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Saturday Night Cinema: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

20

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is a  tribute to the once great American ideal of free and fair elections, and a government by the people, of the people for the people. A quaint and archaic idea in today’s era of leftist totalitarianism, corruption and criminality.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the story of one man who believed he could make a difference, and in doing so, stood up to the entire United State government. A great story about how the American rule of law works and how one man can bring change the course of human events.

This Washington morality tale is more prescient and pertinent than ever. Demonstrating that the greatest political evil is indifference, this appeal to a world on the verge of war has lost none of its relevance 60 years on. Indeed, the political corruption depicted in the film looks like romper room next to the Clinton pay-for-play crime syndicate.

A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn’t back down.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; Frank Capra’s ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ at the Music Hall Sets a Seasonal High in Comedy–‘Babes in Arms’ Opens at the Capitol
By FRANK S. NUGENT, NY Times, October 20, 1939

Scorning such cinemacerated branches of the government as the FBI, the Army, Coast Guard and Department of State which, by usage, have become Warner exclusives any way, Columbia’s Frank Capra has gone after the greatest game of all, the Senate, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” his new comedy at the Music Hall. In doing so, he is operating, of course, under the protection of that unwritten clause in the Bill of Rights entitling every voting citizen to at least one free swing at the Senate. Mr. Capra’s swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock that august body to its heels—from laughter as much as injured dignity—it won’t be his fault but the Senate’s and we should really begin to worry about the upper house.

mr-smith

For Mr. Capra is a believer in democracy as well as a stout-hearted humorist. Although he is subjecting the Capitol’s bill-collectors to a deal of quizzing and to a scrutiny which is not always tender, he still regards them with affection and hope as the implements, however imperfect they may be, of our kind of government. Most directors would not have attempted to express that faith otherwise than in terms of drama or melodrama. Capra, like the juggler who performed at the Virgin’s shrine, has had to employ the only medium he knows. And his comedy has become, in consequence, not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom, to simplicity and honesty and to the innate dignity of just the average man.

That may seem altogether too profound a way of looking at Mr. Capra’s Mr. Smith, who is blood brother of our old friend, Mr. Deeds. Jefferson Smith came to Washington as a short-term Senator. He came with his eyes and mouth open, with the blessing of the Boy Rangers and a party boss’s prayer that he won’t tumble to the graft clause in the bill the senior Senator was sneaking into law. But Senator Smith tumbled; dazedly, because he couldn’t quite believe the senior Senator was less than godlike; helplessly, because the aroused political machine framed him four ways from Sunday and had him up for expulsion before he could say Jack Garner. But the right somehow triumphs, especially when there’s a canny young secretary on Senator Smith’s side to instruct him in the ungentle art of the filibuster and preserve his faith, and ours, in democracy.

If that synopsis is balder than the Capitol’s dome, it is because there is not space here for all the story detail, the character touches, the lightning flashes of humor and poignance that have gone into Mr. Capra’s two-hour show. He has paced it beautifully and held it in perfect balance, weaving his romance lightly through the political phases of his comedy, flicking a sardonic eye over the Washington scene, racing out to the hinterland to watch public opinion being made and returning miraculously in time to tie all the story threads together into a serious and meaningful dramatic pattern. Sidney Buchman, who wrote the script, has his claim on this credit, too, for his is a cogent and workmanlike script, with lines worthy of its cast.

And there, finally, Mr. Capra has been really fortunate. As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart is a joy for this season, if not forever. He has too many good scenes, but we like to remember the way his voice cracked when he got up to read his bill, and the way he dropped his hat when he met the senior Senator’s daughter, and the way he whistled at the Senators when they turned their backs on him in the filibuster, (He just wanted them to turn around so he could be sure they still had faces.) Jean Arthur, as the secretary—lucky girl being secretary to both Deeds and Smith—tosses a line and bats an eye with delightful drollery. Claude Rains, as the senior Senator, Edward Arnold, as the party steam-roller, Thomas Mitchell, as a roguish correspondent, are splendid all.

Have we forgotten to mention it? “Mr. Smith” is one of the best shows of the year. More fun, even, than the Senate itself.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, screen play by Sidney Buchman based on a story by Lewis R. Foster; directed and produced by Frank Capra for Columbia Pictures. At the Radio City Music Hall.
Saunders . . . . . Jean Arthur
Jefferson Smith . . . . . James Stewart
Senator Joseph Paine . . . . . Claude Rains
Jim Taylor . . . . . Edward Arnold
Governor Hopper . . . . . Guy Kibbee
Diz Moore . . . . . Thomas Mitchell
Chick McGann . . . . . Eugene Pallette
Ma Smith . . . . . Beulah Bondi
Senate Majority Leader . . . . . H. B. Warner
President of the Senate . . . . . Harry Carey
Susan Paine . . . . . Astrid Allwyn
Mrs. Hopper . . . . . Ruth Donnelly
Senator MacPherson . . . . . Grant Mitchell
Senator Monroe . . . . . Porter Hall
Senate Minority Leader . . . . . Pierre Watkin
Nosey . . . . . Charles Lane
Bill Griffith . . . . . William Damarest
Carl Cook . . . . . Dick Elliott

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