Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Director: Frank Capra
Jimmy Stewart was born to say “aww shucks”. He represents a sort of idealized version of the American dream that people used to buy into hook, line, and sinker. They bought into thanks in part to movie directors such as Frank Capra who made it their business to ensure we all bought into the message. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has both actor and director at the peak of their ability. Stewart here plays a young adult leader of a group of Boy Scouts (although not by that name here)who is selected for a position in congress because of his homey appeal and hero status to millions of children (and their parents, who can vote) but also because he seems just like the kind of naïve kind of hayseed who when push comes to shove, they will be able to easily control. They find out differently however, as Stewart stands up for his ideals throughout the movie even in spite of enormous persecution.
The trouble begins when Smith’s handler, Joe Pain, himself a pawn of the lobbyist Jim Taylor, tries to enlist the young idealistic Smith (unwittingly to him) in a graft scheme that is fronted by a proposal to build a camp site for young boys. The bill would actually rob the youngsters to put money into the aforementioned dam-building graft scheme. Smith will have none of it and so Taylor decides to use his considerable clout to ruin the young man’s reputation, which owning several newspapers, he does promptly. Smith then makes his famous final stand on the senate floor in an epic filibuster designed to expose the corruption of men like Pain and Taylor to the rest of the unsuspecting nation.
The famous filibuster scene was one of the best performances of Stewart’s career. I’m far from a softy, but I still manage to get a little choked up when Stewart, whose character has been carrying on for many hours at this point, collapses next to a stack of trashcans full of defamatory letters brought in to discredit him. From which point he gets up and begins the “lost cause” portion of his speech. This bit of sincere showmanship, rather unrealistically, guilt trips the true guilty party in attendance to admit to the rightness of Stewart’s cause, and to the corruption of his own actions. The love interest storyline in the middle portion of the movie also just kind of fizzled with me, partly because Stewart in this movie seems like a real flesh and blood person but an idealistic representation of what America is supposed to be. I did enjoy the contrasting nature of Smith’s character and his naivety which is balanced out by Saunders jaded experience, but them falling in love just seemed a little obligatory. Overall there is a lot I like about this movie, but a lot of it rings a little hollow and cliché from a modern perspective at times, and the running time here is a little long for my liking, making the story drag