“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
There’s over the top sentimentality that verges on sickening. There’s over the top patriotism that becomes jingoism. There’s melodramatic acting that can take the most compelling story and make it seem over the top and corny. Then there’s sentimentality that strikes just the right note of hopefulness, patriotism that makes you feel like the world can be a better place, melodramatic acting that heightens everything just enough to make it feel that little bit more emotional. That’s what you get in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
After the death of a senator, a fellow senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and newspaper mogul need his replacement to be someone who will play ball. You see, they’ve bought up a heap of land to sell back to the government after a dam building bill passes through the senate. They pressure the local governor into naming someone who they will be able to boss around. The governor chooses the fresh faced Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). Head of the local boy scout type organisation and a local hero after single handedly putting out a forest fire, the general public think he’s the perfect choice.
Once in Washington DC, he’s taken under the wing of Senator Paine, who was friends with Jefferson’s now deceased father when they were young and idealistic. His other guide through the cut throat world of politics is his assistant Saunders (Jean Arthur). After serving the now dead senator who preceded Jefferson, she’s been made jaded and cynical by the system she knows how to manipulate. When Jefferson is made to look like a country rube by the DC press on his first day in town, he realises that not everyone has the same idealistic intentions as he does. Something that becomes even more clear when he proposes his own bill in the senate to build a summer camp for boys. A summer camp that would be built on the same land as Senator Paine’s dam.
Jefferson Smith might be the most perfect character ever written for Jimmy Stewart. His innocent and untarnished expression, his stammering voice and delivery, his unequalled sincerity. They’re traits that Stewart inhabited to differing degrees in so many of his iconic roles. But here, in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, they’re the kinds of traits that when turned up to their extreme, all perfectly represent Jefferson Smith and everything this movie is trying to say.
Frank Capra cops a lot of flack for his movies being so simple in their morality and so cloying in their sentimentality. And in one way, I totally get that. The few Frank Capra movies I’ve seen are all overly simplistic in their morality and cloying in the sentimentality. But they’re also really, really entertaining at the same time. The good guys are amazingly good, the bad guys learn a lesson and become good guys, and the world is a better place at the end of a Capra movie than it was at the beginning. But when done well, all of that results in a feel good movie that makes you feel good. There’s a fine line, but I always find Capra movies are hopeful and inspiring, never preachy or spoon feeding.
Outstanding Production (nominated, lost to Gone With the Wind)
Best Director (Capra nominated, lost to Victor Fleming for Gone With the Wind)
Best Actor (Stewart nominated, lost to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr Chips)
Best Supporting Actor (Carey nominated, lost to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach)
Best Screenplay (nominated, lost to Gone With the Wind)