July 4 Film Friday: Frank Capra’s ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ with James Stewart

No filmmaker had a more positive view of America than Frank Capra. Beginning with American Madness in 1934, Capra began a cycle of films centered on the American dream – at least the American Dream According To Frank Capra. Whether it involved an old woman becoming the toast of high society in Lady for a Day or a hick becoming a millionaire overnight in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Capra made his definitive version of this country clear. He saw the U.S. of A. as a world of idealists who need to overcome incredible odds to see their dreams come true. Often, they never expect an opportunity to and when they finally get it, they must see it through.

That vision came to a head in his last two films for Columbia, You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). These two films are unquestionably his masterworks, the films that define Frank Capra and always will. For some, Mr. Smith might even be the only Capra film they have seen aside from It’s A Wonderful Life. While you’d be missing out on a lot of great filmmaking if that’s the case, Mr. Smith will tell you all you need to know about Capra.

The titular Mr. Smith is Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a Boy Scout leader from an unnamed Midwest state, who is appointed a Senator. He doesn’t realize that he’s supposed to be a stooge for a political machine, so he follows his idealistic dreams of getting something done in Washington. His idea is to create a national boys camp in his state. The trouble is that his proposed camp would be right where political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) wants a dam. In an attempt to really kill Jeff’s dreams, Taylor has Jeff’s hero, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), try to put a stop to it.

However, in Capra’s world, the idealist hero always has enough supporters to make the dream come true when all hope seems lost. And Mr. Smith has the best supporting cast Hollywood could put together. Every line of dialogue in this film that’s not delivered by James Stewart is still delivered by an amazing actor, beginning with the lovely Jean Arthur. She plays Saunders, the cynical secretary who worked for Jeff’s predecessor, but warms up to Jeff. (It’s interesting that in this film, the woman starts out with the heart of stone that needs to be melted by the man, rather than the other way around.) Arthur was a Capra regular and, just coming off You Can’t Take It With You with Stewart, it was clear that they had great chemistry.

The rest of the cast is a collection of who’s who of great Hollywood character actors. As with nearly every great movie of 1939, Thomas Mitchell is here as Saunder’s reporter friend. (No one… absolutely no one could act drunk as well as Mitchell.) Claude Rains is at his very best as Paine, as Edward Arnold gives another evil job for Capra. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see legends like Porter Hall, Beulah Bondi (what movie isn’t she in?), Guy Kibbee, H.B. Warner and (a super young) Jack Carson.

But the best character actor in here is Western legend Harry Carey, who gives a brilliant performance as the President of the Senate. This could have been a faceless part, but Capra cast Carey, who could do so much more than deliver a few lines. Carey even earned an Oscar nomination for the role, acting as a member of the audience. The only difference, of course, is that he’s actually in the film.

Capra’s direction seems to be taken for granted. We think of his as a great actor’s director, but he was also a genius at film technique. He knew how to use the camera to reach the audience’s gut. Look at the immaculate close-ups of Arthur’s face during Stewart’s stirring speeches. For Capra, the reactions of actors were just as important as the actors speaking and it tells the audience how to feel at that particular moment. We see that Arthur has completely bought into Stewart’s idealism, a feeling that the audience should also get, if they haven’t already. (Some members of the audience may ask, “What took her so long?”) There’s a reason why Capra won two of the first 10 Best Director Oscars.

On Home Video: Sony has not released any of Capra’s classics on Blu-ray, an absolute travesty. The studio is licensing out pretty much all of the Columbia catalog, so even a title like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington will probably come from a small label at some point. In the meantime, we have to settle for the DVD, which also comes in the gorgeous Premiere Frank Capra Collection, which includes four other Capra classics.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is the essential Frank Capra movie. While You Can’t Take It With You is this author’s personal favorite, Mr. Smith really sums up what the American dream meant for Capra and should mean today. We should have a society where anyone can make a difference in government. Scary enough as it may sound, the film will never go out of date, 75 years later, as long as there are people to fight for that to become true.

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