Its simplicity is both its greatest dramatic asset and its singular fault among critics. That is the dichotomy of any Capra film. Paradox is the order of the day. Just a few examples:
This movie was banned both in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for showing the American democratic process in a positive light. However, this film was roundly criticized by Washington as showing senators in a negative light and the political process as being rife with corruption. They wanted it banned, too.
The movie shows corruption in Congress, but no political party is ever named. Claude Rains plays the senior senator, who has compromised his integrity for graft, and James Stewart plays the junior senator from the same state. We do not know with which party they are affiliated. We do not even know which state they are from, but since the story is partly based on a book which named Montana as the home state, the senator from Montana walked out on this movie at its preview at Constitution Hall in Washington. Many other senators were no-shows in protest.
Art reflects life, as we realize the main message of this film is the crime of arrogance. Politics is rife with it. Both political parties are guilty. Graft is graft, no matter who does it.
Politics is also rife with idealism, sometimes pure and hopeful in its natural state; sometimes exploited in creative political ads meant to play on the emotions of the public and how well they respond to dramatic backlighting of a candidate in his shirtsleeves superimposed over a waving flag. It’s hokey, and it’s still being done. The arrogance of politicians in believing we are really that stupid.
Director Frank Capra was a conservative Republican. The scriptwriter, Sidney Buchman, was a Communist Party member between 1938 and 1945. Yet, they shared ideals and vision for this movie. (Buchman would be blacklisted in the 1950s when he refused to name names.)
Most of those shots of Washington buildings and monuments were taken on the sly; the United States Parks Service denied the filmmaker access.
One more paradox: despite this canon of idealistic films of Capra’s, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is actually quite a dark movie, sinister and cynical. James Stewart is the only Pollyanna of the bunch, and by the end of the movie even he gets his teeth kicked in.
Long post ahead. You’ve come this far. It would be a shame to turn back now.
We begin the movie with that heartthrob Charles Lane as a reporter, holed up in a phone booth barking in his sexy nasal twang about the sudden death of a senator and the need for his state to send an immediate replacement.
Only a truly great movie would start the show with Charles Lane.
Edward Arnold is great in this film, with his voice kept low and sneering. If he bellowed and blustered it would not be half so chilling as that snide, quiet confidence he displays.
Lafe McKee (who we discussed in this previous post) gets a brief, but iconic moment in this film when he stands before the Lincoln Memorial helping his little grandson to pronounce the difficult words in the Gettysburg Address, which is engraved in stone on the building.
“Cowboy Canteen” (1944), is a wisecracking reporter who is part of a gang that interviews a bewildered James Stewart upon his arrival in Washington. You might even catch a glimpse of a young Craig Stevens as a reporter in the Senate chamber gallery writing fast and furious with a pencil.
Much of this movie, when it really works well, hinges on the magnificent Jean Arthur. Her performance is transcendent. She is secretary to Claude Rains, and has seen enough of Washington’s seamy side to stamp out any idealism she once might have had. As she tells Rains, “When I came here my eyes were big blue question marks. Now they’re big green dollar marks.”
“Only Angels Have Wings” discussed here. Frank Capra, quoted in Frank Capra-The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster, NYC, 1992), p. 417 - “I defy any other actress to play that scene,” Capra marveled, “She’s a great actress, much better than she knows. She made it believable with little things, like the way she tried to pick up her glass and didn’t know which glass she was picking up.”
During this scene she tipsily mourns sending James Stewart off to the Senate with a bill that was going to make him a target of the bad guys: “I felt just like a mother sending her kid off to school for the first time. Watching the little fellow toddling off in his best bib and tucker. Hoping he can stand up to the other kids.” It’s hysterical, and heartbreaking at the same time.
Though I think my favorite line is when Thomas Mitchell, in her apartment looking for stuff to mix cocktails, asks her where the bitters are. She replies absently, “In the thing there. Behind the thing.”
