20 May 2006 | MisterWhiplash
drifts in and out of comedy and sincerity with the greatest of ease
It was a lot of fun watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in a class where the professor noted how this was the sort of film that was of historical importance while not taking itself too seriously. And I think that's the way Frank Capra wanted it, in a sense. Perhaps in the time of 1939 America this film was seen as being of merit to the American Government's due (though according to the trivia, it was denounced at showing corruption and even banned for showing how democracy "works"). But the director is also wanting to make an entertaining movie, of the kind of Hollywood appeal that brings 8-to-80 years olds in attendance. What had me interested throughout, particularly in that climactic, rousing twenty-minute sequence in the Senate with Jimmy Stewart's constant, un-faltering filibuster, is how it really is a patriotic kind of bravura to be shown on the screen. Here is how it SHOULD be done, to an extreme perhaps, in getting things done in government. But at the same time, Capra keeps it entirely watchable with that group of kids up on the balcony, keeping the audience laughing and smiling all the way through the great lines that Stewart says. "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!" This is a kind of talent that I'm sure few other filmmakers at the time, or even after, could have pulled off.
The rest of the film isn't just Stewart's struggle to be heard as a young, new-in-town senator. It's also a witty, more often than not true look of how government tends to really work as opposed to how it should. Basically, the core of the story is the fish-out-of-water type, where Stewart's Jefferson Smith (one of his better Hollywood performances), leader of the Boy Rangers is called to be the senator of his state. He has a childhood hero in town in the form of a senior senator (Claude Rains, terrific as always). And there's even a woman (Jean Arthur) in the mix that's growing an interest in him, at first dubious. But despite the corruption that is almost thrust upon smith by Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold, as skilled a character actor as could be asked for), Smith fights it all the way to his final filibuster, which includes a reading from the Constitution, in-and-out cheers from the Boy Rangers, and general guffaws from the other senators. In other words, it's really much in that pure spirit of Frank Capra that 'Mr. Smith' is working in, and even at its cheesiest and sometimes most-dated moments, it's a very successful picture for what it wants to do. It's really an equal-opportunity kind of film about people in politics that should be able decades later to appeal to both the hopeful and the cynical, and it works as good as it does a comedy as it does a piece to show in history of film or American government course.