WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains
Release Date: October 17, 1939 (USA)
**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT DETAILS**
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was released at a rather rough time for the United States Government. Roosevelt was in the middle of his presidency for America between a rock and a hard place (or rather, the Great Depression and World War II) and could do anything but stand still. Where some films in 1939 took you into another world to forget about the national troubles (The Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind), Mr. Smith shined a light on the US Government, and a particularly bright light at that.
The film as also released at a time where Capra was becoming a frontrunner in American filmmakers. He had just won Best Picture and Director from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for 1938's You Can't Take It With You, as well as dominating 1934 in cinema for It Happened One Night, the first film to win the five major Academy Awards and one of three to do so as this review is being written (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence Of The Lambs are the only other two) and James Stewart was a relatively unknown actor, soon to become a star and an Academy Award nominee.
The story follows an idealistic politician, Jefferson Smith, appointed to fill a spot in the US Senate. Smith soon discovers the Senate's corrupt underbelly and vows to expose it. The timelessness of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington comes from a fantastic performance from James Stewart, one of his finest performances, Capra's seamless direction and production design, and the inspiring anecdote of the film. What a generic saying "You will cheer after watching!" is, used by critics to emphasize the triumphant nature of a film, but Mr. Smith is such a powerful film that inspires audiences everywhere. But at its core, Mr. Smith isn't a political film at all, but rather a true underdog story rooted in the halls of the US Senate. Even with some friends made in the Senate, Jefferson is truly an underdog when put up against 99 other members. Like any occasional sports movie, the underdog must rise from his place and claim victory in the picture's finale. But it's not a sports game at stake; it's the future of the nation.
Capra, as expected, had major troubles financing and getting the film produced in Hollywood. Many studio executives turned Capra down in fear of losing credibility. But Capra, a fearless and audacious director and filmmaker, even with some studios practically begging him to drop the project for the benefit of the industry, followed through on his ambition. The film was eventually acquired by Columbia Pictures. During production, Capra realized he could not photograph anything in the Senate, forcing him to recreate the sets on a Columbia backlot, using the help of a former Senate gallery member. This impeccable attention to detail is still astounding to see today, a hallmark of production design in the 1930s.
Stewart deserved Best Actor for this performance; he was nominated, but his performance is so electric in this film, and you truly become this underdog with him. He would eventually have three better performances, but he is unforgettable here as Jefferson Smith here. Rains and Arthur author their supporting performances, and Rains is, as always, iconic in his role.
The cinematography is fantastic, and is very useful of the production design. The editing is not very good, unfortunately, and detracts from the film as a whole. The musical score is forgettable as well, and is a poor substitute for what could be a possibly patriotic soundtrack. The story is also very rushed in the first 15 minutes, and an attempt for an elaborate introduction is thrown out the door within minutes.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has flaws, for sure. But no one can deny its historical and cinematic relevance, including a phenomenal performance by Jimmy Stewart and an inspiring screenplay. The film itself has issues in the final cut, for sure, but Mr. Smith Goes To Washington combines realistic acting and important messages on American politics to create one of the finest-crafted films of 1939.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.