Wednesday, July 13, 2016

AFI Top 100: #26 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Claude Rains & James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The recent labored action in our Senate (and later in the month, the House) has reminded me just how moved I can be by the Democratic process. Idealism doesn't take you very far in this world (or so we're taught), and the older we get, we often lean towards thinking that's for the best. But something happens when you witness idealism shift from talk to action. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its questionably naive glory, represents that at its core. Director Frank Capra is known for finding the heartstrings and giving them a solid pluck—sometimes harder and longer than any reasonable person would ask for—but it goes to show how emotionally invested we all can get, despite ourselves.

The film stars frequent Capra collaborator and all-around "good guy" James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young youth leader who finds himself with an unexpected United States Senate appointment after his controversial predecessor dies. Not knowing how in-over-his-head he is, Smith accepts his civic duty and turns to his late father's trusted friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), for mentorship. When Smith arrives in Washington D.C., he faces unrelenting resistance to his hopeful ideas, from members of the Senate to his politics-wise secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Saunders takes it upon herself to wise-up the poor guy, rubbing the shine from his eyes by helping him write his first bill, one to create a government funded camp for Boys, and making sure he understands just how hard it's going to be. But as he pushes his plan forward, he is roadblocked by his friend, Senator Paine, who is under the thumb of James Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt political boss, who aims to discredit Smith and everything he's worked for. Unwilling to compromise his values, Smith takes to the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation and weed out the corruption that surrounds him.

It's what I love and hate about politics, all rolled up into one film. While the acting from Jimmy Stewart and particularly Jean Arthur is about as dynamic as they get, and they have no problem driving the most impactful scenes, the movie isn't particularly layered in its characterizations. The corruption in politics was as tired a trope then as it is now, and much of the conflict feels more or less muffled by too many obvious hurdles. A Senator in the pocket of special interests? No! Say it isn't so! There is a lot gape-mouthed, stunned silences here, as Smith indignantly refuses to believe anyone could possibly do something bad.

That isn't to say he doesn't pull this off. I'd be hard-pressed to think that Stewart was any different in real life (and according to co-star Jean Arthur, his off-screen joy and optimism was equally as insufferable). As Smith, he's not only allowed to let his happy flag fly, he also gets to showcase how he deals with people hating him for it. There's something so honest about that here, as the world reveals itself to be a far uglier place than this sheltered young man ever imagined.

But while Smith is walking around in a glow-y haze for most of the movie's first half, Jean Arthur as Saunders embodies in attitude and voice exactly what we're thinking. She's not cruel, but she's no novice in this fast-paced world. She's intelligent and independent and street savvy, and like many of the other characters—and frankly, us—she doesn't have patience for someone with their head in the clouds. Without Arthur in this movie, it would have been absolutely unbearable. Having someone to counteract Stewart's drive to inspire was essential. She levels him out, brings him back down to Earth, and she brought the comedy, too, in a film with very little of it. Rarely do I see classic Hollywood actors pull off being comically drunk off their asses, and on more than one occasion, Arthur steals the show right out from underneath Stewart doing just that.

The film can be infuriating at times, and that's to its credit; it certainly tries to infuriate, because by the climax, there isn't anybody that you're not fed up with. Smith for being too naive and weak, frustrated in his attempt to grow a backbone, and Paine for being a lying, conniving traitor... they all deserve a good flick to the ears. The ending is also jarringly abrupt. In an "Um, OK, I guess we're done?" kind of way, which doesn't feel like it gives credence to the epic (and mostly successful) stand that Smith just took.

Despite all of that, though, it still inspires. Justice doesn't come easily, and it can come with a cost that is difficult to reconcile. It is an uphill battle, and we feel the slog by the end. And there are some hard truths. Smith is wide-eyed and hopeful, and our being annoyed by that fact is cause for some serious self-reflection. This one is a classic for a reason, and while some things don't stand the test of time, it's hard to watch this and not notice how some things, particularly in politics, never change.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next time for #25 on the list, To Kill a Mockingbird — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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