Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) (DRAFT)

Mr Smith (James Stewart - in other words, Everyman) is in fact elected to the Senate and discovers that not all is as it seems in the world of politics. He loses his minders on his arrival in the capital and spends five hours drinking in the symbolism of the Capitol Dome and the Lincoln memorial and reading the relevant bits of the Constitution.

Filled with enthusiasm to do what is right, promising never to do anything to disgrace the office of Senator, he sets about learning the ropes of office from his PA, Saunders (Jean Arthur) and the small boys who run around the Senate building keeping things ticking over. What he fails to learn - from the real grown-ups - is that his sponsor (Senator Paine - yes, a complete pain and bearing no moral resemblance to his distinguished forbear Thomas, played by Claude Rains) has been compromised by his association with crooked businessman.

As a native Englishman, I have to do a little research about the American "Parliament", its habits and customs and the facts about filibustering. Does the Senate really rely on small boys to rush here and there to keep things going? Would the President really keep smirking behind his hand to conceal his bias one way or t'other?

That aside, this is a film with some strange sequences. Director Capra dwells at length by montage on Smiths' visit to the Lincoln Memorial; when Smith meets Paine's daughter, he is so overcome with embarrassment that we must watch him fumble with and drop his hat in close-up. He leaves without the offending headgear, but it miraculously reappears when necessary; when Smith is filibustering and we see the rivals in his hometown trying to distribute their papers carrying their version of the truth, one gang on boys on go-karts are deliberately run off the road by the businessman's distributors. In fact, this last scene caps a sequence which shows things that would surely have taken days to occur (campaigning for and against Smith, printing and distributing a number of newspaper editions and so on) though Smith holds the floor for 23 hours or so.

These curiosities aside, this advert for the American way of democracy is a rousing and funny propaganda piece whose humanist streak was Capra's hallmark (see You Can't Take It With You and Mr Deeds Goes To Town, for example). Stewart is great, as is Jean Arthur. Perhaps my favourite scene is when she and Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) get drunk and agree to marry, only for things to turn sour as Saunders quits Smith's office, angry at his apparently falling for Paine's daughter.

Well worth the two hours running time.

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