Mr Smith Goes To Washington

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series James Stewart Weekend

Released: 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur

Enough to make a blackhearted cynic believe in politics again (almost)

In the dark and distant days before I spent my days writing I used to work in the murky world of politics. I don’t have particularly fond memories of that period of my life but at the same time I still have an enduring interest in politics and political issues and a belief that many of the people who get involved (no matter what their opinions are) do so because they are interested in making a positive impact on their communities. I suppose at heart I am still a bit of an idealist albeit a cynical one. I want to believe in politicians who put their country first, I want to believe in politicians like Jefferson Smith, the protagonist in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Following the mr smithdeath of a Senator the state’s Governor, senior Senator and a corrupt businessman are determined to place a patsy in the vacant position.  One who will help them secure a money-making graft scheme. Naïve, well-meaning Boy Ranger leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to the role of junior Senator for the un-named state. Smith immediately becomes a figure of fun due to his homespun mannerisms and trusting nature. When Jefferson’s plan to create a national camp for Boy Rangers is threatened by the graft project, he and feisty assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) hatch a plan to expose the corruption at the heart of Washington and prove that one good man can make a difference.

For those of us who feel a little bit jaded with the political process this is the perfect antidote. It acknowledges that there is indeed corruption at the heart of power but soothes us and lets us know that there are good people, willing to take on those who would abuse the system. It promises us that if we just wish hard enough then it will be alright in the end. With my dark and cynical head (that’s my normal one) I scoff but there’s something about the mix of Capra and Stewart that replaces that head with a slightly fuzzier one for a little while. It’s quite a nice feeling really.

Of course, James Stewart is wonderful as Jefferson Smith. His confusion and anger at being publicly mocked and rage at how he (and the democracy he believes in) are being treated are beautifully realised. The supporting cast is excellent. Jean Arthur as the feisty Saunders is great and Claude Rains as the crooked but somehow still sympathetic Senator Paine was also very good. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Harry Carey as the President of the Senate. His amused asides and moral support for Jefferson during his tenure in the Senate were a highlight of the film for me and he thoroughly deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

It can’t be said that Mr Smith Goes To Washington is a subtle statement on politics or the American Dream. There’s far too many lingering shots of the Capitol Building, the Stars and Stripes and the Lincoln Memorial for that. It is however a wonderful look at the power of just one man and one of the best political films I’ve ever seen.

You still couldn’t pay me enough to work in politics again…

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