Friday, November 5, 2010

Day 119: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #113
Year: 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart and Jean Arthur

Hey, I'm blogging two things tonight, so for the first time in a week, I'm actually going to be caught up! (Well, relatively caught up. I'm a week behind, but we all knew that. I won't make up for that for a while yet.) With the American elections just five days behind us now, it makes a lot of sense for me to blog the greatest movie about democracy ever made, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is the story of a gleaming idealist appointed to a Senate seat and promptly crushed by the cynical machinations of Congress. It reflects exactly how I feel about the state of American democracy right now! But seriously, folks, this film is an absolute masterpiece, and James Stewart is as wonderful as Jefferson Smith as he has ever been in any role. I've seen him be great in at least six or seven movies, but this really feels like the role he was born for. And Jean Arthur is old-timey gorgeous in a way that only Grace Kelly has ever topped, but that's neither here nor there.

Interestingly enough, the big heroic move that Jefferson Smith makes when the Senate is trying to kill all his ideas about funding a boys' camp is to stage a filibuster. Now, in 1939 this might have been fairly innocent – Strom Thurmond hadn't yet filibustered to prevent Civil Rights legislation from going through, and it wasn't a very commonly used tactic. So portraying the filibuster in a heroic light wasn't questionable. Nowadays, I'm pretty sure I want legislation passed to outlaw it – legislation that, ironically, would certainly be filibustered. It's a terrible, powerful thing that was meant to prevent tyranny and now prevents progress. But hey, here it was a way for Jefferson Smith to stop graft, so whatever. It's played in the same way that Henry Fonda would play his jury duty in 12 Angry Men eighteen days later, and for what it's worth, it does stir up civic pride. Unfortunately for civic pride, for much of the movie, Smith is bossed around and trampled by longtime senators with their pockets full of money from special interest groups, and it paints a depressing picture of democracy. This was 1939, though, so the film bends over backwards to resolve everything and make the message unambiguously positive at the ending. Still, the seed is planted, and most people in the pre-cable news era probably went home from the cinema with a bummed out, realistic vision of how Congress works that they didn't have before.

Pound for pound, though, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my favorite movies of the 1930s, perhaps second only to All Quiet on the Western Front. It's the perfect film to show in a high school civics or government class, and it sees James Stewart giving his most impassioned performance ever – and this is a guy who paid his bills with extremely impassioned performances. It's a movie that every American should see, and one that most foreigners can probably appreciate.

The Good: Stewart's performance. He makes a case for my favorite old-timey actor, the definition of old-timey being completely open to the reader's interpretation.

The Bad: When Paine tells everyone the truth and we all live happily ever after. How crazy would it be if he just killed himself?

The Skinny: I can dig it at #113.


  1. Haven't seen the last two, but you got me interested in Vendetta.
    By the way, have you seen Social Network yet?

  2. Yep, it was very good, with some excellent performances, and I like the "Rashomon-style" storytelling (even though I hate the term "Rashomon-style") - but it's still very overrated. People are saying Best Picture, and if that's true, then this was a disappointing year.