An idealistic Senate replacement takes on political corruption.
The old adage "the more things change, the more they remain the same" still rings true, and though the American political landscape has certainly evolved in the 75 years since 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' first premiered, the topics this impeccably mounted production explores – corruption, lobbying, cynicism, disillusionment, and media manipulation – remain oh-so-relevant in our current day and age. One of the many things director Frank Capra's film does so well is depict the hypocrisy that permeates our nation's capitol. With its majestic monuments extolling the sanctity of government and virtues of democracy, the District of Columbia presents itself as a paragon of patriotism and lofty ideals, yet as we all know so well, beneath the city's inspirational veneer lies an underbelly of greed, opportunism, and self-serving egotism that infects the rarefied air and often poisons even the most honest politicians. Back in 1939, such skullduggery was still a dirty little secret of which most of the populace was blissfully unaware, but with his trademark integrity and steely commitment to the common good, Capra exposes it, and together with screenwriter Sidney Buchman crafts a motion picture that's insightful, searing, funny, and ultimately uplifting. Along with 'It’s a Wonderful Life,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is Capra's defining film, and like its yuletide cousin, it's just as good now as it was then.
Capra's best movies champion the little guy who's unafraid to take a stand against the establishment and fight for what he believes in, no matter how long the odds or dire the consequences. He may be naïve, green, and not as bright as his highly skilled adversaries, but he's got a good heart and plenty of spirit, and when others test his convictions and principles, he stubbornly stands by them. Like Longfellow Deeds before him and John Willoughby and George Bailey after him, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is that man, an aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth midwesterner who's plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight when he's tapped by Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to replace a recently deceased U.S. senator. Smith wins the job over more qualified candidates, in part because Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), the high-powered boss of the state's corrupt political syndicate, wants "an honorary stooge" in the position, someone who will do as he's told, vote as he's told, and most importantly, remain ignorant of a shady, potentially lucrative land deal he and Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) have cooked up and buried in a voluminous bill. Paine possesses a public reputation above reproach (Smith openly worships him), but like many career politicians, he's strayed from the primrose path by covertly manipulating the system to his personal advantage.
Almost instantly upon his arrival in Washington, the starry-eyed, awestruck Smith finds himself woefully unprepared to tackle the job at hand, and the unforgiving, mean-spirited press corps exploits his country bumpkin persona and clueless nature, labeling him an incompetent, good-for-nothing clown. Angered and hurt by the barbs, Smith wants to step up and facilitate some kind of meaningful change, and Paine, in an effort to preoccupy and pacify him, suggests he write a bill. Smith has always championed children's causes and proposes the creation of a national camp for troubled boys to be located in his state. Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), his sassy, jaded chief of staff, shows him the bureaucratic ropes, and during their collaboration, Smith achieves a greater understanding of his responsibility as a senator and the true meaning of democracy. Yet when his bill innocently jeopardizes the underhanded deal Taylor and Paine are putting together, the duo initiates a vicious smear campaign against Smith, first painting him as an opportunistic criminal looking to deceive and swindle his constituents, then proposing his expulsion from the Senate. Devastated by Paine's betrayal and crestfallen over his hero's lack of ethics, Smith considers resignation, then decides to fight back and wage a one-man assault against those seeking to destroy him. The smitten Clarissa counsels, coaches, and cheers him on, at last, after years of disillusionment, finding something - and someone - to believe in once again.
Without question, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is a bona fide cinema classic and one of the most inherently American films ever made. At a time when people just didn't do such things, Capra brazenly attacked the integrity of our governing body, much to the outraged chagrin of the Washington cognoscenti, who disapproved of the movie's tone and tried to cancel its release. Capra's intent, however, was not malicious. On the contrary, he hoped his exposé would wake people up, incite their passions, and instill in them a greater regard for the freedoms we so blithely take for granted and the idealism and commitment that built this country and continue to sustain it. Preachy? Sure. But that's Capra. Pontifications are an integral part of all his social commentary films, and in 'Mr. Smith' they serve a vital purpose.
With admirable skill and an innate sense of rhythm and mood, Capra weaves comedy, drama, romance, and a host of thoughtful ideas about what it really means to be a U.S. citizen into a tightly knit fabric. A lesser director might not be able to juggle so many disparate elements, but Capra corrals them into a cohesive whole while still paying attention to pacing, performances, and conveying an essential sense of authenticity. Location shooting is minimal and a bit slapdash, but Capra maximizes its impact, creating a palpable sense of place that's enhanced by the exceptional studio reproduction of the Senate chamber, which is almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing. In the end, all these aspects help us relate more intimately to Jefferson Smith, one of a handful of quintessential cinema everymen who make an indelible mark and inspire us to soldier on even when the deck is stacked against us.
