Monday, February 24, 2014

Blind Spot: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

[This post is apart of Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series at The Matinee. On the last Tuesday of ever month you watch and write about a movie that is considered important in the cinema lexicon, but that you've somehow missed along the way.]

I've never been much of a political person. I mean, I try to keep informed about what's happening (Obama's the...President, right?), but it all boils done to the simple fact that there's a lot of problems that need to be solved and no one really seems to have plausible solutions. Even when it seems there's hope for change, it never seems to turn out the way people envision it. There's too many hands guiding decisions and bigger forces behind it all. It seems foolish to think that one person can really make a difference–despite what we've been taught by feel-good movies. That may be a cynical or defeatist way at looking at things, but it's also the main reason why I've never really felt compelled to watch politically set films. Perhaps that's why I've waited so long to watch that Frank Capra classic about one moral man trying to make a change in government, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

You may think after that paragraph that I was already determined to be weary of Capra's starry-eyed optimistic approach to the political system in which a single man, in fact, does make a difference in a corrupt political system. But that's where you'd be wrong. That's because you can never underestimate the aw-shucks charm of a young Jimmy Stewart. A man so steadfast in his goodness that any form of cynicism just can't hold up against his stammering wholesomeness. It's like trying to be angry at a puppy. The man is a beacon of truth in this cruel world. And even if I never found the proceedings of the film to be totally plausible (this is a film that has small children driving cars, so I don't think believability is necessarily what it was going for), I found it to be nothing less than highly entertaining and, dare I say, even inspirational.

The film opens with the governor of an unnamed state in the Western part of the United States (so as to remain an Everytown, USA. Like Springfield on The Simpsons) trying to find a replacement for a recently deceased senator. There's a lot of back and forth between whom should be selected. The film's villain, and the man clearly running the show (the sinisterly named, James Jim Taylor. He's seen fire and he's seen rain), wants an appointed lackey that the public won't go for. The film almost lost me with all its political talk so early on (I told you, I really don't like politics), but then a dinner scene involving kids talking like adults completely won me over. The kids think that the man that would be perfect for the job is the head of a Boy Scout-esque group called the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith. Wouldn't you just know that Jimmy Stewart, a grown-up boy scout himself, would be playing that part. And I don't wanna give it all away, but Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Once our titular character arrives in our nation's capitol he does what anyone would do on their first day of work– skip it and go see the sites! But, it's really because he's so inspired by the capital dome and just needs to see the Lincoln memorial. Right. Now. And there we're treated to a sappy, soft-lit scene in which a small child reads  the Gettysburg address aloud, while Smith looks on in awe. The scene is a little heavy-handed, but Capra has never been a director to shy away from sentimentality. You just have to go with it.

Luckily, the film is saved by drowning in saccharine by the appearance of Smith's secretary. A no-nonesense woman that goes by her last name, Saunders, and has what Ed Asner hated so much about Mary Tyler Moore, spunk. She's been there, done that and seen it all before. Needless to say, she's fabulous. And played by the kewpie-doll-after-a-bender voiced actress, Jean Arthur. I've never seen Jean Arthur in anything before, but after watching this film, I want to explore her entire filmography and binge on Jean Arthur films the way people do House of Cards. She's so perfect with her comic timing, line delivery, and chemistry with her co-stars (not just Stewart, whom she manages to bring some sex appeal to, but also her reporter friend, Diz, played by Scarlett O'Hara's father). 

Thanks to Saunders help in drafting it, Smith proposes a bill to Congress that would set up a national camp so that boys of every walk of life can come together and learn about nature or something. Seriously, that's his first order of business. A giant camping trip. Unfortunately for Smith, the land that he wants to set up as his healing campground has been earmarked by Jim Taylor for a money-making dam. And his fellow Senator, a man that knew his father and once said that the lost causes are the only one's worth fighting for, turns out to betray Smith, framing him for fraud and forcing him to give up his position.

That's when we get to the scene that if anyone knows anything about this film (or if you had to study US government in high school), this is what you'll know...Filibuster! Plus, that's really just a fun word to say. This is where Jimmy Stewart gets to shine in all his Jimmy Stewart-ness and stand up to the man! Saying things like, "I wouldn't give two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and little looking out for the other fella, too." Well, how do you argue with that. 

At the time of its release the censors were concerned that the movie-going public would be scandalized how the film implies that the government is corruptible. Now us modern viewers take that view for granted, seeing the corruptibility not as an exception, but the norm. Seeing one man fighting for what's right and winning against the higher powers seems to be the stuff of fiction. But as long as cinema is filled with people like Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, there's hope that truth and justice will not just be fiction. I said before that it seems hopeless that one man could make a difference, but after spending over two hours with Mr. Smith it really does seem like anything is possible. After all, he made me almost care about politics.


  1. AMAZING review of a great film! I'm so glad that you saw and liked this one. Stewart is remarkable here, but for my money Jean Arthur is the star. I would have given her the Oscar over Leigh (and to think, she wasn't even nominated!). Glad you chose this for your Blind Spot. can't wait to see where you go next month.

    1. thanks! jean arthur is amazing and my love for her is in the early stages, but my love of vivien leigh is eternal. and her win for GWTW is one of my favorite of all-time. but, definitely feel jean should've been nominated. she could replace greer garson...

  2. I've long believed in two things.

    1: Jimmy Stewart has a face that should be printed on money

    2. Every politician should be forced to watch this film once a year as a refresher course on what they're doing and what they're supposed to be doing. In life there is the brochure, and the harsh reality. Politics as it stands is the reality - this film is the brochure, and it's time for the two to start resembling each-other a little more.

    1. the brits have the queen on their money, why not old hollywood royalty on the US currency. after all, stewart has done more for us than alexander hamilton ever has...

      i feel like today's politician's woldn't get the point and probably side with taylor and paine. "who's this young, idealist kid? and why is he so full of...hope?"