This TCM presentation marked the beginning of a strange week of moviegoing. The Flower was incredibly excited to see Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, part of his film cycle tribute to loving America which, despite it’s 2:09 runtime (a great deal of which consists of a man standing up and talking hoarsely in front a crowd of disinterested other men) ends so efficiently that you almost wish it were longer to see the fallout.
I mean, it’s kind of funny: the movie ends with the hero passed out on the floor, invisible to the camera, while one of the antagonists has been narrowly prevented from committing suicide, and with his new girlfriend (and soon to be wife, who are we kidding?) watching from the balcony, having never so much as held his hand.
But you also know everything’s going to be okay. As corrupt and cynical as the system can be—and I think of this film now as “Let’s go watch Jimmy Stewart get Kavanaghed!—in the end, truth will out, and justice will prevail, and men of conscience who have been led astray will see the errors of their ways.
But it’s great hooey. Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Jefferson Smith (because Gary Cooper couldn’t reprise his Mr. Deeds role from ’36) finds himself appointed as senator, with machine boss Taylor (Edward Arnold) and his heavy (Eugene Palette, The Lady Eve) being barely assuaged that respected elder senator Paine (Claude Raines) can keep him in line. Taylor has big bucks riding on a bill about to go for a vote, and the last thing he needs is some Boy Scout, er, Ranger ruining his plans.
And it might’ve worked except for drunken impish reporters, like Diz (Thomas Mitchell, It’s A Wonderful Life) and the immortal Charles Lane (also IAWAL, and a zillion other things into the ’90s) goad him into realizing how he’s a patsy to Paine and Taylor. This gets under Jeff’s skin, and he enlists the aid of hard-bitten aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) to help him write a real bill, to help city kids get out to the country for the summer, which she does. Only to realize that he’s headed for trouble, since his innocent little bill falls directly in the road of Taylor’s.
Things look bad indeed, as the Smith is easily waylaid by the professional liars, with Paine’s elegant daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn) leading him around by the nose, and then it’s only Saunders’ emotional plea to tell him to get out of town that makes him realize something is amiss. When Taylor tries to ham-handedly bring Smith into the fold, he balks, and the Taylor machine begins its work, framing him for wanting to push his Boy Ranger bill because he owns the very land he wants the government to buy! In other words, their scheme.
In typical Capra fashion, our intrepid heroes fight forces much more powerful than they, and it should be noted that much of this film hit close enough to home at the time to upset Joe Kennedy, the Washington Press Corp, and various political types who felt maligned. Much like “believe all women” falls afoul of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, the Kavanagh hearings showed the very same demagoguery at work 80 years ago. Smear, fabricate, use all the media at hand, deny the legitimacy of any other media, and destroy if possible. I guess they were better at it back then, since Taylor and his machine have no trouble forging convincing evidence.
Or maybe that’s just “movie magic”.
But what’s not to love here? This was Stewart’s breakout role, the fruits of which he got to enjoy for a couple years before going off to WWII in ’41. Even if Arthur didn’t get along with him—she had a much higher opinion of Gary Cooper—you’d never know it from her performance. Capra’s players are all at their top, and he somehow manages to make lovable urchins out of sassy war-era kids pulling wagons and saying things like “jeepers!” Harry Carey gives a peculiar undertone to the whole proceedings, as President of the Senate: He knows things are hinky, but he also knows the rules are important, and his bemusement at the process, his “Well, it’s wacky, but it works, by God”, really measures the emotional level of the movie. When he’s happy at the end, we know we have a happy ending.
The Flower loved it, and it was a good thing to fall back on, because the next two movies would be grim in completely different and disturbing ways. The Boy also loved it. As I did, and always do.