Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

My first knowledge of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came from an episode of The Simpsons, which had Homer helping Mel Gibson spice up the ending to Mel's remake of this classic.  If you're unfamiliar with the episode, check it out here.  I took a few tidbits away from that show.  First, never dismiss the power of shifty eyes.  Second, there is apparently very little vigilante justice in the original Mr. Smith.  Years went by, and I never got around to seeing the movie.  One day, I got curious and researched it a little and was impressed by what I found.  It was directed by Frank Capra, who also directed It's a Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace, two of my favorite movies from Hollywood's Golden Age.  It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, (including Best Actor for James Stewart, Director for Capra, and Best Picture) but won only one because it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz.  It is also ranked right around #100 on IMDB's Top 250 rated films, of which I have seen about 180.  Pitiful, I know.  So, with high expectations and a desire to slowly chip away at my IMDB 250 checklist, I rented Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

So...many...paper cuts...!

After one of his state's US Senators dies in office, the corrupt Governor "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) is faced with a pickle of a problem (to use the parlance of the times).  You see, Happy's string-pulling political boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), wants Happy to appoint one of his stooges, a yes man that will do whatever Taylor tells him to.  However, the people of Happy's unnamed state are quite vocal with their displeasure for that idea; they want to see a reform-minded man in office.  Happy's children suggest Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the head of the Boy Scouts Rangers.  Happy knows that he can't cross Taylor and win his next re-election, but he also can't antagonize his constituents further with his obvious ties to the political boss.  So, thanks to a pretty unlikely coin flip, he chooses Jefferson Smith to be the junior Senator for Monfornirado (that's just my logical guess as to his state).  So, if you've ever wondered how politicians can make some of their choices, now you know: they listen to their children.

Mr. Smith is just flattered at the invitation and the chance to do Senator things with his state's senior Senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a dear friend of Smith's late father.  All's well in Washington, right?  Not so fast.  Senator Paine might seem sincere, but he is secretly a stooge of Jim Taylor.  "No, not Senator Paine!?!"  I'm sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but it's true.  The Taylor political machine has a scam in the works to skim money off a publicly funded dam; Senator Paine is in on the deal and is the primary supporter of the bill needed to put the scam in motion.  Jefferson Smith starts out, essentially, like a tourist in a new city; everyone knows that he was appointed to be a seat-filler and not accomplish anything, so nobody takes him seriously.  To keep Smith busy, Paine suggests that he write and propose a bill to the Senate.  Being the head Boy Ranger, Smith wants to create a national boy's camp in his home state...exactly where the proposed dam is supposed to be built.  When he proposes his bill, Jefferson Smith, the country wolf to Paine's city wolf, suddenly becomes an unwitting enemy of the Taylor machine.
Like you wouldn't pay to see Jimmy "Aww Shucks" Stewart as a sex-crazed wolf.
Normally, any opponent of Taylor finds himself ground to dust in a matter of hours; Taylor has politicians and newspapermen (remember those?) in every pocket, and he likes to destroy his enemy and salt the earth so they can never grow again.  But Taylor has never faced Jefferson Smith, a man willing to fight back because he believes in the god-blessed U. S. of A.

For being made 30+ years before Watergate, this movie has a pretty modern view on how politics work.  I imagine that, at the time, this was a pretty controversial take on the political body; more importantly, this cynicism prevents Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from feeling like a movie made in 1939.  And yet, despite this cynicism, the underlying tone is unabashedly idealistic.  You just don't see movies that are this earnest any more. 

Okay, so the tone of the movie is both in step and out of step with our times.  How does the acting hold up?  Well, let me put it to you like this: I love me some Jimmy Stewart.  Personally, I'm fonder of his later performances, but the young James Stewart was no slouch, either.
Jimmy, about to make a very racist joke.
It is very difficult to play an earnest character without making him a comic character or overly melodramatic, but Stewart plays the part perfectly.  Really, the Jefferson Smith character is perhaps the personification of the American ideal (hard-working, optimistic, can-do, honest, etc.), and it's hard to take a character that goodie-goodie and make him...well, not annoying.  Stewart infuses his role with charm, wit, genuine emotions, and a childlike innocence, so that when he goes on about how great America is, I somehow get something stuck in my eye every time.  He doesn't fight his battle on his own, though; Jean Arthur does a good job as the jaded Washington insider that falls for Smith and his dreams, despite her better judgment.  Really, the entire cast is pretty special.  Thomas Mitchell (who won an Oscar for Stagecoach that same year) was also fun as a drunken reporter.  This film also has two actors that were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for their work, Claude Rains and Harry Carey.
"Holy cow!  I got nominated for an Oscar?  Let me put my pants on..."  No, I said Carey, not Caray.
Rains' character is a little melodramatic for my taste, but he plays the part well enough.  Carey has a very small part in the film and it is mostly nonverbal, but I really liked his portrayal of the Vice President/President of the Senate.  I think it's cool that a bit part full of smirks and sideways glances could get an Oscar nomination, and this was a fun role.  The rest of the cast is okay, but these were the standouts.

Frank Capra really knew how to make movies that were appealing to everyone.  I wouldn't normally think of a story of political disenchantment as something I would enjoy, but Capra is able to blend humor and drama together to great effect.  While I don't think the camera work in this film is particularly outstanding, the scenes were framed well (lots of pretty pictures) and the Capra is a master craftsman when it comes to telling a story.  As the three acting Oscar nominations suggest, Capra worked well with the cast as a whole and Stewart in particular, which is one reason why this was Jimmy's breakout performance.

Capra's dramas tend to be morality tales, with all the good and bad that implies.  Yes, he creates likable everyman characters that overcome fantastic odds, but there are rarely shades of gray with his characters; you are either on the side of angels, or you're a bad, bad man.  With Mr. Smith, we have a extremely likable everyman that believes in the principles of our government; that earnest innocence is appealing, but also sometimes a tad corny.  Of course, that corniness is part of James Stewart's charm, so it doesn't detract from the film.  However, Capra has some tendencies toward "wah-wah" moments that add more corniness to the film than I would like.  The early scene where Governor Hopper flips a coin to decide who to appoint is a good example of this; heads, he appoints a Taylor stooge, tails he appoints a reformer --- but the coin lands on its side?!?  Wah-wah!  I also rolled my eyes when Smith begins his famous filibuster scene, which caused all the newsmen to be super excited; one even called the filibuster the most exciting moment in politics.  All I can say to that is "wow."  Those are small complaints, though.  This is still a great movie that has aged remarkably well in the past seventy years.  If you haven't seen it yet, it will give you a smile and a warm, fuzzy feeling.

1 comment:

  1. This was originally a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (notice the subtle title similarities), but Gary Cooper did not want to reprise his role. You should check it out. I highly enjoy both, but I am a sucker for Jean Arthur.