Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington runs two hours and nine minutes, with the last thirty minutes and change giving star (but second-billed) Jimmy Stewart a big, long scene; sure, it’s intercut with various asides but as far as Mr. Smith Stewart is concerned, it’s a single long scene. Stewart’s had some significant scenes before, but nothing like the thirty minute finale. Stewart’s got a whole new arc just for those thirty minutes, with his previous arc more or less coming to an end right before.

Stewart’s a new junior senator, fresh to Congress, who’s finding himself running afoul of the established way of doing things and trying to preserve both his reputation and some admiration for Constitutional ideals when everyone around him just wants him to sit down, shut up, and go away. But of course Stewart can’t do any of those things, because he’s got to be a hero. Mr. Smith very impressively sets up Stewart for that role.

The film opens with the death of a senator from Stewart’s home state—the state’s never identified as its not important (ditto political parties, they exist but aren’t important to the tale)—and the other senator, played by Claude Rains, talking to businessman and newspaper owner Edward Arnold about who they can get appointed to put through a graft-filled bill. The state’s governor—an absolutely hilarious Guy Kibbee—doesn’t like Arnold and Rains’s pick and eventually goes with Stewart, based on his kids’ recommendation—Stewart runs the local boys club, “The Boy Rangers”—and he’s got such a good reputation Arnold and Rains have to agree.

It gets a little weird for Rains when it turns out Stewart is the son of Rains’s youthful best friend. Rains doesn’t want Stewart to know he’s a crook, so the plan is to keep Stewart occupied whenever Rains has got to do something shady in the Senate. Plus everyone figures Stewart is just a sap, including his new secretary, Jean Arthur. Arthur knows all about Rains and Arnold’s shenanigans but doesn’t let it bother her anymore; like everyone else who surrounds the politicians in DC, she’s a bit of a drunk. It dulls the disillusionment.

At least until she starts hearing Stewart talk all aspirational and it cuts through all the sludge to her conscious. Arthur’s got a whole arc too. Director Capra takes the greatest care with it; the scenes where Stewart starts getting to Arthur are precise and exquisite, in editing, composition, sound. Mr. Smith does a lot with all three, sometimes large scale—like when new-to-town Stewart takes a tour and finds himself wowed to the core at the Lincoln Memorial—sometimes small, like the Arthur stuff or when Stewart is reconnecting with Rains. Capra and editors Gene Havlick and Al Clark establish a rapid pace to their cuts right away, not just between scenes or in montages (Smith’s got a handful of them, all beautifully done, with some far more narrative than others) but between angles. They’re really fast cuts, usually going to a close-up, then right back out again once the sentence or reaction is finished. Sometimes it’ll cut out to a slightly different shot than before the close-up, with Capra getting a different angle on the characters and changing the narrative distance.

Even with the finale needing a different kind of cut, Havlick and Clark maintain a similar pace. It’s still fast, but with an added thoroughness; there are more characters to track in the finale’s single (mostly single) setting.

Stewart’s phenomenal, ditto Arthur, ditto Rains. Rains’s character development arc takes the longest to finish, while Arthur mostly gets done at the same time as Stewart with a little more as a postscript during the third act. And although Stewart’s character development is resolved by that long finale sequence, the spotlight is still on his performance. While the finale’s an unpredictable turn, Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman have clearly been setting Stewart up for something. He is Mr. Smith, after all.

Arthur’s arc also involves her friendship with fellow functional alcohol Thomas Mitchell, a DC reporter. They’ve got fantastic chemistry and Mitchell’s great. All of Mr. Smith’s supporting cast is great, with the best probably Harry Carew as the Vice-President (and President of the Senate). Most of his dialogue is expository, but Capra’s always cutting to him for reactions to the goings on with Stewart, Rains, and Arthur, and those reactions quickly become essential. A lot of Mr. Smith feels like Capra trying something and discovering it works perfectly and leveraging it, but that first attempt always seems experimental. Capra’s never hesitant or unsure; he’s bold and confidently so.

Also great in the supporting cast are Eugene Pallette, who manages to be always funny—usually laugh out loud funny—while maintaining some menace as Arnold’s fixer. Ruth Donnelly’s got a small part as Kibbee’s wife and she’s great.

Arnold’s perfect as the evil Mr. Big running a political machine but it’s sort of Arnold’s thing; it’s an Edward Arnold part.

Other technical highlights include Joseph Walker’s photography—the Washington location stuff, apparently done on the sly, is truly phenomenal. The way Walker lights it, Capra shoots it, and Havlick and Clark edit it, the Lincoln Memorial is just as alive as anyone else in the scene. It’s outstanding work.

And then also Dimitri Tiomkin’s music. It’s most important for Arthur’s arc and it’s always right on.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a clear star-maker for Stewart, gives Rains an excellent part to run with, while Arthur makes her part great even though she’s got a little less to do and some major constraints (it is the 1930s and she is a woman). All alongside Capra and his crew’s various and constant successes and achievements. It’s a spectacular picture.

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