Stewart, of course, perfectly embodies the wide-eyed novice who finally takes off his blinders, sees the corruption and greed around him, and decides to combat it with a fierceness of purpose and newfound sense of duty. Many actors would overplay the character's awkward bumbling, outrageous naiveté, and fervent orations, but Stewart is never anything but sincere, and his vibrant, moving work, full of range, nuance, and exceptional timing, remains incredibly compelling. According to Capra, to achieve the vocal hoarseness so critical to the success of the climactic filibuster scene, "Jimmy's throat was swabbed with vile mercury solution that swelled and irritated his vocal cords. The result was astonishing. No amount of acting could possibly simulate Jimmy's intense pathetic efforts to speak through real swollen cords." Though Stewart already was a well-known actor, this landmark performance - arguably the best of his multi-decade career - cemented his reputation and earned him a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. He lost to Robert Donat in 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips,' but many believe his victory the following year for 'The Philadelphia Story' was the Academy's way of righting that wrong.
The inimitable Arthur was a Capra favorite - she and Stewart co-starred in the director's Oscar-winning adaptation of the hit Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play 'You Can't Take It With You' the previous year - and her disarming naturalness and squeaky voice enhance her excellent portrayal. Like so many heroines of the period, Clarissa evolves from a flippant, streetwise dame to a tender, passionate woman over the story's course (she also supplies a surprisingly accurate explanation of Washington gridlock decades before anyone coined the term), and Arthur's superior chemistry with Stewart adds extra truth and meaning to the transformation. Amazingly, the two never even kiss in 'Mr. Smith' - and they're 100 feet away from each other during their only love scene - yet their connection resonates throughout the film's second half, supplying essential emotion to this political tale.
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is also notable for its stellar supporting cast, comprised of some of Hollywood's finest and most recognizable character actors, many of whom either appeared or would appear in countless Capra films. In addition to Arnold, Kibbee, and Rains (whose Oscar-nominated portrayal of the conflicted Paine ranks as one of his best), such stalwarts as Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey (who's priceless reaction shots as the president of the Senate earned him an Academy Award nomination as well), William Demarest, H.B. Warner, Jack Carson, Charles Lane, Ruth Donnelly, and Grant Mitchell add immeasurable energy and personality to the proceedings. Without them, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
Despite the disapproval of the politicians and journalists it so honestly depicted, as well as Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, who worried the film's "indictment of our government" would reduce American clout overseas, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' was a smash hit, becoming the second highest grossing movie of the year (right behind another 1939 production you might have heard of, 'Gone With the Wind') and garnering 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, two for Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Interior Decoration, Sound Recording, Musical Score, and Film Editing. Due to the 'Gone With the Wind' juggernaut on Oscar night, Capra's movie took home just a single award for Best Original Story (Lewis R. Foster), but frankly, my dear, that doesn't matter a damn. For 75 years, the lofty reputation of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' hasn't waned, and the ideas it spouts and ideals it promotes remain timeless. Every politician who runs on an outsider platform owes this film a special debt, and every political scandal, from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Whitewater, further emphasizes its relevance and makes us revere this prescient, perceptive, and marvelously entertaining picture all the more.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' arrives on Blu-ray in a very classy digibook edition. The BD50 dual-layer disc resides inside the back cover, along with a leaflet containing the code that's necessary to download the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy. Twenty-eight pages of text and photos, printed on glossy paper and handsomely designed, include a comprehensive essay on the making of the film by Jeremy Arnold; credit lists for Stewart, Arthur, Rains, and Capra; notes on the extensive 4K restoration; and plenty of rare production stills, scene shots, and publicity portraits. Rarely do classic movies receive such luxurious treatment, so here's hoping Sony will continue producing special editions like this one. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
When done well, black-and-white transfers of films from the 1930s and 1940s can breathe new life into classic productions, and that's just what this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Sony - restored and remastered in 4K - does for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' Crisp and vibrant, with a beatifully filmic grain structure that adds critical texture but never overpowers the picture, this superior rendering benefits from terrific clarity, contrast, and gray scale variance. Some of the D.C. location shots look a little gritty, and a few soft moments crop up now and then, but that's to be expected of an antiquated work, and to Sony's credit, no effort seems to have been made to artifically correct such issues. Only a few errant specks dot the practically pristine source material, which is distinguished by deep, inky blacks, distinct background elements, and solid shadow detail. Close-ups are especially sharp, with beads of sweat and facial stubble showing up nicely on Stewart's face during the film's final minutes. Without question, this is the finest home video incarnation of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' making an upgrade essential.
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is celebrating its 75th birthday this year, but you'd never know it from the clarity and cleanliness of its DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. Not a hint of age-related wear and tear can be heard - no hiss, pops, crackles, or other aural anomalies. A slight roughness of tone occasionally afflicts dialogue scenes, but that's due to the era's rudimentary recording equipment, not the quality of this transfer, which always remains high. Dimitri Tiomkin's music score sounds appropriately robust and patriotic, and all the conversational exchanges are easy to comprehend, even during sequences with considerable ambient noise. This may not be the best audio transfer of a 1939 film (it certainly can't beat 'The Wizard of Oz' or 'Gone With the Wind'), but considering the movie's budget and more modest presentation, it's darn good.
A wealth of substantive extras enhances this digibook release. Most of them focus more on director Frank Capra than on 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' per se, but the film still figures prominently in the material.
