Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books… Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak.”

I’ve always been fascinated with how conventional styles of acting have changed over the last century. Some might argue that acting has only progressed as an art form, perhaps that it has gotten more realistic, but I think this would be a mistake. It certainly feels like there are more diverse actors nowadays than there were in 1939, when just a handful of leading figures dominated the silver screen. However, there is something undeniably charming about conventional acting back in the early and mid 20th century. The far more rigid guidelines for character types (leading man and woman, villains, clowns) feel almost Shakespearean, and it’s fascinating to see how actors of this era invested their careers into these character types. If you asked me my favorite single actor from the mid 20th century, I’d have to say Jimmy Stewart. I’m endlessly fascinated by his charming presentation and soothing, humble voice, and I find his filmography to be one of the single strongest to come out of any actor’s career, which is why I was more than delighted to finally sit down and enjoy the American classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Coincidentally, it’s election season. How fitting.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the tale of Jefferson Smith, a boy scout leader and patriotic enthusiast about all things American. When a Senator from his state falls deceased, Smith is chosen to represent the United States Senate for the remainder of the term, chosen with hopes that Smith will keep his mouth shut and follow orders. However, when vested with his position, Smith takes it into his own hands to better his country and initiate legislation for a national boys camp. He navigates the vicious Washington political landscape, attempting to keep himself above the corruption that has become commonplace in the Senate, while pursuing what he believes to be true American values. It’s an inspiring, heartwarming tale of dedication and optimism that glides its way to success through the charming leading portrayal by Jimmy Stewart and a fun, focused direction by director Frank Capra.

For a late 30s film, the cinematography is truly stunning if you look out for it. Capra’s directorial vision is sharp and effective, coupled with focus-driven camerawork by Joseph Walker that guides the viewer’s attention perfectly in every scene without being too flashy or self-indulgent about it. The film is also able to capture significant Washington monuments at pivotal moments to the story, such as The Lincoln Memorial pushing Smith to carry on even in the toughest moments. Just as the American history pervading throughout Washington inspires the film’s protagonist to take action to better his country, it also inspires the film’s American audience to feel a sort of love for country as well. The idea that a single American can break through the corruption of politics and make real change is an inspiring message on which the film has built its legacy over the years (however hopeless this message may seem today). While I do enjoy the film, I’m certain that its colossal reputation rests at least partly in its appeal to American patriotism and not entirely on the film’s merits alone.

While Stewart leads the pack as the centerpiece and driving force of the film, other standout performances help shape the Washington landscape into a cold, cruel machine. Edward Arnold brings the most showy, slimy portrayal of Jim Taylor, the wealthy businessman who pulls the strings behind the scenes. His deplorable, aggressive attitude helps create a nice personal clash between good and evil, American values vs. greed and corruption. The more interesting character, however, comes in the form of Senator Joe Paine, played by Claude Rains. We get to see a more complex portrayal from Rains as his character balances an attempt to help Smith feel welcome in Washington while also facing off against him on the Senate floor. It’s these establishment characters who mirror Smith and show what Washington has primarily become as opposed to the wide-eyed optimism that Washington should (ideally) be today. We also get a beautiful character arc through Jean Arthur’s character Clarissa Saunders, a toned down love interest who is inspired and transformed by Smith’s ambition and patriotism, ultimately aiding him in his battle against corruption.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a  very American classic, primarily for these strong leading performances and its smooth, simple, but innovative story. You can see the rise of American political dramas these days following in the trail of House of Cards, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film that provides hope to its audiences where these stories today stick to a more cynical approach. While I’m not nearly convinced about the importance of strong patriotism or the good will of our elected politicians, this is a film that makes a strong case to believe in these things, and that’s pretty impressive. It’s one of the most finely crafted films of its time, and while I’d still argue that the patriotic angle gives it a bit too much hype for American audiences, it’s an undeniably fun film nonetheless.

Films Left to Watch: 918

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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1 Response to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

  1. I find that everybody else seems to like this movie better than I do. Stewart is of course good and I cannot truly dislike a movie with Claude Rains, but there is something entirely off with the description of the political system. I guess you have to be American to appreciate it. Also the conclusion is too contrived for my liking. It relies on the bad guy to turn around to see the error of his way, as nothing in the political system can stop him. Odd.

    Liked by 1 person

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