All my moviegoing life I’ve been more or less avoiding Frank Capra‘s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (’39). A highly respected political dramedy about idealism vs. corruption, of course. One of Capra’s finest films, they all say. And one of the standouts of 1939, which has long been celebrated as old-time Hollywood’s greatest year.
But we all know that Capra lays it on too thick. And so my thinking was, “Okay, I’ll see it eventually but I’m in no hurry.” I began telling myself this back in the ’70s, and I somehow managed to sidestep Mr. Smith all through the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, and over the last three and a half years of Trump. But a 4K Bluray version was part of a Sony package I bought a while back, and last night I decided to pop it in.
HE verdict: Mr. Smith is a “good” film in that it says the right populist things about governmental corruption (i.e., established stinky politicians need to consider the views of a true-blue idealist every so often), and it does so with crackerjack dialogue (written by Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly) and lots of snappy attitude and sweaty passion, and you can see how and why it made Jimmy Stewart (between 30 and 31 when it was shot) a major star.
But my God, it wears you down! I felt exhausted after 45 minutes, and I had another 80 minutes to go. By the time it ended I felt all but poisoned by the sugar and the Capracorn syrup. And it felt so fake and cranked up…a big bowl of patriotic whipped cream with sentimental sauce and a cherry on top.
Has anyone in the history of the planet earth every been as naive and idealistic as Stewart’s Jefferson Smith? How could the son of a man who was friendly with Claude Rains‘ Senator Joseph Paine for so many years possibly be this clueless about the ways of the grown-up world?
Why in heaven’s name would Jean Arthur, who’s obviously class-A material and who seems destined to end up as Smith’s girlfriend or wife…why would she even flirt with the idea of marrying Thomas Mitchell‘s cynical Capitol Hill reporter? She and Mitchell were drunk when the idea arose, yes, but it makes no sense — nobody ever marries Thomas Mitchell, and flirting with this degraded Arthur’s value.
And after Stewart collapses on the Senate floor, the guilt-wracked Rains/Paine runs out and tries to shoot himself? Where did the gun come from? And Harry Carey, the president of the Senate (which makes him FDR’s vp), is the only person in the Senate chamber who sympathizes with Stewart’s plight?
I’m glad I finally saw Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I’m not calling it a bad film but it’s certainly an exhausting one. I will never, ever see it again. And I’m saying this as a fan of It’s A Wonderful Life, which I’ve seen at least six or seven times.