Audio Commentary - Frank Capra, Jr. sits down for an informative and personal commentary that sheds light on both 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and his celebrated father. He talks about Capra's meticulous and "immaculate" casting and how the director developed a loyal stock company of character actors who would appear in many of his movies; his love-hate relationship with Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn; his abiding friendship with James Stewart; and the difficulty of working with the reserved Jean Arthur and the creative way he coaxed out her best. He also discusses the indignant reaction of Washington politicos and newspapermen to the film, examines his father's work with what is now the Director's Guild, analyzes Capra's instinctual directorial style, and notes how the picture affirmed his dad's belief in democracy and the ability of one man to make a difference. Though a few gaps occur throughout the running time and there's practically no commentary at all during the film's final 15 minutes, this is still a worthwhile track delivered from a unique and interesting perspective.
Featurette: "Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers...'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'" (SD, 12 minutes) - In this rather bland 1999 featurette (which really has little to do with 'Mr. Smith'), the director's son talks about Capra's love of actors - from leads to extras - and the values and themes of his father's films that strike a chord with audiences. He also praises Arthur and notes Capra was Columbia's one true star during the 1930s.
Featurette: "Conversations with Frank Capra, Jr.: The Golden Years" (SD, 18 minutes) - This 2006 piece looks at how Capra shifted from light comedies to more socially conscious films during the 1930s. In addition, Frank Capra, Jr. discusses the recurring theme of suicide in his movies, the overriding sense of humanity that distinguishes his work, and how World War II - and especially the Holocaust - changed him both as a man and director.
Featurette: "Frank Capra: Collaboration" (SD, 19 minutes) - The contributions of screenwriter (and best friend) Robert Riskin, cinematographer Joe Walker, and numerous character actors to Capra's films are examined in this absorbing featurette that also touches upon the influence of Capra's Catholic connections on his film canon.
Featurette: "Conversations with Frank Capra, Jr.: A Family History" (SD, 26 minutes) - This featurette provides a glimpse of Capra's early years, from the time his Sicilian family landed at Ellis Island to their migration to California, and chronicles how Capra fell into moviemaking and the origins of his lifelong bias against bankers. Capra, Jr. also recalls his boyhood life in Hollywood and visiting the set of 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Anecdotes abound and rare home movie clips augment this warm-hearted and informative reminiscence.
Featurette: "The Frank Capra I Knew" (SD, 13 minutes) - Jeanine Basinger, film historian and curator of the Frank Capra Archives at Wesleyan University, recalls her personal interactions with the director, and talks about Capra's affinity for the common moviegoer and how his work in silent films influenced his development and helped his pictures achieve their distinctive flavor. Basinger also praises his indomitable spirit and fine work organizing the U.S. propaganda machine during World War II.
Documentary: "Frank Capra's American Dream" (SD, 109 minutes) - This fascinating, elegantly produced feature-length documentary tells the complete story of Capra's career and how he "created an enduring vision of what America aspired to be." An amazing array of Hollywood luminaries, including Martin Scorsese, Garry Marshall, Edward Zwick, Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, Arthur Hiller, Angela Lansbury, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Keaton, Peter Falk, and Fay Wray, along with Capra's two sons, Frank Jr. and Tom, dissect and analyze the "ambiguous life" of a "tough little survivalist" who dealt with personal tragedy, anxiety, and depression while producing some of the most popular and artistic motion pictures of all time. Scads of lengthy film clips from the silent era onward, including several from his award-winning World War II documentary series, provide a breathtaking overview of Capra's cinematic legacy, and rare photos intimately reveal the man behind the lens. This reverent, insightful salute to one of Hollywood's greatest directors is essential viewing for anyone who appreciates film history and reveres classic movies.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The original preview for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' focuses as much on Capra as it does on the film, touting his Oscars and esteemed reputation.
International Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 minutes) - This trailer includes brief clips from such Capra classics as 'It Happened One Night,' 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'Lost Horizon,' and 'You Can't Take It With You,' and provides a much more comprehensive look at the film's narrative. It also includes a snippet of Stewart and Arthur in a ticker-tape parade that did not appear in the movie's final release print. (An introduction to this trailer claims this clip is exclusive to the international preview, but it also can be glimpsed at the end of the original American trailer as well.)
Our nation's capitol hasn't changed much since 1939, which is why 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' remains relevant, affecting, and inspiring 75 years after its initial release. Frank Capra's enduring portrait of idealism and individualism in the face of political skullduggery tells it like it is, adroitly mixing humor, whimsy, and romance into a stinging satire with David-vs.-Goliath overtones. James Stewart lights up the screen as the titular, naïve nobody who's plucked from obscurity to be a puppet-in-senator's-clothing for a corrupt syndicate, and ends up biting the hand that feeds him. Rarely has political awakening, disillusionment, and personal development been so articulately depicted than in this insightful and inspirational film, which almost - almost - restores our faith in Congress. Sony does this classic proud with a glorious 4K restoration that's a joy to watch, solid audio, and a hefty supplemental package that rightfully honors one of the finest directors in Hollywood history. And it's all wrapped up in a handsomely designed and sumptuously illustrated digibook. 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is one of those distinctly American films that defines our nation by encapsulating the best and worst of what we are and what we do, and for that reason - and so many others - this is a must-own release.