Capra at his greatest!
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is ranked at #29 in the top 100 AFI movies for the 20th century. This is a movie that garnered eleven Oscar nominations in a very difficult year to win. In 1939, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and Stagecoach were also nominated for awards. Those four movies are also on the AFI top 100 list. Considered a feel-good movie, this is Frank Capra's best-made picture. This is not his most successful or possibly the best, but his best made. While Meet John Doe was his most ambitious and most complex film, Arsenic and Old Lace his most self-indulgent film, and It's a Wonderful Life his favorite film (and my favorite Capra film as well), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains a classic. It has many similarities to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town which I reviewed recently, but I believe Deeds was only a dry run for this picture. Using a restored version of the negative done for $100,000 by the Library of Congress, Columbia releases another fine entry to their Classic collection.
What a month I've been having. I've reviewed several of what are considered the best films of all time; all vintage classics. It's heady stuff, watching and writing on these fine, distinguished films. I think next month I need to just get some cheesy horror flick to give my brain a rest. For that is a common denominator in these films, that they make you think and evoke emotional responses. Certainly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is no exception; it brings out both the cynical and the idealistic parts of my psyche. Certainly the corrupt politics exposed within the film bring out my cynical side. And I definitely have one. You don't have to be a cynic to be a film reviewer, but it helps. But then Capra waves his magic wand, and you see the little guy triumph over the greedy fatcats once again, and believe that so long as men like our protagonist, Jefferson Smith, exist that right will triumph, and despite myself the cynic becomes idealistic. Perhaps I'll touch on this again later, but for now, let me tell you about this film and it's history.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play Both Your Houses told a story about a naïve young Nevada college teacher who is elected to the House of Representatives. He is described in the play as "Serious. Wears mail-order clothing. Reads Thomas Jefferson." The character discovers a crooked congressman is using a bill to get graft through the building of an unnecessary dam. Like Senator Jefferson Smith, the character of Both Your Houses, is the son of a newspaper reporter, is coached by his secretary on how to deal with Congressional rules, and when he fights against the crooked legislation, is deluged with telegrams. In Both Your Houses, the character loses his fight, pledging at the end to continue his battle against corruption.
To avoid legal trouble, Columbia Pictures purchased the film rights to Both Your Houses in 1939 before Smith premiered. Originally Capra and Columbia thought of this film to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and the title was going to be "Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington." Originally Gary Cooper was slated to reprise his role as Longfellow Deeds, this time going to Congress. But MGM wouldn't loan the actor to Columbia, so Capra instead asked for Jimmy Stewart. Jean Arthur was picked to play the beltway savvy secretary who lends her crucial worldly-wise experience in Washington DC to Senator Smith. She of course was first in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and the year before with Stewart in You Can't Take it With You.
One of several setbacks to getting the film made was the lack of Robert Riskin, Capra's chief screenwriter and creative partner at Columbia. He had been hired by MGM during this time for a $500,000 yearly salary, substantially more than the $100,000 Columbia was paying. Riskin would later quit over repeated disputes with Sam Goldwyn, and would rejoin Capra to do Meet John Doe. But screenwriters Lewis Foster and Sydney Buchman filled in, though Capra and one of his assistants would do extensive rewrites. A little known fact is that classic film director Howard Hawks assisted Capra with a drunk scene between Jean Arthur and her sidekick Thomas Mitchell at the National Press Club. Hawks is best known for his screwball films Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Humphrey Bogart films like To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Westerns like Red River.
I described the $800,000 cost of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as "staggering" for the time. But just three years later Smith cost nearly $2 million, thanks to a huge cast and some very elaborate sets, including a complete mockup of the Senate chamber. Except for some exterior shots done in Washington, the film was shot entirely at Columbia studios.
The release and premiere of the film was rampant with controversy. Once the film was completed, the Washington Press Club sponsored a premiere showing at the DAR's huge Constitution Hall on October 16, 1939. Amid huge pomp and circumstance the hall filled up with more than 4,000 viewers—senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices among them. Capra was introduced to thunderous applause. Then the film was shown. Two-thirds of the way through, people began walking out. Some grumbled and made the thumbs-down sign; others shouted "Outrage!" and "Insult!" The Washington press, along with the powerbrokers, denounced Capra for daring to show graft in the Senate. The uproar was such inside the Beltway that several studios attempted to buy the negative and destroy it, lest totalitarian governments use it as propaganda against us. Studio head Cohn is credited with sticking to his guns and releasing the film worldwide.
Fortunately most critics and audiences loved the film, and it helped boost Columbia's profits to it's highest point in the 1930s.
