There are a few movies I have always meant to see, movies I know I should see, but somehow have yet to get there. I have recently narrowed the gap some, having watched E.T. for the first time, as well as Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Grapes of Wrath, The Best Years of Our Lives, 8 1/2, and Fritz The Cat. But I always, for whatever reason, left the Frank Capra movies aside. I had seen a few of his movies – Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet John Doe. And I liked them enough to pick up the Frank Capra box set that’s out there – or, at least, to ask for it for Christmas. But I had yet to open it until a week ago. I managed to catch It’s A Wonderful Life over Christmas, but it was an effort for me to sit down and actually force myself to watch it, since I had been avoiding it my whole life. I hate schmaltzy, Hollywood pap, and for some reason I associated this movie with the beginning of that painful sentimentality. Of course I was wrong, and It’s A Wonderful Life was certainly the brilliant movie everyone has always said it is.
So I moved on to such fare as Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, another triumph for Capra, and now to perhaps his greatest work, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I can’t imagine another actor playing the role of Jefferson Smith in this movie, it was the part Jimmy Stewart was born to play. Sure, Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds was a similar character, both small-town naive and at the same time smart enough to play with and see through the corruption in the big city. But I can’t see Cooper bringing the same kind of energy and force to that scene where Smith goes through the letters and telegrams on the floor of the senate, doctored letters that tell him it’s time to stop. In fact, the entire final scene, where Stewart refuses to cede the floor and talks for 24 straight hours, is one of the finest moments of true acting in movie history. In watching it, we feel both his passion and his fatigue, it’s like we’re right in there with him, rooting for him yet at the same time exhausted. It’s as though we too have been sitting on the Senate floor for 24 hours. And the scene with Jean Arthur when she tells him how to go about getting a bill passed in the senate, and he listens with rapt attention, is both hilarious and poignant. This is a man who is absolutely in love with the system and the country and the higher powers. So much so that learning his bill will likely take two years to be passed, if it is heard at all, still fills him with some kind of misdirected American pride.
Which all lends so much weight to his devastation and disillusionment when he discovers that the system is not perfect. That in fact, it is corrupt, indecent, and run by shadowy figures that no one really understands. That the justice and legal system at the top of the food chain in America is run more on bribes and threats and blackmail than it is on ideals and the notion of right and wrong. Which is why, sadly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains timeless. This film, I warrant, will never feel dated, because the corruption at the highest levels of American government will never disappear. In fact, it is likely even more corrupt now than it was in Capra’s day, what with lobbyists and campaign donations and the desperate deisre to be re-elected. The only reason the movie could not be made today is that today, everyone is aware of the cesspool. You could not find a wide-eyed, idealistic rube from anywhere in America, who was not aware of the infernal dealings that go on at that level. In 1939, that character was wholly believable. Today, such a person does not exist.
(Note – it WAS possible to do a remake of All The King’s Men a year ago. Willie Stark did indeed start out as an idealist, but was aware of the corruption inherent in the system and fought against it. Then he too was corrupted by that system. He was no naive innocent rube, he was always a smart and calculating man.) Claude Rains is wonderful as always as Senator Joseph Paine, Jean Arthur is reliably terrific, and Edward Arnold plays the best role of his life as shadowy, influential media magnate James Taylor. An early model for the Rupert Murdochs of today. But the movie always, in every scene, belongs to Stewart. No actor in history was a better fit for the role he played (with the possible exception of George C. Scott in Patton) than Stewart was here. And this movie, sadly, will continue to be completely relevant and topical for the rest of our lifetimes.