USA / 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Sidney Buchman, Lewis R Foster
Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette
Despite labouring under the advertising tagline “Stirring – in the seeing! Precious – in the remembering!” Frank Capra’s 1939 classic was originally intended to be a sequel to Mr Deeds Goes to Town, called Mr Deeds Goes to Washington. When Gary Cooper wasn’t available, however, the film had to be revised, with James Stewart being drafted in for the title role. The resultant movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, was one of Capra’s most heartfelt but also one of his most controversial. When the film was premiered in Washington, for example, senators walked out in disgust at the portrayal of corrupt politicians, the Senate leader labelling the film “silly and stupid”, noting that it “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks”. That, of course, was the point.
Stewart plays an archetypal Jimmy Stewart role – Jefferson Smith, the idealistic leader of the Boy Rangers in a western state. He’s chosen to go to Washington to succeed a senator who’s died suddenly, although his appointment is far from straightforward. A political boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), hopes to perpetrate a land swindle at a site called Willet Creek and has several senators in his pocket to ease his plans through – and one of these corrupt politicians, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), is in fact Jefferson’s idol.
Jefferson’s secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), initially thinks he’s a hick from the sticks with naïve values, but slowly starts to respect his earnest and honest views. Unable to support the way the young senator is being hoodwinked by his peers, Clarissa tells Jefferson that Paine and Taylor are manipulating him. But when he goes to confront them, they simply organise a smear campaign against him. He’s left with no alternative but to try and talk out their corrupt scheme by filibustering at Senate for almost 24 hours, non-stop.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington is memorable for moving performances by Stewart and Arthur (who’d previously worked together on You Can’t Take It With You), a suitably villainous performance by Claude Rains and Stewart’s hoarse play. Frank Capra later revealed that the actor’s throat was regularly dabbed with mercuric chloride to achieve the necessary effect during the film’s dramatic climax.