Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is a true classic.
When a U.S. senator dies in an unnamed western state, naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is named to the vacant seat. The young Smith has no idea that he's been chosen to keep the seat warm for two months before reelection, an unknowing yes man to the more experienced senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Jefferson is a newspaper publisher who helps run a camp for boys and has no experience in politics. He quickly finds out that he's been chosen only to serve as a dupe but decides to make the best of it, working with his assistant, Saunders (Jean Arthur), to put a bill through the Senate. He's unknowingly stepped into a high-level bill that will force him to deal with all sorts of political corruption, but can he maintain his idealist views?
As far as successful years go in Hollywood history, 1939 is basically 1, 1A and 1B. Any other years pales in comparison, and 'Mr. Smith' more than deserves it standing as one of the year's best. Teaming with Stewart (later reuniting for It's a Wonderful Life), director Frank Capra is at the helms of one of the all-time greats. It avoids some of the sappiness so prevalent in his other films and still manages to get its message across. To a 1930s audience still suffering through the Great Depression, it's message of the underdog sticking to his beliefs and cause must have hit home more. A political machine and system (Edward Arnold as the business kingpin in a frightening, real role) looking out for itself and willing to pressure and intimidate its way to riches? All too realistic. Not a heavy-handed attempt at delivering the message either, an obvious positive.
Okay, casting an idealistic, naive, well-meaning and intelligent young man stepping into a powerful government position, who better to choose than Mr. All American himself, Jimmy Stewart. I can't think of a better actor -- living or dead -- to play Jefferson Smith. His 'aw shucks' demeanor was made for this part. If this movie is going to work, you need to buy Stewart as Jefferson and everything about him. Mission accomplished then. Nominated but ultimately not winning for Best Actor, Stewart was a rising star here. You believe him and genuinely like him through all his innocence and naivete. His Jefferson Smith has become one of the more iconic movie characters ever, and it's easy to see why.
His most memorable scene is a whopper, and an entire 40-minute sequence carries this movie into another higher level. Made to look like he is one of the corrupt politicians and trying to save his good name -- among other things -- Jefferson is forced to filibuster, a political procedure that basically stalls for time. Talking and talking, the hours roll by as he tries to prove his point. This is where Capra's message comes across best, an effort by thousands of Americans -- on both sides, for good and bad -- work to help their side win. A remarkable sequence, and one that's remembered for a reason. Stewart earned his nomination with this scene alone.
The rest of the characters are painted with some broad strokes -- good or bad -- but the performances are almost uniformly strong. Jean Arthur actually received top billing (odd in a movie called Mr. Smith), playing well with Stewart as they show off an easy-going natural chemistry. Claude Rains as Paine, the veteran senator, is the darkest part, a man who wants more politically but knows it will come at a cost; his integrity. Thomas Mitchell plays Diz Moore, Saunders' friend and a political correspondent and reporter. Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette and Arnold play Jefferson's main opposition with Harry Carey stealing his scenes as the President of the Senate.
It's nice to go into a classic film and get just that...a classic. So often they're disappointing but not here. Filming on location in Washington D.C. gives a sense of realism and authenticity, and it's a beautiful city to begin with. The sets, especially the Senate chambers, become a character all to themselves. Mostly though, this is a classic about people and their beliefs, how far they're willing to take it when fighting for what they believe is right. A must-see film for movie fans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington <---TCM trailer/clips (1939): ****/****