And so, too, does “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Made in 1939, it plays like it was written yesterday. When I saw it for the first time—right after “Watergate”—I found it amazingly prescient. But no, it was talking about its own times. The problems just keep re-occurring again and again. And again. Whoever doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat it, and with every fresh crop of people governing, they’ll keep making the same mistakes. Maybe they think they’re unique. Maybe they don’t know history. They say that if you keep making the same mistake over and over, it’s a sign of insanity. Well, psychology never factored in term limits.
“Mr. Smith…” is the story of a youth leader who is appointed to the Senate after the incumbent dies. This runs afoul of the state’s political machine that ran that senator as well as the senior Senator, Paine (Claude Rains)—who just happens to be an idol of the new senator’s.
It wouldn’t work if director Frank Capra didn’t have tall awkward Jimmy Stewart—not James, Jimmy—whose every stammered syllable bespoke humility. But get him talking about America or Liberty of The Capitol Dome and the stutter disappears in a fervent stage whisper that trails off in awe. Mr. Smith isn’t sure of himself, but he’s sure sure of the Country.
And Washington, D.C. is just the place to shake him up with a few lashes of the Beltway. Stewart could be frustratingly folksy, but for Capra (and for Hitchcock and Anthony Mann) he could be unnervingly vulnerable and, at the other end of the bi-pole, dramatically unhinged. The last act of “Mr. Smith…”—the filibuster against false charges of graft—features Stewart in both phases. At one point, he's knee-deep in political hate-mail, clutching it in his hands and looking skyward like Jesus at Gethsemane. Then a few short paragraphs about “lost causes” later, he’s at his most defiant. “You think I’m licked! You ALL think I’m licked!!” That was his Oscar-winning performance, not the next year’s “The Philadelphia Story” where the “cynical reporter” bit just didn’t wash with someone who looked so homespun. The filibuster scene always brings a lump to my throat, and it’s not sympathy pains for Stewart’s frayed larynx.
So, he cut it. Orson Welles has said: "If you want a happy ending that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." Capra leaves his story’s ending ambiguous. Oh, you could call the riotous goings-on at the end a Happy Ending—but all of Paine’s Senate pals are trying to calm him down, telling him it’s okay…everything’s all right, we're still on your side. The only solace Jefferson Smith is granted is in the sympathetic smile from the Vice-President (played by John Ford’s silent cowboy film-star Harry Carey) before he collapses in a heap of his enemy’s mass-generated letters. The movie "celebration" has all the weight of an Al Gore victory celebration on Election Day 2000--a case of premature exaltation. But nothing's been solved. No one's been cleared. Nothing has been decided. There is just misunderstanding and confusion. Carey leans back and has a chaw while the chaos of Democracy continues unabated. It may not be a "happy" ending, considering the sequence that was shelved. It may not even be a dramatically satisfying ending. But it is representative of the loud, messy process that turns the gears of Democracy. However slow-moving, however off-course, they still turn.
Anytime Movies are movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it's the direction, sometimes it's the writing, sometimes it's the acting, sometimes it's just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again and never tire of them. There are ten. This is Number 6.
VI: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington