Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
This is my personal favorite of the Frank Capra “capracorn” movies. That’s not a term invented in today’s more cynical age, but goes all the way back in the ‘40s, when people were much more open to his brand of open sentiment and patriotism than they are today. I guess some people just aren’t happy with a story unless it has a lot of killing and hatred and the bad people win. I’m aware that Capra’s films are fantasies. So? Do you hate The Wizard of Oz because it couldn’t happen? What Capra showed is the possibility of a better world. It was, and is, up to us to make it happen. Sadly, most of us (myself included) have just about given up on that.
This was supposed to be Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Part 2, more or less. Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, a simple man who inherits a fortune, and Jean Arthur (her first starring role after a long career in bit parts and supporting roles) as a cynical reporter had done very well a few years earlier. Luckily—at least the way I look at it—Cooper was not available. Although I liked Cooper okay in Mr. Deeds, he was not half the actor Jimmy Stewart was. In fact, he was sort of a stiff. No, let’s make that a total stiff. That could work okay in some roles, like westerns, but can you imagine him on the Senate floor delivering the impassioned speeches given by idealistic Jefferson Smith? I can’t. In fact, I shudder to think of it.
The set-up is typical Capra, and we get through it in about five minutes: Senator So-and-so is dead, Governor “Happy” has to choose a new one, Big Jim Taylor commands him to pick a hack, people shout him down, blah blah blah, and the Guv’s kids say “Pick Jeff, Dad! He’s swell!” And here and for about the first thirty minutes the sappiest aspects of a Capra story are evident, with the insufferable little kids, and the way-too-innocent-to-be-believed Smith going gaga over the Capital Dome. But once I’ve adjusted myself to it, I have no trouble getting deeply invested in it. The first part of the film is all Jean Arthur’s, as she gradually realizes he is for real, and then understands that he is a rare opportunity to do some good in Washington. Then Stewart owns the rest of the show, in that very large set of the Senate Chambers.
Another thing I have to mention is the supporting cast. Old Hollywood had a terrific cadre of supporting actors who could be relied on to bring a certain type of character to life. Just look at the names right under the stars: Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey. Every one of them a name to reckon with, and only Rains a real star. These folks are never around at Oscar time, but they greatly improve any movie they are in.