Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Containing my joy at this film may or may not prove difficult. I suspected long ago that it would appear to my sensibilities, as it’s the kind of manipulation I am inevitably happy to fall prey to. It is the essence of what being American means to Frank Capra and the essence of what Capra means to the film world and the world on the whole.

Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart, an absolute knockout in this role–I may not have seen Goodbye Mr. Chips, but I have difficulty believing it matters, I have no idea how Stewart could have lost–but then I have to get into how on earth Capra lost or the film itself lost and so on and so forth) is a “nobody” of a “Boy Ranger” leader (apparently the Boy Scouts of America, in one of their earlier boneheaded moves, did not wish to be associated) from a small town who lives for nature and an extreme pride in his country and boundless patriotism. When one of the senators from his state dies, Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibber, a nervous and balding goof, perfect for the simpering wuss of a politician–though apparently involved in many of Busby Berkeley’s movies, it seems) is tasked with appointing a new one, and he is directed by Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold, playing a role slightly similar to the one in You Can’t Take It with You, but without any redeeming qualities whatsoever–and he is good at it) to appoint one “Horace Miller,” but after a scene in which a load of his own children (he appears to have around eight–almost all boys) chastise him for such a poor choice, he must decide between Miller and the reformer his party wants. When he flips a coin, it manages to land on its edge, and so he shrugs and happily chooses the man his children pressured him to take up–Jefferson Smith. Smith is then taken to Washington to carry out his new role, hopefully not interfering with the graft section of a bill Taylor directed his colleague Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, whose name always leads me to The Invisible Man, despite his many, many other laudable roles). Unfortunately, Paine’s suggestion to distract Smith from this bill manages to send him into direct conflict with it–he proposes a bill which requires the use of the very same land that Taylor and Paine wish to acquire for their venture. He must then fight the controlling machine Taylor heads, one which owns senators, newspapers and much of public opinion.

It is, of course, another story of the small, every day honest man fighting the corruption, greed and greed that is bigger than him–and a sideways fight against the cynicism that allows that corruption to occur. Everyone around him, down to his aide Saunders (Jean Arthur, her third picture with Capra) who (of course) eventually falls in love with him urges him to stay out of this world he has found himself in, telling him constantly that he is too good for it, in a ways encouraging his ignorance of the horrors of the “man’s world” he now occupies. Of course this is really about preserving the integrity of his character as an honest, decent, well-meaning man, one who is shocked and disgusted by corruption, one who believes in democracy, believes in the people and not the machines, systems and collectives that they may or may not be represented by. Many characters, like Paine, are secretly decent enough, but have resigned themselves to the inevitable cruelty of the world. Taylor is a full-fledged villain, some of the tactics he resorts to are theatrical, though they come off as believable anyway. Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette, who I shall be forced to refer to as “he of the perpetual throat-frog”) is the right hand man of Taylor and tries to carry out his wishes, cynical, sarcastic and judgmental of the fledgling Senator Smith, and Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) is his philosophical companion of sorts, or rather the equivalent on the “other side.” Moore is a reporter and friend of Saunders (whose first name is an amusing mystery for Smith, in case you’re wondering why I haven’t stated it) who has left an open proposal with her. He shrugs at the corruption around him and simply carries out the wishes of the newspaper, though he is swayed to support Smith by the lovesick Saunders.

I was a little uncomfortable near the beginning of the film, when Smith first arrives in Washington and, in a daze, finds himself touring the city and gazing reverentially at the monuments, especially the Lincoln Memorial, as I’ve never felt patriotism in that exact fashion, and the montage (complete with patriotic music) that played during this period, with a literal waving flag even, felt just slightly over the top–but at the same time it was an over the top feeling for Smith, and I feel it’s very likely a feeling Capra himself shared in some capacity, based on many of his choices in films. The portrayal of the twisted and self-invested government figures that followed–though they do note that this is hardly a majority, that Taylors and Paines simply case long shadows over them all–were controversial, criticized by many groups at the time and leading to curious desires to ban–and a strangely opposite effect under totalitarian regimes that allegedly edited the film to tow the party line. This does contrast somewhat sharply if one does not think “correctly” of the meaning of the country and patriotism, seeming to reflect poorly on the system itself–and so it does, but only on the system and its parts allowing business to control any elements thereof. But behind it is a clear and obvious message of respect and love for country and freedom that underlie this obvious criticism of personal human weakness. No, it is not the government, nor the people, nor the positions that are being criticized, but the way these things are treated or ignored, the way things like a Jim Taylor are allowed to happen.

