Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The ultimate classic movie about politics. For all the criticism of the idealism in Frank Capra's ouevre, if you take anything more than just a cursory glance at any of his films, they can be quite dark indeed, for all their optimism. I think Capra saw something fundamental about America, and indeed about the world at large. That truly great things and great accomplishments never come without great cost. The fact that we even have a country at all is not just because some great men with great minds put some great ideas on paper, but because thousands of ordinary men bled and died for those ideas. And so it's only fitting that the hero of Capra's film, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), has to endure trials to accomplish something in the U.S. Senate.
Smith comes to town full of awe for his responsibility and is quickly intoxicated by the sights of Washington. He's not off the train five minutes before he wanders away from his entourage for a wide-eyed look around town. And who could blame him? I get choked up myself looking at all that history. But it doesn't take long for the shine to wear off. His first initiation into the cruelty of Washington is by way of the press corps. After the papers brand him a bumpkin, he proceeds to punch out everyone he sees who he thinks might be laughing at him. He is finally held down by several members of the press corps, including Diz, played by Thomas Mitchell, and they indoctrinate him into the merciless nature of DC press. [Side note: 1939 was a REALLY remarkable year for Thomas Mitchell. He was in five movies that year, all of them huge classics, including this film, Stagecoach, AND Gone With the Wind!]
Smith's patriotism and belief in the idealism of Washington is repeatedly beaten down, each time more cruelly than before, until he finds himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in tears. His assistant, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), finds him and talks him out of quitting. You know, everyone loves the filibuster scene, and we've all seen the clips where Stewart - greasy hair dangling in his face, sweat pouring, eyes glazed over - wades through the damning telegrams with his arms like a drowning man. But this quiet scene between Stewart and Arthur is my absolute favorite moment of the film. Click below to see it for yourself.
And then there's the famous filibuster sequence. That moment on the steps of the memorial is not the low point for our hero. Oh no. Even after he starts his filibuster, he's got a devastating blow coming. But Capra doesn't lead us into a valley to leave us there. His belief in the power of one person to do good won't allow that. And what we're left with is one of the great celluloid love songs ever written to this country.