The film won only the Oscar for Best Original Story out of it's eleven nominations, the others being Best Picture (losing to Gone With the Wind), Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Rains and Carey), Best Screenplay, Best Interior Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, and Best Editing. Though Stewart was beaten out for the Best Actor Oscar by Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington really launched his career. His performance made him a major star, and he was soon appearing in such films as Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich, and The Shop Around the Corner, with Margaret Sullivan. The following year he would win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Philadelphia Story, which was largely categorized as a consolation prize for losing on his more impressive performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Whew! Film History 101 is adjourned. Though many elements of the story have been discussed already, I'll try to make some sense of it all. Similarly to Deeds, the story begins with a death, this time of a Senator. Needing to fill the vacancy for the remainder of his term, the blustering, corrupt, weak-minded governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper is faced with a choice: pick the corrupt choice of the political machine led by media magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold, Meet John Doe) and be crucified in the press, or the media's darling that would bring down the machine's wrath and end his career. He opts for a third choice, when his children badger him at the dinner table into picking Jefferson Smith, the leader of the Boy Rangers and a state hero for putting out a large forest fire. He manages to convince everyone that Smith will be too naïve and bumbling to stand in the way of their latest scam: to get an unneeded dam built on land they'd been quietly buying up under dummy names, which would of course be sold to the state for a huge profit. Besides, Smith practically worships senior Senator Joseph Paine, who had once been an idealistic friend to his late father but now is handily bought and paid for by Taylor. Paine (Claude Rains, Casablanca, Phantom of the Opera) will be able to lead him by the nose to vote anyway they wish.
Jefferson Smith is bewildered by all the attention, but idealistically decides to go to Washington and help people. Again like in Mr. Deeds, the press quickly find out he is a gullible novice and cajole him into performing bird calls and posing like a member of the native American tribe back home, antics that expose him to ridicule when photos of Smith's display appear in the newspapers. Fortunately Smith has inherited the beautiful, cynical secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur). However, she is so cynical of the Washington deal-making and graft that she wants to leave, and simply can't take Smith's naïveté and idealism at face value. Eventually of course she thaws to his simple charm and good heart, but first is working for the wrong team, as her character did in Deeds.
Conflict begins when Smith is trying to find a cause to get behind, and decides to write a bill opening a national boy's camp in his home state. Paine believes it harmless and encourages Saunders to help him write the bill. Only when it is revealed that the land for the park is the very same land that they've bought for the dam does trouble start. Smith discovers the plot with Saunder's help after realizing there was no earthly purpose for a dam in that location. Threatening to fight the bill including the dam project, he is informed of the "facts of life" by first Paine and then Taylor's machine. When he proves too honest to "play ball" they decide to completely tar and feather his reputation, setting him up as the instigator of the whole land grab scheme, just for a boy's camp instead of a dam. They even present a forged deed for the land to the Senate. Crushed and about to face a hearing that will remove him from the Senate in disgrace, he is determined to leave town, defeated and finished. In the somber, dim light of the Lincoln Memorial, Saunders comes to realize that he sincerely loves the democratic process. Revitalizing him with her own rebirth of idealism and reminding him of the "faith" of the Founding Fathers (who were "fools" but the "odds against 'em didn't stop those men"), she encourages him to stand fast, stay and fight the machine-controlled Senate and the corrupt dam scheme of the scoundrels Senator Paine and Taylor:
Saunders: I see. When you get home, what are you gonna tell those kids?
Smith: I'll tell 'em the truth. Might as well find it out now as later.
Saunders: I don't think they'll believe you, Jeff. You know, they're liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say, 'Jeff, what did you do? Quit? Didn't you do something about it?'
Smith: Well, what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies…
Saunders: Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man whoever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against 'em didn't stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that Jeff. You can't quit now. Not you! They aren't all Taylors and Paines in Washington. Their kind just throw big shadows, that's all. You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, every day, common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah—so could the whole cock-eyed world. A lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right! He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it. That's what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root 'em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.
Smith: What? Do what, Saunders?
Saunders: You just make up your mind you're not gonna quit and I'll tell you what I've been thinkin' about it all the way back here. It's a forty foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it.
Smith: Clarissa, where can we get a drink?
Saunders (slapping his knee): Now you're talkin'! (As they leave, he waves back at the seated, imposing figure of Mr. Lincoln.)
