adventures in customer service
la jetée and 12 monkeys revisited

by request: mr. smith goes to washington (frank capra, 1939)

This was requested by Jeff Pike (hey, Jeff, I’m reading The Death of Rock and Roll).

I’m in the middle of Mark Leibovich’s book about Washington D.C., This Town, and it makes an interesting contrast to this film from more than 70 years ago. In the film, Congress is overrun by greed and the influence of machine bosses. In the book, Congress, and indeed all of D.C., is overrun with greed and almost completely lacking in ethics. At least Capra offers us Senator Jefferson Smith, a good guy who believes in the proper core American values … there is no such person in This Town.

As usual, Capra champions the dedicated individual up against the corrupt system, effectively tugging at the audience’s emotions. The cast is a treasure trove of stars and character actors: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains, alongside Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey, and more. Arthur is very good, and Stewart is in his awkward-yet-appealing mode. He doesn’t fare as well as Arthur, though, because Capra too often goes beyond Smith’s innocence, to a point where Smith just seems a can short of a six-pack. The dumb Jeff Smith would never be able to perform the way the smart Smith does.

The film is also too long at 130 minutes. It’s not that you can identify scenes which are unnecessary, but the movie drags at times, and even if this isn’t a screwball comedy, it would benefit from a snappier pace.

Your feelings about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington will depend on your tolerance for Capra’s work. I’m in the middle, finding him annoying at times, but also liking many of his films. As Pauline Kael said about this movie, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can--but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” #673 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (For comparison purposes, I’d give It Happened One Night 8/10 and Arsenic and Old Lace 6/10.)