Well, if you’ve been following along with my silly trek through the AFI top 100 you know by now that I have a low tolerance for “classic” films that just don’t hold up. So it should come as no surprise that on this, my first-ever screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was unimpressed. Sacrilege you say? Poppy-cock I say. This film is a sappy, ridiculous mess that has a much better reputation than it deserves. And I love James Stewart. I just don’t care for Frank Capra (with the exception of It Happened One Night).
I don’t simply dislike classic films, so you can’t blame this on that. In fact, several of my personal favorites are old — Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story to name a couple. Those films are great because they are great films with incredible acting and brilliant dialogue that stands the test of time. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just plain dumb. And by the way, the ending is the most ridiculous part. Spoiler alert: the so-called “happy” ending takes place only because Senator Paine ( Claude Rains) comes clean at the end. There was not going to be any redemption for the feeble Mr. Smith — he was going to lose his bid to show the world that politics is evil — until Sen. Paine decides, for some unknown reason, to throw himself on the mercy of congress in a ludicrous confession. Where’s the moral in that? Mr. Smith goes to Washington and fails to blow the lid off corruption. Some plot.
I will give credit where credit is due though. Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders was wonderful as the sassy but ultimately helpful secretary to Mr. Smith. Ironically, of the three Oscar nominations for acting that the film received she was not among the honored. But despite her great performance her character does have a major flaw — she falls for the idiotic Mr. Smith even though his naiveté about politics (and life for that matter) is obvious. She’s be better off marrying the unattractive but intellectually equal Diz Moore. This film was all wrong.
I would like to say there was at least one memorable line wrapped up in Mr. Smith’s long-winded diatribe in congress:
“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”
That’s a nice bit of writing, but it’s alone in an otherwise dull script. And of course the sentiment is as true today as it was in 1939, and probably 1839 and 1776 as well. Guess I’m a pessimist, but the more things change the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to politics.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — so many films you think you love from their reputation just don’t hold up when you see them again with a critical eye. Just because something is old does not make it classic.
Next on the list: To Kill a Mockingbird