Americana Movie Month: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Review

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Naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers, is appointed on a lark by the spineless governor of his state. He is reunited with the state's senior senator--presidential hopeful and childhood hero, Senator Joseph Paine. In Washington, however, Smith discovers many of the shortcomings of the political process as his earnest goal of a national boys' camp leads to a conflict with the state political boss, Jim Taylor. Taylor first tries to corrupt Smith and then later attempts to destroy Smith through a scandal.
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Americana Movie Month: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Review

-- Rating: Approved
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 1939
Directed by: Frank Capra
Genre: Drama

Director Frank Capra found success with the 1936 film "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." The success of that movie led to Capra working on a sequel, but he quickly discovered he wanted to make something a little more serious. After making some changes and adding more drama to the script, he directed "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, "It's A Wonderful Life") is a man from a small town, who finds himself living in Washington. When the senator of his state unexpectedly dies, he takes over the man's role, but he finds that things move at a faster pace in the big city. The other politicians laugh at him, he's the center of many jokes, and he wishes that he could just go back home.

Everything changes when Mr. Smith visits the Lincoln Memorial. Reading the words on the Memorial sparks a fire in his heart, and he decides that things need to change. He proposes a national camp where young boys can spend time together, and he makes it clear that he wants the camp to happen. Smith must go up against Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, "Lawrence of Arabia"), but he gets some help from Clarissa (Jean Arthur, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"), who believes in his dream.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" gave Capra the chance to make a statement on the state of politics in 1930s America. Politicians no longer had the best interests of their constituents in mind, and Capra found that many of those politicians were only concerned with the impact that changes had on their own lives. He cast Stewart in the lead role because he knew that his doe-eyed innocence would come across well on the big screen and make viewers root for the man.

Stewart received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Smith, and watching the film now, it's almost shocking that he didn't win. He starts out as a man with no idea about what he's doing, but he later transitions into a man willing to do whatever it takes to make his dream a reality. When he stands in front of the Senate and begins talking about his dream, he owns the film. The longer he stands at the podium, talking and trying to show others why he feels the way he does, the more viewers will want him to come out on top.

Rains received an Academy Award nomination himself for his role as Smith's nemesis, Joseph Paine. Paine is Capra's version of the typical corrupt politician. Despite knowing that Smith has a good point, and that he wants something which could benefit thousands of people, Paine doesn't want to help him. He is willing to do anything to stop Smith's plans, especially as those plans interfere with his own ideas.

The film also has a number of supporting roles that help further the story. Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold, "Meet John Doe") is one of those movers and shakers that only exist behind the scenes. He not only handpicks Smith for a Senate seat but also convinces Paine they can use Smith for their own agendas. Taylor thinks he can manipulate Smith because of his lack of experience in Washington. Arnold is the perfect man to play Taylor. With a scowl on his face and a puff of his chest, he looks like the type of imposing man that anyone would be afraid to go up against.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" gave cinema-goers of the 1930s an inside look at the political system in America. The film was shocking during its own time, and some politicians actually left the theater in the middle of the film. Some even claimed that the film was anti-American because it portrayed politicians in such a negative light. With the scandals embroiling politicians in the current age, it's clear that Capra's cinematic vision was a foretaste of what was to come.

Many reasons exist as to why "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" endures, but much of its success is because of Stewart. Stewart made a name for himself playing the role of the everyman. He had a quiet innocence about him that made him seem like someone a viewer might see walking down the street or living next door. This film gave him the chance to stand up for himself and show that he had more range as an actor.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" tells the classic tale of good versus evil by using what was then modern politics as its stage. While politics may have changed over the years, something about the story endures. By the time that the credits roll, viewers will wish that they had a Mr. Smith standing up for their best interests.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars