“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 little looking out for the other fella, too.”
It’s almost Christmas, and you already know which movies are going to make their yearly appearance on the TV. You bet Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life starring the everyman actor, Jimmy Stewart, is on the twice-checked list of ABC Family and NBC. Even our local Brattle Theater in Harvard Square is planning to show it on the big screen.
That’s great and I appreciate people looking back into film history and all, but I don’t think It’s a Wonderful Life is Capra’s and Stewart’s greatest collaboration. There I said it. Over the break, I happened across an earlier work from these legends: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Netflix was threatening to take a few movies off of my Instant Watch queue by the first of next month, and I thought it wise to go through the important ones.
This movie predates It’s a Wonderful Life and was released on the cusp of the Second World War in 1939. Incredibly, this film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and possibly could have swept the ceremony had it not been 1939. That year saw Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and The Wizard of Oz conquer Awards night, except for Best Screenplay. I’m sorry Robert Donat, but Jimmy was jilted that night. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington cited a lot in “top 10” lists, “best of” list, and plays regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Somehow, I’ve just kept missing my appointment with Mr. Smith.
We’re told of a political drama in an unnamed state which begins with the death of a senator. The corrupt powers choose an innocent, unassuming Boy Scout-esque leader to fill the seat and do as he’s told. Awestruck at his new position and inspired to start a national boy’s camp, Mr. Jefferson Smith learns the legal ropes and jargon to accomplish something good for the people who (he thinks) sent him there. It’s not long before the naive boy wonder runs up against the forces of media hounds and backroom deals. When he refuses to have politics continue as usual, the political machine turns against him, and what ensues is a Congressional drama of the most thrilling kind. C-SPAN wishes it was this exciting.
I’m raving about Jimmy Stewart’s performance because it is so moving. You believe every ounce of optimism he has and every “d’aw” Stewart throws in his twang is authentic. When he blushes and stutters in front of a pretty gal, we can feel his embarrassment through the black and white screen. When he’s accused of fraud, sobbing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial it feels like someone kicked a baby bald eagle-it hurts you to watch. The destruction of his innocence when he learns that his mentor and father’s best friend (played spectacularly by Claude Rains) is actually a traitor will destroy what remaining faith you may have in politicians.Yet, we’re restored in our faith in democracy when the ever-determined Mr. Smith sallies forth and faces his accusers. His one man stand against a hostile roomful of men is possibly one of the most unnerving scenes in any political drama. Mr. Smith holds his ground (literally holding the floor of the Senate) still awkward as a foal who’s finding his legs and makes a passionate plea for his innocence and for the restoration of justice. I was waiting with bated breath, mouthing the occasional “Here, here!” when his points were made, but still holding on to my breath lest the tide turns against him once more.
Capra is a masterful storyteller who knows how to play the audience’s emotions just right. We’re outraged when accusations are thrown in Mr. Smith’s face and we feel his hurt as the weight of betrayal sets in. The pairing of Capra and Stewart makes it an easy watch, even if it is two hours long. We travel through the back story and the current events as easy as if we are on a tour bus. We’re even given a liquidated version of how the Senate and law making works just as Mr. Smith learns if from his secretary, Ms. Saunders, who is played by Jean Arthur. Her character is a fickle one, intelligent but emotional, initially she’s a double-edged sword for Mr. Smith. Of course, his good ol’ boy enthusiasm wins her allegiance in time to try and exonerate him. They make a rather odd couple as the country boy and the city cynical girl, but this is familiar territory for Capra. Look no further than one of the best screwball comedies of all time, It Happened One Night to see unlikely magic happen between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Capra is just that good in keeping the faith in all that’s good in this world.
My single complaint of the film is that it ends so abruptly. I wanted more! Damn test audiences for forcing changes to the ending. Hint: you can see the original ending in the trailer above.
A senator walked out of the initial screening held in Constitution Hall. Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s dad) even wrote to Frank Capra about the potential harm it could to the American people. Both journalists and politicians groused at the way they were portrayed. Yet the American public made it a success with re-releases to follow throughout the war. Capra received letters from young politicians claiming that Mr. Smith inspired them to go to Washington. Capra not only educated his audience about the Senate, he brought them into the world of Washington through the eyes of a fellow who’s just as mystified as we are about politics and political machines. This is a timeless classic through and through as only the cars show their age. It’s a human story, and one we can still relate to.
If the political climate in the country has anything to say it would possibly be that people want change. Public opinion has split between the red and blue, independents and compromises be damned. This film might have been near fantasy, with no mention of Republican or Democratic parties. What we get instead is a Mr. Smith, an upstanding non-partisan citizen, going to Washington and tearing the established pillars like Samson in the temple. We’re calling out for a hero; we need our Mr. Smith. Does he really only exist on film?
A moving Capra classic, it’s a great film for anyone interested in politics or just how this country works. It’s more uplifting than any Hallmark movie and the acting is Oscar worthy. This is a film to restore your hopes that somewhere, there is a Mr. Smith waiting for his chance to do good for this country. Restore your patriotism with the movie available on Netflix Instant Watch until 12/1 or on Google Video below. I hope you feel as good as I did watching it.