Celebrating my 100th blog post, I’ve decided to review one of my favourite films, one that I always place in my Top Ten list. Who knows, maybe every 50th post or so, I’ll review another of my favourites?
“You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.” Jefferson Smith (James Stewart)
Originally intended as a sequel to Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper reprising his role, this 1939 classic is about Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a young, idealistic Boy Ranger leader who is chosen to become a United States Senator. With the help of his appointed secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur), he soon proposes a bill to build a national boys camp on a particular piece of land, unaware that it has been secretly appropriated by influential tycoon Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) as part of a graft scheme.
After unsuccessfully attempting to buy him off, Taylor, who holds several high-ranking politicians in his pocket, including Smith’s mentor Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), turns popular opinion against him, making it seem as though Smith is proposing this bill for his own profit and deliberately stalling an important relief bill, damaging the country. Fighting Taylor’s political machine, Smith launches a filibuster, talking constantly for almost 24 hours and eventually convinces Paine to do the right thing and prove Smith’s innocence.
This was a film that helped propel James Stewart into stardom and he certainly delivers one of his greatest performances here. Starting off constantly wide eyed and awkward, seemingly every other word he speaks being “Gee Whizz” or “Oh, Boy” or “Gosh”, his character transitions excellently as he gains his confidence and stands up to the crooked politicians. He truly believes in the ideals that America was founded on and hearing him talk about liberty and justice is inspiring and makes him an incredibly empathetic, wonderful cinematic hero.
There is also strong support from Jean Arthur who plays Clarissa Saunders; she injects considerable zeal into the film as the fast talking, occasionally wise cracking secretary. She too has an interesting character arc; at the start, she has had enough of politics but finds herself lumbered with Smith and is initially exasperated with his inexperience and overly good nature. However, Smith soon wins her over with his honest, passionate belief in American ideals and she soon comes over to his way of thinking and helps him out a great deal by the end.
And of course, there’s Claude Rains as Joseph Paine, who delivers a perfect supporting performance. As Paine, he finds himself caught between tycoon Jim Taylor, who he owes his political career to and the young Smith, whose father Paine was best friend to. Paine clearly has massive affection for Smith, treating him like a son, but when Paine is forced into leading the charge to discredit and expel him from congress, Paine clearly hates himself for what he has to do and Rains conveys this wonderfully. His is a dignified, confident performance and he is truly a legend of the screen.
The story is great and, as with many Capra films, mainly concerns “the little guy”, fighting against forces much bigger than himself. It is indeed the perfect “David Vs. Goliath” story (though this is actually mentioned in the film, somewhat making it a tad obvious) and it is all so inspiring, effortlessly imbuing the audience with a sense of righteousness and pride, especially when the young Smith arbitrarily decides to take a bus tour around all the patriotic landmarks. I mean, even to non Americans like me, it certainly makes one feel patriotic and proud of the country!
Upon release, it did cause somewhat of a stir since many politicians were shown to be corrupt and some even branded the film “un-American”. Obviously you can see why they had cause to think that but looking back, I think that Mr. Smith will always be remembered as fiercely pro-American, through its honest and just protagonist as well as its themes of freedom, justice and liberty.
An American classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a great story brought to life by Capra’s masterful direction and excellent performances from James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★