So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
So, we all know that story right? The senator from an unnamed state dies. The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator. Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies. The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas). The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers. The Governor flips a coin. The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.
So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.
Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington. For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there. He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place. When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out. (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.) When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism. When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned. When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters. He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…
And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.
This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course. While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be. Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine. Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.
But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference. And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.