At her drunken scene, she accepts Mitchell’s longstanding marriage proposal as a way to escape Washington and the hypocrisy around her. In Jean Arthur - The Actress that Nobody Knew (Limelight Editions, NYC, 1997), p. 116 - author John Oller quotes Howard Hawks, who directed Mitchell and Miss Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings”, remarking of Arthur’s work in this scene, “That was a beautifully-done thing.”
Jean is quoted explaining the scene, “The trouble about a woman being drunk is you have to be careful not to go overboard because then it’s not funny…A man can be awfully funny when he’s drunk but not a woman.”
James Stewart grows up a lot now. He sees the corruption, confronts Claude Rains and tries to spill the beans in Congress. He is silenced when Rains pulls a fast one on him and accuses him of corruption instead. Stewart gets pilloried. Jean Arthur finds him, at last, with his suitcases prepared to leave town, sitting before the Lincoln Memorial at night, crying with that bewildered pain we suffer when people, whether it’s the kids on the playground, our coworkers, or our family, have rejected us.
Jean Arthur saves him. She coaches him through a filibuster from her perch in the gallery of the Senate chamber. It’s a terrific showdown, a gunfight with ideals and stubbornness rather than six-shooters.
These scenes are where Capra, in another paradox, both captures the emotions of the audience but also loses believability when small newsboys on the side of James Stewart are used to convey the David versus Goliath aspect. I suppose it’s difficult to find imagery to support the nobility of the common man without getting hokey. It’s difficult sometimes for Capra, anyway.
Many of us remember a time when the announcement “Special Report” was given sparingly and only for really big news. Our stomachs turned when we heard it because it usually followed with the first reports of an assassination.
But Mr. Kaltenborn stands at his post, using proper English and trying to give the circus some dignity, instead of trying to turn something dignified into a circus.
The Senate chamber scenes are wonderful. A replica was created on the Columbia lot. The pageboy explains to Stewart, and to us, who sits where, and the history and significance of the setting. In many scenes, we may note that many of the desks are empty -- a silent gesture showing that our senators are not always on the job.
The climax is strangely quiet. Claude Rains directs the pageboys to carry in baskets of telegrams from an angry public denouncing James Stewart because of the lies they have been fed by Edward Arnold. It’s almost like that glorious scene in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1946) when the letters to Santa arrive. But these scraps of paper do not save Mr. Stewart. They condemn him.
We see a lot of father-son imagery in the movie: between Rains and Stewart, between Stewart and his Boy Rangers, with the pageboy, between Harry Carey and Stewart.
Despite its occasional hokey sentimentality, these are the real truths expressed in this movie. Jean Arthur reminds a disgusted Stewart that, “They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.”
Another truth is Claude Rains’ dismissal of the people voting him out when they learn of the corruption: “You can’t count on people voting. Half the time they don’t vote anyway.”
We get heartily sick of the nastiness of political campaigns, especially when they seem to last so long. But it is a good thing, I think, that we air our grievances so publicly and that other nations can see our anger and discontent. Because they also see that it all leads to election day. No coups, no hanging or shooting the opposing party when you’ve won and they’ve lost. The winners take office. At the end of the term, we vote again. Like clockwork. It’s that splendid confidence in our own system that drove both Nazi Germany and the USSR to ban this movie. It was our suspicion of our own leaders that drove Washington insiders to criticize this film at its premiere. Trust and suspicion, in healthy doses. A marvelous paradox Frank Capra didn’t create, but was clever enough to appreciate.
Growing up in poor families, President Roosevelt literally kept them from starving and gave them job training and hope for the future. They never took politics for granted after that. It was personal. The most important program in my house was the news. They devoured news magazines and newspapers, and we watched conventions like some people watched the World Series.
We were to be good until they got back from saving the world.
I am voting tomorrow because that is what I was raised to do. Because my mother loved “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. Because my mother, rest her soul, who never had a driver’s license or a passport, were she living today would be denied the right to vote by some politicians who are aching to get a whip-smart, no nonsense liberal like her off the books.
And because like James Stewart in the movie, I get all choked up when I visit the monuments in Washington, D.C.