Tuesday, 2 August 2016

I've Just Seen: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director: Frank Capra

One might expect this post to contain much praise around the performance of Jimmy Stewart, who plays new senator Jefferson Smith with his usual reliability as the everyman. He is certainly highly suited to the role. However, I want to concentrate Claude Rains, an actor who I have enjoyed in every film of his I have seen. If you are a watcher of old classics, you will certainly encounter Rains many times, though never as the leading man. There is no one better to have as your ambiguous antagonist than Rains; he projects moral dubiousness, a particular charm and even a kindness at times. I can imagine no one else who could have played Senator Paine, a man who admires the incorruptible Smith, while recognising his own corruptibility.

Jean Arthur was the other performance that stood out. Her Clarissa Saunders, which could easily have been the dippy love interest, moves from cynicism to support for Smith's moral stand, and even instructs him on how to do it effectively. The whole film is filled with strong performances; say what you will about Capra's filmmaking, he knew how to get good performances from his actors.

The story feels like a courtroom drama, with its focus on the rule and process of law, and the centrepoint around a man's defence of his innocence and the truth. The only criticism I had was that the ending comes far too quickly, resolving itself rather suddenly, though it does so in a wonderfully dramatic fashion.

1939 was a stellar year in film history, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington is part of the reason. It is interesting to contrast the images of Lincoln and his famous speeches so often displayed in the film, with the popularity of contemporary film Gone With the Wind.


  1. In an America that is more politcally divided than ever in my lifetime, I wonder constantly why no one--either ultra-liberal or extreme conservative--has remade this film. It's a natural for any sort of hardcore political ideology. Portray the other side as rampantly corrupt and one's own side as good, decent and honest and set upon by the bad guys.

    Of course, no one could do it justice the way Stewart did. Not many people can pull of that sort of innate integrity the way he did.

    1. While I am generally wary of remakes, this would be an interesting one to see. The only actor I can think of who could fill Stewart's shoes is Tom Hanks.

  2. I am probably the only one on the planet who is not infatuated with this movie. That has to do with the resolution and my lack of understanding of the American political system. But Claude Rains is good as always. His sheer presence is enough to save any movie.

    1. I liked it, but not being American I was not as au fait with some of the finer points of senate procedure (though I am familiar with filibusters from The West Wing), and the patriotic feelings it is meant to inspire didn't occur in me. I also think the ending is too neat.

      I agree about Claude Rains, I am yet to see a performance of his I didn't like.