Director: Frank Capra
Production: Columbia Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 130 minutes. Released 1939. Filmed in Columbia Pictures studios.
Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster; photography: Joseph Walker; editors: Gene Havlick and Al Clark; sound engineer: Ed Bernds; art director: Lionel Banks; music score: Dimitri Tiomkin; musical director: M. W. Stoloff; costume designer (gowns): Kalloch; montage effects: Slavko Vorkapich.
Cast: Jean Arthur ( Saunders ); James Stewart ( Jefferson Smith ); Claude Rains ( Senator Joseph Paine ); Edward Arnold ( Jim Taylor ); Guy Kibbee ( Governor Hopper ); Thomas Mitchell ( Diz Moore ); Eugene Pallette ( Chick McGann ); Beulah Bondi ( Ma Smith ); H. B. Warner ( Senate Majority Leader ); Harry Carey ( President of the Senate ); Astrid Allwyn ( Susan Paine ); Ruth Donnelly ( Mrs. Hopper ); Grant Mitchell ( Senator MacPherson ); Porter Hall ( Senator Monroe ); Pierre Watkin ( Senate Minority Leader ); Charles Lane ( Nosey ); William Demarest ( Bill Griffith ); Dick Elliot ( Carl Cook ); Billy Watson, Delmar Watson, John Russell, Harry Watson, Gary Watson, and Baby Dumpling ( the Hopper Boys ).
Oscar for Best Original Story, 1939; New York Film Critics Award, Best
Actor (Stewart), 1939.
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* * *
The halo surrounding the accolade "film classic" can weigh heavily, indeed, and few films have encountered the extremes of opinion as has Frank Capra's classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . It has been considered a most profound American tragedy. It has also been called sheer cornball on celluloid, even a veiled paean to fascism.
When an idealistic youth leader is named to the U.S. Senate to fill an unexpired term, he clashes with the party machine. Senator Paine (Claude Rains), industrial magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and others are pushing through a bill giving the State an unneeded dam, one yielding real estate profits to the corrupt bosses. The patriotic young Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), chosen as perfect stooge for his naivete, is deflected with a bill for a boy's camp, a pet dream of his, which he wants built on the same land. Taylor attempts first to buy him off, then to break him. Framed, Smith defends himself and, in the climactic scene, challenges both the machine and the Senate itself by filibustering for 23 hours on the Senate floor, finally appealing to the now conscious-stricken Paine. He confesses all. Faith and vindication of Smith's idealism win out.
Despite the pressure to have the film withdrawn by politicians (including Joseph Kennedy), diplomats and reporters, who were either concerned that foreign powers would hold the film up as an example of corrupt Western democracy or objected to their professions being sourly painted, Mr. Smith became one of Capra's most successful works. Ironically, it was warmly embraced overseas, because it demonstrated the freedom America had to criticise its own system.
Made in a time when the country was still absorbing the shock-waves of the Depression and had recently seen World War II break out in Europe, knowing they would soon be involved, the illustration that America still had ideals worth fighting for struck a powerful chord. As the cynicism and seemingly moral and social disenfranchisement has grown with every decade, so has the appeal of Mr. Smith , Capra's commercial reminder that the spark of humanism could still flare, correct, and ultimately save.
With an everyman name, the Christ-figure allusions, and the innocent coming to a sadder-but-wiser adulthood, Smith voices a public that feels both impotent against and disconnected from a world grown cold and massive; it also illustrates the conundrum of anyone who has felt passion or imagination, and has nowhere to put it, nobody to listen to it.
Critics commenting biliously upon Capra's romanticism nevertheless have been nearly unanimous in giving credit to Capra's mastery of the film medium, from the painstaking authenticity (the Senate reconstruction, made alive as few film interiors have been, and the government ritualist procedures written into the script) to, especially, the editing, paced to both his characterisation and the dialogue's thematic importance. (The filibuster scene was shot by six cameras.) The montage expert Slavko Vorkapitch added his contribution to the mise en scene with a compilation using such U.S. monuments as the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Dome, the Constitution, and others. Mr. Smith 's "fantasy" is grounded in a strong physical reality.
