“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is typically Capra, punchy, human and absorbing-a drama that combines timeliness with current topical interest and a patriotic flavor blended masterfully into the composite whole to provide one of the finest and consistently interesting dramas of the season. Picture is a cinch for top grosses in the key runs, with holdovers the rule rather than exception. It’s meaty and attention arresting for the subsequent run houses, and a topflight attraction for general audiences.
Capra goes to Washington in unwinding the story, and in so doing provides a graphic picture of just how the national lawmakers operate. His one-man campaign against crooked politics will catch attention in the largest cities and smallest hamlets. In unfolding his narrative, Capra never attempts to expose political skullduggery on a wide scale within our governmental system. He selects one state political machine, and after displaying its power and ruthlessness, proceeds to tear it to pieces.
Capra focuses attention on Washington as the symbol of liberty and democracy of the United States. Presentation is in a sincere vein, with no direct attempt at a preachment. But the patriotic appeal is there, forcefully, albeit secondary to the main dramatic thread, and will command attention from everyone who witnesses the picture.
When a western state senator dies, political boss Edward Arnold dictates the successor to governor Guy Kibbee. The voters object, and boss-controlled Kibbee appoints James Stewart, organizer of Boy Ranger clubs and hero of the youngsters, attitude being that Stewart is harmless, hence easily controlled by the machine. But the junior senator’s patriotism is given added impetus by the wonders of Washington, and he crosses the machine with welldirected shots at a dam grab sponsored by the boss. Facing senatorial expulsion, Stewart is confronted with trumped charges and forgery before the senatorial committee. Before he is voted out of the body, however, he stages a one-man filibuster against the important deficiency bill, and, in the final moments, triumphs as a one-man sponsor of an insurmountable cause.
There’s tremendous dramatic impact threaded throughout the picture, interwoven with those deft human episodes which have become familiar with Capra’s direction in previous pictures. He keys the motivation of his basic premise without wasting time, and then carries it through vigorously.
Stewart is a most happy choice for the title role, delivering sincerity to a difficult part that introduces him as a self-conscious idealist, but a stalwart fighter when faced with a battle to overcome the ruthless political machine of his own state. Jean Arthur is excellent as the wisely cynical senatorial secretary who knows the political ropes of Washington. Unimpressed at first with the backwoods ideals of the new senator, she finally falls in love with him to be the key figure and advisor in the famous filibuster.
Supporting cast is excellently set up to conform with standards set by Capra in previous pictures. Claude Rains is effective as the senior senator; Arnold grooves neatly into spot of the political boss; and Kibbee makes a good, boss-controlled weakling governor.
Thomas Mitchell and Harry Carey command attention for two highlight performances in the picture. Mitchell is a frequently-inebriated newspaper reporter and boy friend of Miss Arthur. Pair’s drinking episode in a cafe booth is a standout comedy sequence. Carey is superb as the Vice-President and presiding officer of the Senate. His wise discernment of the honesty of the young senator during the filibuster, and assistance in upsetting the staid members of the chamber, is a highlight during the climactic episodes.
Sidney Buchman rounded out a crackerjack script from the original story by Lewis R. Foster. Picture, although running 126 minutes, has few dull spots, and shows that Capra whittled the footage down considerably to get it within present running time. The few bounces due to deep cutting will not be apparent to audiences generally. Pictorial background shots of Washington are excellently utilized, with general production of top rating. Replica of the Senate chamber provides a fine set for the filibustering episode, and is claimed by Columbia to be an exact duplicate in every respect. Photography by Joseph Walker hits a high standard of excellence, with sound throughout demonstrating excellent craftsmanship.
1939: Best Original Story.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (James Stewart), Supp. Actor (Harry Carey), Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing, Score, Sound