It's hard to believe but it's been over eight years since I first saw this film from Frank Capra, and consequentially its been eight years since the last time I saw it. Time has done nothing to diminish my initial reaction and if anything the film is even better in my eyes. Mr. Smith was made in the fabled year of 1939, where all the stars aligned in classic Hollywood and lightning seemed to strike a dozen times. Just look at character actor Thomas Mitchell who appeared in this film as well as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame all in 1939. In many ways Mr. Smith Goes to Washington seems like the perfect example of 1939. The last of Frank Capra's films for Columbia Pictures and a film that seemed to sum up all of the idealism that went into the New Deal. Watching the film today you wonder how it even was made, like a modern day fable that although of its time is powerfully relevant.
2008 is an election year and as such we're going to be bombarded with lots of junk about politicians for the rest of the year. Character attacks, bland promises, and us voting for who we think is the most attractive puppet. Mr. Smith comments on an America that lost its ideals, whose politicians make deals with the devil in order to presumably do some good. When Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) tries to explain things to Jeff Smith (Jimmy Stewart) we almost believe him, and feel that he is sincere when saying that in order to do good you have to make deals with the James Taylor's (Edward Arnold) of the world. Power comes in election and as we are reminded of more and more people don't vote. Paine has lost sight of his original ideals and is hell bent on his dream of becoming the president, a position Taylor has promised him with the help of his all powerful machine. Paine is a man who we want to respect because Smith respects him. Rains plays Paine as a fallen angel who struggles with his conscience for much of the film. The overwhelming idea for the "good" characters in the film is that they don't want to see country bumpkin Smith lose his idealistic view of this great nation.
The casting is rather inspired. Had the original cast played out it would have been Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington. I do think Gary Cooper would be a great Senator in this regard but there's something about him that doesn't seem to be able to grasp the whole "gee whiz" posturing that Stewart perfected here. Stewart also seems positioned between late adolescence, a man with the youthful energy and big ideas of the most excited young boy, but not quite wise to the darker side of things. His innocence is coveted by many in the film who view him as a genuine "Daniel Boone". He appears awfully green but as the type of American we had always envisioned as children would be the people leading our country. Full of energy to do good things and a man who can appear father and mentor to nearly all the children in the country (at least his state). His mentoring ability seems genuine and if it were made today our jaded 21st century post-Michael Jackson sensibilities would be to assume the man is a pedophile, but it doesn't even cross our minds here. This is a leader of men who wants to teach kids about America and what this country stands for.
I've never really noticed Capra's direction before but he was in fine form here. Capra had won three best directing Oscars in five years (a record that still stands) and felt naturally he could do no wrong. Continuity is spot on here and the framing seems to be perfectly suited. Take a look at the scene where Smith runs into Senator Paine's lovely daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn) and the camera stays below their wastes and all we see is Smith clumsily fumbling with his hat. The case of the elusive hat returns when Susan calls him on the phone and there is even a joke to buy him a hat that will stay on his head. It's a subtle move that doesn't have much to do with the plot but says an awful lot about Smith and his nearly complete incomprehension of the opposite sex. Even on first meeting we are not convinced on Susan. She is introduced to us and Smith as one of five girls requesting a donation. She doesn't particularly stand out from the other pretty faces and it is only when Paine introduces her do we even know she's someone besides a charity case. Nothing to slight Astrid Allwyn but she is far from the beauty queen top billed Jean Arthur is.
The relationship between the two is built in a wonderful fashion. For starters Smith never really seems to lose his nerve with Saunders (Arthur). He has roughly three stages with her. First he calls her Miss Saunders, then while writing his bill with her they warm up to the point of him calling her just Saunders like everyone else. It is at this point that Smith seems to step out of his complete buffoonery and is able to look at Saunders as something of an equal. He never completely loses his cool but you can catch a few glances and pauses in his speech that lets us know he is getting slightly distracted with his well qualified secretary. By the end of the film once they are in love does he have the nerve to call her Clarissa, her first name that he learns while writing the bill. Her transition is in a separate trajectory. Smith "wakes up" to the world of politics while Saunders slowly regains her faith in the American dream. Smith makes her a believer just as he had already won over the boys in the country, and as he almost instantly wins us over. She in turn educates him on how to go about getting anything done and is his very noticeable coach, feeding him careful advice during his filibuster that lasts over 23 hours.
Robert Donat won an Oscar in 1939 for his portrayal of an energetic young school teacher who enriches the lives of several generations of boys in Goodbye Mr. Chips, yet Stewart has almost the same character arch in only a matter of weeks, producing the same result of endearing the youngest boy to a senior senator. Stewart is able to be funny in goofy way as well as witty, clumsy and finally confident. His transition is complete and although most people are either won or lost in regards to his coarse voiced final collapse, the performance was commanding from the start. It's nearly impossible not to feel some of his enthusiasm for the capital and this country, although at times like Saunders conveys sometimes you just want to sedate the boy.
I found myself at odds with a friend of mine who had only recently started watching Capra's films. He hated Mr. Smith and desperately wanted Gary Cooper to kill himself at the end of Meet John Doe. Perhaps there is a cynicism in him that can't express the deliberately populist sentiments in Capra's films. However I find it nearly impossible not to love his films, particularly this one. It reminds me that at least at one point in time this country stood for something and that maybe we all can individually defeat the Taylor's of the world.