Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

84a24-mrsmithgoestowashingtonposterAs both a political drama and feel good movie, this film cemented James Stewart as an acting powerhouse. Furthermore, despite its age, it acts as a timeless reminder of the evils of political machines. It makes us root for the underdog, and it is distinctively American. Here is a cast and a story that seemingly could never be equaled, but what this film really had going for it was an idealistic outlook. I can, myself, often be a cynical person, and still Mr. Smith never fails to make me acknowledge the numerous attributes that make our country great, whether it is through montage, monuments, music, and of course Jefferson Smith himself. 

In one of his best performances, Jimmy Stewart is an idealistic, naive boy’s troop leader named Jefferson Smith. The starry-eyed Smith trusts that our nation is founded on some very noble principles that should be fought for tirelessly in government and in society. Above all, he is a likable fellow, who earnestly believes in the merits of this country, and he is beloved by boys all across the state. Now, this all sounds fine and dandy, but it would never have come across on the screen if it had not been for Stewart. He emanates this awkward and innocent energy that puts life into the idealistic creation of Jefferson Smith. 

When the film opens, everything is in turmoil when a senator suddenly dies and a replacement is needed fast. Believing Smith will be a pawn, a powerful man named Taylor (Ed Arnold) gets Smith a seat in the nation’s Senate. There he joins the respected Senator and old family acquaintance, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), who is also a cog in Taylor’s machine. However, although he is out of place in Washington, the patriotic Smith does his best to be worthy of his position. He realizes that the press will not give him a break, and the other Senators do not take him seriously.

So, on the urging of Paine, he decides to come up with a bill for a boys camp back in his home state. He requires the help of the world-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) to get his bill done. Initially, she is disgusted by his naivete, but as she grows to know him, she realizes he is only going to get himself hurt. His action to propose a bill soon find him face to face with the political machine that elected him. Taylor also has stakes on the piece of land where the boy’s camp would be, and he wants it for a dam. 

Smith finds himself being accused of using his position for his personal gain, and pretty soon he is before a committee with false evidence piling up against him. With all odds and seemingly everyone else against him as well, Smith makes one last monumental effort. Thanks to the help and guidance of Saunders, Smith fights to plead his case through a filibuster.

Fatigued by many hours of giving impassioned speeches and reciting the Constitution, Smith finally collapses, but not before effectively succeeding at his task. I doubt this would ever happen in real life, but in the film, it is fantastic watching the Senate break out into complete and utter mayhem. Ultimately, a young man with “a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella,” was able to win. True, it may be overly sentimental, but it is a wonderful piece of sentiment all the same.

Frank Capra was wonderful at these type of cheering tales and his stars were in top form. There is an absolutely wonderful supporting cast here including Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette Thomas Mitchell, Charles Lane, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Beulah Bondi, and numerous other familiar faces I don’t even know the names of. That’s the beauty of the studio system I guess. It may have the same director, same leading man, and some of the same general themes, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington covers completely different territory from Capra’s later classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith should be seen as a unique, and very much American film.


5/5 Stars