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15 March 2006

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Jean Arthur (Saunders), James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Claude Rains (Senator Paine)

Directed by Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life)

From IMDB: "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"

Jimmy Stewart was passionately Everyman, full of fire, conviction, and down-home manners. Jean Arthur was incandescently funny in several scenes, revealing why she earned lead billing despite Stewart's title role. But for me, this classic could not live up to the weight of its famous, accomplished and more balanced successor. In creating It's a Wonderful Life, Capra borrowed heavily from this film - released a full seven years prior - but his maturity as a story-teller and Stewart's added depth as an actor seriously out-classed their efforts in Mr. Smith.

So where does Mr. Smith fall short? The conclusion, for example, is a muddled flurry of activity that leaves the audience to assume all conflict will thereafter be resolved. We are not shown resolution; it is implied. Following two hours of Capra's repetitive, ham-fisted patriotic imagery and odes to the glories of the Founding Fathers, all of which proved that subtlety was not his intention, I would have appreciated wrapping up this fable with a happy little bow. Claude Rains wielding a gun, several kids run over by crazed mobsters, and Jimmy Stewart passed out on the floor do not a conclusion make.

Another example regards Capra's portrayal of the press. Are they funny, scheming, wretched opportunists, or are they simply more savvy than the average citizen when it comes to the mechanizations of politics? In one scene at a local bar, reporters are portrayed as both. While I might appreciate this sort of nuance in a modern movie, it felt out of place in a story so thoroughly about RIGHT and WRONG.

Ultimately, this could have been a much more successful and humorous film. Luckily, It's a Wonderful Life resolved Mr. Smith's missed opportunities and clunky pacing, making good on the promise of a truly remarkable movie from Capra and Stewart. Too bad about Jean Arthur, though - she was a hoot and deserved a better picture in which to shine.

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