|'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington': When the Good Guys Win|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
04:41PM / Thursday, October 08, 2020
I wish that I were reviewing one of the several movies about this pox upon our house that are certain to be made when the horror is deep into our rearview mirror. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
"Laws are like sausages; It is better not to see them being made." — attributed to Otto von Bismarck
We need to send a whole bunch of Mr. Smiths to Washington. Jefferson Smith is smart, honest and has the nation's well-being at heart. Think about it. Save for some age requirements and one recurringly mulled stipulation that says the president must be born on our native soil, there are few if any legal prerequisites for holding political office in America. And gosh does it ever show.
For those who've kept their heads out of the sand and borne witness to the horror in Washington that's made thoroughly appalled pundits desperate for different ways to say unprecedented, the recent years have proved a shocking education. Worst fears have been realized, as well as ones that were unthinkable. And it's all been made possible by the complicity of unremarkable men and women whose only qualification is that a susceptible public elected them.
It's nothing new in the greater expanse of history, which has had its endless stream of ineptly evil kings and dictators subjecting the misled masses to their selfish whims and will. What's mournfully egregious is that through a flawed antique called the electoral system, the grand deceit is currently being perpetrated against the majority wishes of Americans. Straight-faced, the imposers are the proverbial wolves in democracy's clothing who, when asked to comment on press divulgences casting a light on their alleged misdeeds, inevitably relate that they haven't yet read said disclosures. One wonders if in that enlightened government we hope to enjoy one day, literacy and a good score in reading comprehension should be compulsory provisions for office. Dare we suggest that candidates must also be decent human beings?
The ugly blight of a government that's drifted from the public's interest is astutely deliberated in director Frank Capra's political muckrake/fantasy, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which, unfortunately, is just as pertinent today as it was in 1939. Maybe more so.
James Stewart is heroically iconic as the everyman from small town America who, when a senator from his state dies, is picked by the machine-controlled governor as least likely to upset the rotten applecart they've been pushing in D.C. Of course, those powers that be are in for a surprise.
Jefferson Smith, the bright-eyed leader of the Boy Rangers who look up to him for his constitutional acumen, civic consciousness and reverence for all things concerning the American experiment in democracy, is also in for a rude awakening. But not until after a preamble of endearing gushiness has him wandering the capital in blithe veneration of the symbols that inspired his deeply ingrained decency.
He is the sentimental construct of goodness, destined to find he is the Abel to the Cain that has taken prisoner of his ideal, more perfect union.
Good thing he's got a gal to help him fight the good fight after it becomes obvious that the established order will destroy Jeff Smith if he fails to heel to the status quo. She is Jean Arthur's effervescently realized Saunders, the senatorial aide who, after years down in Foggy Bottom, has had her rose-colored glasses clouded by a cataract of self-preserving cynicism. But gee, this boyish patriot is so naïve and pure in nature.
Her first impulse is a motherly instinct to protect the babe in the woods. She has long given up on that statesman in shining armor riding his charger into the Capitol and rescuing her from what has become a life of wishful dreams dashed. But hey, hope springs eternal, especially when you have a front row seat to altruism in action.
Saunders is sharp, zealously using her estimable savvy to help Jeff navigate the Senate's shark infested waters. The tutelage, increasingly love-inspired though neither yet knows it, becomes especially necessary after that hardly august body becomes wary of this goody-two-shoes hayseed from a state Sidney Buchman's screenplay never identifies (in Lewis Foster's original, Oscar-winning story, it's Montana). He just might be the proverbial fly in their murky ointment.
You see, it just so happens that the land back home that Jeff hopes to turn into a national boys camp is where Edward Arnold's reprehensible political boss, Jim Taylor, who controls the state's senior senator, Joseph Paine, plans to build the hopefully wealth cascading, Willetts Creek Dam.
Jeff is crestfallen to discover that Claude Rains's terrifically etched Senator Paine, the boyhood hero who, along with his mysteriously murdered, firebrand dad, famously opined that it was the lost causes that were the ones most worth fighting for, has sold out to the moneyed interests.
We anguish, laugh, smile and are put on tenterhooks as Mr. Smith, going through every mental and physical contortion, pleads before the Congress his case for truth, justice and the American way with a fervor perhaps only equaled by Daniel Webster's petition before the Devil.
While entertaining by virtue of uplifting thoughts evoked through its splendid performances, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" more importantly encourages as we face our democracy's biggest challenge since the Civil War, that every so often the good guy wins.
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a Columbia Pictures release directed by Frank Capra, stars James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains. Running time: 129 minutes