11/6/09

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Claude Rains (Senator Paine)

Directed by Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life)

IMDB: A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn't back down.

Is it from the 1930s or 40s? Does it tangentially connect to my WWII research? Then it's movie time!

I'd never seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in its entirety until last week. What a treat. I've already talked about my vintage crush on Jimmy Stewart--the man flew B-24 Liberators over Germany, for Pete's sake!--and this did nothing to dissuade my affection. He plays bumbling, sweet, righteous, naive, determined, angry, and turned-inside-out to a tee.

But nothing Stewart accomplishes on screen by himself compares to his rapport with Jean Arthur, who actually earned top billing here. Her role as Saunders, Mr. Smith's quick-witted secretary, is priceless. She's snarky, witty, jaded, and in desperate to believe in something great. Their scene together when discussing how to draft a bill steals the whole movie. Her best attempt to prove how hard it will be doesn't dent his enthusiasm, as he wears the expression of an eager puppy. Precious.


Claude Rains, who rollicked and smoozed his way through Casablanca as Bogey's corrupt French sidekick, is amazingly transformed here, serving as Mr. Smith's nemesis and mentor. He portrays a man who is deeply conflicted, fearful, and ultimately very ashamed of having turned out the way he has. His character is a fascinating study of one's moral death by a thousand little cuts.

The "OMG I LOVE DEMOCRACY" montage was a little overblown, as was the finale, but the movie provides evidence as to why Capra was so greatly sought after for wartime propaganda. Mr. Smith also highlights his skills as a film maker and Stewart's subtleties as an actor when they re-teamed in 1946 to create It's a Wonderful Life. Seven years went a long way toward perfecting both of their abilities to capture the heart of American optimism.

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