So, too, his actors. Capra utilised a strong stable of people who consistently turned in well-crafted performances—Arnold, Stewart, Harry Carey (wonderful as the dry Senate President), Jean Arthur as the cynical secretary Saunders—even holding up production for months to gather the perfect cast. His use of faces has been a trademark, peppering his films with very American types, instinctively perceiving collective nationalistic natures. Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette and the others, with their years of roles ingrained on the filmgoing public, articulate before their lines are even spoken.
The dialogue is sharp and fast, segueing from verbal duets to—in Smith's speech—hoarse entreaty, to crisp and urgent explanation—in Saunders' explanation of due process—crucial to the action. Saunders' speech could be a textbook in any civics class. It serves not only as the exposition for the rest of the film, but sets the balanced tone of surface cynicism and underlying emotions, which makes James Stewart's passion completely valid.
The casting of Stewart as Jefferson Smith is inspired. Ironically, Capra had wanted Gary Cooper, but Stewart's hero is more proactive, more an articulate force for social change. Any unevenness of his character—for example, when he discovers the press has been ridiculing him, his reaction is harsh, ugly, inconsistent—is completely absorbed within his gangly sincerity. In that speech, he is by turns defensive, uncertain, defiant, wounded and inspired, all at once. It is not he who is the hero, but his beliefs; therein lies Stewart's genius: his style is organic to the character. Capra keeps this fundamental scene from being a mere photographed moral lecture. With his use of reaction shots (he reinforces what the audience already thinks, not merely creates it) and his structure of complicated relationships, such as Smith being the Senator 25 years later, with choreographed shots, makes his suicide attempt ("I'm not fit to be Senator!") a credible outburst.
Given Capra's defining his own genre—Richard Griffith refers to it as "the fantasy of goodwill"—his so-called moral tales, attention can be more fruitfully focused upon his technique; when tales are simple, the more important the telling, and the more glaring the faults. Those who would paint Capra as the Norman Rockwell of cinema haven't looked behind the storyline, nor have they discerned why the focus on corruption-then-restoration of ideals can come so organically from a director, an immigrant from the Italian slums who indeed made good. Hence the underlying theme of so many of his works; namely, that everything's possible , as well as the unavoidable frustration with and reaction to excess success. Many Capra heroes are, in addition to being unheroic, too naive, clumsy, and not on the best terms with reality. The folk artist homes in on the inherited myth of the American Past in a way that, unlike Rockwell, is neither synthetic nor saccharine, but identifiable. His happy ending in Mr. Smith is not sealed; less than a minute long in resolution, nothing is really changed beyond the incident; the Senate ends in turmoil and the fate of the political machine, beyond Taylor's, is unresolved.
The last quarter of the film is almost as dizzy as the best of Eisenstein's—or Vorkapitch's—montage, encapsulating numerous small vignettes and reactions, always with the central characters in focus. Yet Capra establishes the premise economically; in the film's opening, a rat-faced reporter callously spouts the news of a Senator's death into a telephone, then a swish pan sets in gear scenes leading to the stooge appointment of Smith. A series of wipes then establishes the power relationships. . . all of this in 60 seconds.
Capra's film doesn't descend into mere sentimentality due to the editing. A taut rhythm is structured, which organises chaos using surprisingly few close-ups, those being saved for reactions finely honed to audience expectation. They often act as counterpoint to cliche, as when he cuts to Saunders' cynical expression upon hearing platitudes intended to gloss over the corruption and ignorance of Taylor's crew to the naive new senator. Sour comment, too, reflecting our own jaded attitude. How that seeming immunity to moral and political optimism responds to a so-called "fantasy" on film is the result of somebody's skill. Must be Capra's.