics. Needless to say, there are greater minds at play. Mr. Smith's enthusiasm for his position is evident from his trip to Washington: immediately after leaving the train, he is captivated by the Capitol dome and takes a tour of the city. The scenes where he stands next to Lincoln's statue are immortal. The plot from there is quite unbelievable (especially the filibuster sequence), but nonetheless inspiring and educational. I don't think it was meant to be taken too seriously; it pokes fun at the nuances of the government.
The acting is excellent. James Stewart was ingenious as Mr. Smith. Claude Rains is effective as Senator Paine. Jean Arthur's portrayal of Smith's secretary Saunders is underrated. The direction from Frank Capra is great. He produces very clean cuts and cinematography. This is especially evident in the montage scene when Mr. Smith first tours Washington. The scenery, including historical monuments and the interior of the Capitol, is fascinating.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an American classic. Its themes on democracy and government are timeless. Likewise, James Stewart's performance remains as fresh as ever. It is easy to forget that the film is so old. Perhaps the most important thing that it reveals is that the past is not so different than the present.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
**** (out of 4)
A naïve Jeff Smith (James Stewart) gets elected to Senate and travels to Washington only to learn he's the only honest man in town. Here's another film that I hadn't seen for around fifteen years and again it's certainly better than I remembered and probably suits me better now as an adult than when I was a kid. While I think there are some weaknesses in the first half of the film and while it could have been cut down a tiny bit, there's no denying the shire power of the second half, which in my opinion is perhaps some of the greatest stuff ever filmed. This is all due to the incredible performance from Stewart whose speech is so heartfelt and emotional that's it's impossible not to feel for him. Claude Rains is equally brilliant as one of the greatest screen villains in history. A remarkable film to a remarkable year.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington is a truly excellent film in almost every
way possible. From the Oscar-Winning screenplay and the superb
direction of Frank Capra to the emotional and outstanding performance
of James Stewart and the rest of the cast.
I have not seen Gone With the Wind yet, but if you are to see one film from 1939, I implore you to choose this one.
It is one of the very rare films that can make you laugh and cry in the space of a couple of hours; it is for this reason, and the ones I have already previously mentioned that it is one of my all time top six films.
Well, this is interesting: this is my 100th review for IMDb, and I can
think of no better way to do that than with this masterpiece.
For my money it ranks alongside Casablanca as the best black and white movie of all time.
It's theme that Liberty should stand, and stand for something, that character must stand for something good and that the right to sit in power is a privilege not an excuse to abuse the people will always be universal. From the Greeks to the people movements the real meaning of democracy is not the chance to make the fast buck, but rather to expand and extend the human spirit to simply to build a better future from mankind.
Mr Smith is not simply idealistic it captures and encapsulates all that we would all want our governments to be, and all that we would not want them to be.
Absolutely hypnotic viewing and truly one of the greatest films ever made - some will charge it with too much sentimentality or idealism - I would argue that that's the point - we sell our dreams and ideals short - and movies at their best remind us that we can still hope, long for, and yes, even deserve a better world.
As long as future generation see films like this and Casablanca then hope lives on.
A masterpiece to be treasured and should be seen afresh again and again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
....for all the praise and accolades for "Mr. smith Goes to
Frank Capra - although I'm not a fan for any particular director, writer and/or actresses - did a great job with a wonderful script by Sidney Buchman. James Stewart ("Jefferson Smith"; Jean Arthur ("Clarissa Saunders"); Claude Rains ("Senator Paine"); Edward Arnold ("Jim Taylor"); Harry Carey ("President of The Senate"); Thomas Mitched ("drunken newsman") all did stellar roles in this movie. Everyone was right-on.
The only other comment I would like to make is: We haven't seen anything like this filibuster in many years, and that situation needs to be corrected. Of course, today it would be difficult to do - we all know our government is as about as corrupt as it could be. BUT - how does a politician get there in the first place? As all have written, this film needs to be seen in every home with every member present, and certainly should be a class all its own in every school. I remember it when it was first release and say again, re-release it with all the cannons shooting. Bravo to all !
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