director Frank Capra
Iconic as it is, with Jimmy Stewart filibustering on the floor of the Senate until he passes out, I’d never actually watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington until last Friday, when my daughter and I watched it.
It’s easy to see how this film catapulted Stewart to stardom. And Jean Arthur is a real peach here, too. It’s a great movie.
It’s amazingly dark, really. When bright-eyed Mr. Jefferson Smith gets hand-picked to fill a Senate seat from an unnamed state, sent by the powers that be to fill a spot and vote along the lines of his fellow state Senator (Claude Rains), he’s agog at all the monuments to American heroes, statesmen, the ideals of democracy, that he gets lost in D.C., just starstruck by all its goodness. But as this good-hearted fellow comes to learn the ways that things get done in the government, who really holds the political power are the rich, ruthless fat cats (who will even run down children to get their way), it’s a point of stark disillusionment that doesn’t even get fully swept away by the end of the film.
In fact, at the end of the film, even though Rains’s villain has capitulated, Mr. Smith is collapsed and unconscious, unaware of success. Just as the state is never named, there are no political parties in the film either. The film is polemical, wrapped in the indoctrinating Americana for which Frank Capra was so well-known. And that keeps its critique still fresh. This came from Capra’s period of disillusionment, which is interesting and worth contextualizing more in that he was such a notorious conservative overall.