Since the beginning of the art form, movies have generally fallen into two categories: the realistic, and the fantastic (fantasy-based). There are some that point out that the films of Frank Capra unduly fall into the latter, that they are completely far-fetched and fastened in their own time, and even invented a pejorative term "Capra-esque" to describe any non-cynical, heartwarming picture that has a message. His great films, like It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, and of course, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, are not fixed in a single era, but all eras, the truest definition of a classic. And considering it was released among true powerhouses in 1939, a year as important to movies as 1998 was to baseball, its ideals, story, and general excellence shine as bright today as it did over 60 years ago.
A Senator from an unnamed, middle America state dies and a new one must be appointed by Governor Hubert Hopper, a puppet whose strings are held by newspaper magnate Jim Taylor. They need to find one that would be easily controlled by the now-senior Senator Joseph Paine (played brilliantly by Claude Rains), so a bill allowing a building of a dam near land by the Willett Creek owned by Taylor can pass in the Senate. After his initial choice is rejected by Taylor, and Taylor's handpicked man is shot down by the public, the governor chooses Jefferson Smith, played to perfection by James Stewart, a boy scout leader and local hero who is both wholly idealistic in his patriotism for America but naive and blind to the actual process. After he gets embarrassed by the local print media, Mr. Smith begins to learn the harsh realities of DC. Paine, Smith's boyhood hero, takes him under his wing and suggests that Smith try to create a bill. Smith agrees, and with his assistant, Clarissa Saunders (played by Jean Arthur), they create a bill to create a campground for boys from all over the country to learn about each other and the civic process, much to the initial dissuasion by Saunders. Smith then wants to choose a site near the Willett Creek, the same site where the dam is to be built and when his superiors and true string-pullers find that out, major complications ensue.
Although the basic premise is David vs. Goliath, the story is wholly originally and was probably one of the earliest pictures to suggest the government as corrupt. The characters are played excellently by all principal actors, with Mr. Smith you root for whole-heartedly, Mr. Taylor you root against for his sheer arrogance and greed, and Mr. Paine, who you pity as you see a man who lost his initial zest to serve the public and is now a jaded shell of his former self. A great performance was given by Harry Carey, Sr., who plays the Vice President/President of the Senate for comic relief. The lines where completely believable and the parts of Smith's final filibuster that were shown give the most impact. There is a beautifully shot scene with images of the monuments and sights of Washington with several national anthems synchronized as the score. The climax is as tension-packed as drama can get, and while the ending may seem rather sudden, and everything isn't completely or neatly resolved, it works perfectly and ends the movie on a happy note.
Obviously, few if any people elected to public office has the moral character, conviction, and general good heartedness of Jefferson Smith, and I doubt whether the government would be better if it was. The movie showed an ideal, a supposed "lost cause" of truth in government. And although it is next to impossible for Capra and the eternal good guy Jimmy Stewart to ever fully change the world of politics with just a motion picture, at least it shows that maybe once in a great while, being the good guy has its definite rewards. If (using the same analogy of the 1998 baseball season) The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa of 1939 moviemaking, then this would be like Cal Ripken voluntarily ending his Iron Man Streak, something done with full class and the highest respect in mind, and that elevates an ideal of being the good guy and sticking to your dedication brings the greatest of riches. This picture is flawless in all respects and a true classic, with thought-provoking ideas, wit, a little bit of platonic romance, and an excellent cinematography and score, and deserves the rank as a 10 out of 10. And in giving this rating, either I'm damn right or I'm crazy.
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