Jimmy had an interesting career, one I’ve started to notice had a sort of clear line between his youthful exuberant style (this film, You Can’t Take It with You, The Philadelphia Story, etc) where he appears as a handsome but lanky, loveable sort, often naïve and kind, almost always enthusiastic, and his later appearance, seemingly shrunken even within a few years, more filled out, with bags under his eyes and a respectful and authoritative aura around him–roles like the ones in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or The Shootist–or The Flight of the Phoenix to bring up one that doesn’t involve Mr. Wayne, nevermind his films with Hitch. I can’t think of too many other actors who seem to have two such disparate periods and airs, some have gradually rolled their way into one or another–and perhaps Jimmy did, too, and I’ve just not seen the bridge–but the image I have of him in those later films as opposed to the smilier one of his earlier ones is so different as to almost feel like a separate actor. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think of him here, even toward the end, filibustering for 23 hours straight, unshaven, raspy and shaky, and I think of the image that graces the cover of Shenandoah and my mind has trouble connecting the two. Neither feels like a limitation, of course. Never do I get the impression that young Jimmy could not be a dark, brooding and downtrodden man (in some ways, said filibustering Smith is just that) nor that the latter-day Stewart could not be carefree (I suppose at some point there were physical limitations on this front, but such things can be avoided). The most fascinating bit of performance out of him alone was a closeup Capra does on him while he sits outside the Lincoln Memorial after his short and ridiculous trial–he sobs quietly to himself and shows all the pain of betrayal by a system he loves, abandonment by all and resignation to a fate he can’t seem to win against, and the dull, glassy-eyed look that changes to exuberance when Saunders comes up to him.

Capra shows his eye, though, in another great bit of business from Stewart. When speaking with the beautiful daughter of Senator Paine, Susan (Astrid Allwyn), he is so nervous that he can’t seem to keep his hat in his hands. He shuffles it back and forth between hands, holds it in front of himself, behind, wringing it, grasping the brim, circling and rotating it, dropping it constantly and absent-mindedly, picking it up without a thought each time he drops it–and Capra shows us this conversation purely by viewing the hat. It doesn’t matter what Susan or Jeff are saying, what matters is the reaction Jeff has to her–he can’t even hold onto his hat, and the way he drops and picks it up repeatedly–it’s completely real, and the way that someone nervous but fairly confident of themselves is. They do something silly like keep picking up their hat, but they don’t back away or constantly blush or become quiet for it, simply rolling their eyes at themselves internally and continuing to do it.

The ending, though–holy cow. Once the intrigue really starts, from about the time Taylor threatens to crush Smith up until the final moments–goodness me, what a gripping set of writing and performance. You cannot help but love Jeff by this point–as with most of Capra’s characters, he shows that his naïveté is not a symptom of stupidity but a sheltered honesty that has managed to survive into adulthood. He will stand up for himself and he does know what’s going on, he just does not suspect sometimes that people can be as rotten as they are, or that systems can be so abused as they can be. So there we see the railroading of a man who has done no wrong that we have seen, we see despicable treatment of him by anyone and everyone, watch him nearly flushed away, then watch as he rises up and takes a stand for the things he believes in–he stands and filibusters for 23 and a half hours in the face of total and complete opposition from the entire Senate, and against the far-reaching powers of Jim Taylor. We see what others will do for him and we see what Taylor will do TO them, and we begin wondering if maybe, just maybe, Capra didn’t want to end things on a positive note this time. Maybe this time the power of greed will win over the little man. Maybe this time we’ll get that more modern ending. Maybe this time we’ll see him crushed and there won’t be anything left and we’ll be left as drained as Jeff appears when those telegrams appear, the ones he’s holding and staring at on the fantastic cover of the solo release of this film–an image that stuck with me like few others, one that immediately caught my attention and imagination.

Does Capra give in to cynicism this time? Well, you probably already know the answer, but I’m still not telling. It’s amazing, though, that even with his reputation for what I’ve now heard amusingly termed “Capra-corn,” he could pull off that kind of amazing, gripping tension. The kind of skill required in something like that is a lot greater than it seems some realize–for all the criticism levelled at his themes and approaches, actually making them work is something completely different, and Capra does it. He has rapidly made his way up to one of my favourite directors, and this is now without a doubt one of my favourite films

Final note: I mumbled in my review of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town that the two titles and their similarity was a bit ridiculous. It seems, though, that originally Gary Cooper was intended to reprise his role as Deeds and return here (possibly explaining the short subplot where Smith socks a good many reporters for misrepresenting him, recalling Deeds’ own approach to such things) for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington,” but was unavailable. No offense to Mr. Cooper (who is disliked by altogether too many folk I know) but I’ve gotta say I’m glad we ended up with Jimmy instead, who I’ve always found instantly endearing. Strange, though, that the title that was originally designed is the one that feels less natural to me than the one that was designed as a grammatically parallel title. I do think Mr. Smith did “go” to Washington, even though I feel Deeds actually did “come” to town.
OK, that wasn’t the final note–it was nice to see Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael in You Can’t Take It with You) make a brief appearance as a reporter questioning Smith, and Harry Carey ends up with a fun role as President of the Senate, a role that continues the theme of the “judges” of the previous few films, this time combining the carefree judge of You Can’t Take It with You with the hardlining and serious approach of the one in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town–again nice to see variation, and nice to see the multiracial set of Boy Rangers supporting Smith in contrast to the uncomfortably racist undertones of some bits of You Can’t Take It with You.

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