The next morning, Smith walks into the Senate chamber, but gets recognized by the Senate president (Harry Carey) before the motion to have him removed can be called to a vote. Jefferson Smith begins his climactic filibuster scene (considered one of the pre-eminent scenes of 1930s films). With Saunder's coaching, he now knows enough of Senate parliamentary procedure to keep the floor as long as he can keep talking. Over the next 23 hours he talks; with few in the Senate willing to listen to the truth, that the Taylor machine was framing him. Meanwhile things look even grimmer as Taylor's control of the media, newspapers, and radio, mean the truthful distribution of Smith's message is doomed to fail. Taylor confidently tells Senator Paine: "I'll blacken this punk so that he'll…You leave public opinion to me." Only the Boy Rangers and his small newspaper back home are there to contradict Taylor.
Throughout the entire filibuster sequence, the action cuts from scenes in the Senate chamber, to radio announcers, to reactions at home, to the Boy Rangers' support for Smith, to Taylor's manipulation of the party machine by telephone that orders obstacles to be thrown in Smith's direction. The masterful use of the montage is used several times throughout the film, but especially here. Smith preaches to the Senate and offers his own insight on democratic ideals:
Now, you're not gonna have a country that can make these kind of rules work, if you haven't got men that have learned to tell human rights from a punch in the nose. It's a funny thing about men, you know. They all start life being boys. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of these Senators were boys once. And that's why it seemed like a pretty good idea for me to get boys out of crowded cities and stuffy basements for a couple of months out of the year. And build their bodies and minds for a man-sized job, because those boys are gonna be behind these desks some of these days. And it seemed like a pretty good idea, getting boys from all over the country, boys of all nationalities and ways of living. Getting them together. Let them find out what makes different people tick the way they do. Because I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a—a little lookin' out for the other fella, too…That's pretty important, all that. It's just the blood and bone and sinew of this democracy that some great men handed down to the human race, that's all. But of course, if you've got to build a dam where that boys camp ought to be, to get some graft to pay off some political army or something, well that's a different thing. Oh no! If you think I'm going back there and tell those boys in my state and say: 'Look. Now fellas. Forget about it. Forget all this stuff I've been tellin' you about this land you live in is a lot of hooey. This isn't your country. It belongs to a lot of James Taylors.' Oh no! Not me! And anybody here that thinks I'm gonna do that, they've got another thing comin'. (He whistles loudly with his fingers in his mouth, startling Senators who are dozing or reading other materials) That's all right. I just wanted to find out if you still had faces. I'm sorry gentlemen. I-I know I'm being disrespectful to this honorable body, I know that. I- a guy like me should never be allowed to get in here in the first place. I know that! And I hate to stand here and try your patience like this, but EITHER I'M DEAD RIGHT OR I'M CRAZY.
Here I'll leave the story, except to say that if you don't see the rest you're missing one of the finest scenes in film history. And to say that my cynical side reared it's ugly head again. I have the distinct impression that today's politicians would have just finished crucifying Smith and gone out for drinks with a lobbyist without a second thought. Of course this is a Capra film, and though he makes you pay for it, you get a happy ending.
The DVD transfer, even though it does come from the restored negative, which the Library of Congress spent three years on, has a few problems. Black levels are nice and dark, contrast levels are fine, but there is definite grain in various shots. A fair number of nicks and scratches remain as well. Backgrounds tend toward the soft. Still, it is by far the best I've ever seen the film look.
The sound fares better; for once the Dolby Digital 2-channel mono track does not distort music. Dialogue is abundantly clear and there are no pops or clicks. There is a low noise floor, eliminating hiss.
The extra content is what I've now come to see as standard in a Columbia Classic release of a Capra film. There is a short feature interview and a commentary track with Frank Capra Jr. talking about the film. The commentary is very nice, though a few of the stories are the same ones I heard in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It Happened One Night. You get the exact same trailers as in the other two discs as well; for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, and Lost Horizon. Talent Files, vintage advertising, and the production notes leaflet finish out the supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
*The prosecutor approaches the bench* Well…it's old! And black and white! And everyone knows Jimmy Stewart was NEVER that young. *Swat*
The transfer could have been better, just because it wasn't quite as good as on the other two vintage Capra releases in the same collection. And certainly I would have hoped for different extras on each disc, considering the collection seems to imply they want people to own more than one of them. Different trailers at least.
This is simply a great film, even better than Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which as I said seems more like a dry run for this film in retrospect. Jimmy Stewart gives the performance of his career, matched only by It's a Wonderful Life. The supporting cast is equally gifted, and let me give a nod to the wonderful, though small, part and performance by Harry Carey as president of the Senate.
The prosecutor gets swatted around by myself and the jury for as long as we feel like it. Our political system is indicted for continually causing us to be as cynical as this film makes us believe we should be, without any Jefferson Smith to bring back our sense of real-life idealism. Columbia and the film are, of course, released.
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