Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the movies I had seen before I started this project and was happy to watch again because it’s so good. I was also happy in a really weird way that I couldn’t get it from the library I work at; there was a waiting list. For a movie from 1939. So I have hope for the future now, even though I had to get the movie from a different library.
So what’s the story? A senator from an unnamed state dies, and the governor needs to appoint a replacement. The corrupt political boss that got him elected tells him to pick one person, while the unions and other state leaders give him another name. His savvy kids (all eight of them!) tell him to appoint their local scout leader, Jefferson Smith. Not wanting to offend anyone, the governor appoints Jefferson Smith. Jeff is a naive patriot who loves his country and believes in the Constitution, but the rest of the elected officials from his state are corrupt and trying to push graft through. It’s up to him and his cynical assistant to stop the evil political machine from succeeding.
The Good: There is lots of good acting in the movie. Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, and he’s always good. Jean Arthur is the cynical assistant Saunders who is slowly won over by Smith’s naivety. The corrupt senior senator is Claude Rains, who is one of my personal favorites, and I think it’s a shame that he never won an Oscar. He did get a best supporting actor nomination for this movie, though. So did Harry Carey , who is listed as President of the Senate, but if I remember my Constitution correctly, doesn’t that make him Vice President of the United States? Anyway, he has almost no lines in this movie, but his face is incredibly expressive.
I actually wrote a paper in college about the music in this movie for an American history class where they required us to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the music is very instrumental (hahaha) to the drama of the movie. Dimitri Tiomkin used lots of American folk songs and patriotic songs to underscore Smith’s fight against corruption.
I’m going to award kudos to the makeup people for this movie, too. I had always thought that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was made in the late forties, many years after The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). I assumed this because of Claude Rains, who looks so much older in this movie than in the other two. But since that is all down to the makeup department and not natural aging, I have to congratulate the makeup department for fooling me.
While I was watching this movie, I assumed that they had gotten permission to film on location at the Capitol Building. Nope! They just rebuilt the Senate Chamber in complete detail in a studio in California. It’s crazy good, and it says to me that Frank Capra cared a lot about this movie.
Another detail that I appreciated was that Capra never named the state that Smith is from or the which political party any of the politicians belong to. He made it so that no one could say, “Well, it didn’t happen in my state or my party, so I’m fine.” He didn’t allow anyone to be complacent about corruption in the government.
The Bad: As Jefferson Smith is trying to expose the corruption, his Boy Rangers back home try to spread the word about what he’s doing. The political machine shuts them down, and it’s very hard to watch. It’s not graphic, but if you’re sensitive to children in danger, be warned. Watch the movie anyway, but know that that’s coming.
The (Possibly) Ugly: Patriotism, idealism, and optimism aren’t always highly regarded now. People are more cynical, especially about the government. Some people might say that this movie is unbearably cheesy because of that. I don’t find it so; I kind of wish there were more people now who did believe that what they do can make a difference.
Oscar Won: Best writing, original story.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role(James Stewart); best actor in a supporting role (Harry Carey); best actor in a supporting role (Claude Rains); best director; best writing, screenplay; best art direction; best sound, recording; best film editing; best music, scoring.