I recently watched the American Film Institutes tribute to America’s Top 100 films which was updated. It aired June 20 and the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moved up three notches.
The film starts with a senator needing replacement in Washington. I didn’t find out until reading the DVD liner notes that the state represented was Montana. The governor of the state had to appoint a senator. At his dinner table one evening during the height of his search, the governor’s children tell him he should appoint Jeff Smith, a local hero and youth leader.
Skeptical at first, the governor and his advisors decide Smith is enough of a novice to do as he’s told. It’s obvious from the beginning of the picture there is a huge political machine that manipulates the senate.
A very young James Stewart plays Smith and Jean Arthur plays Saunders, his secretary. I was surprised to see Arthur got top billing over Stewart in the credits.
This film was made in 1939 after much studio discussion and cost $1.5 million to make, a high price tag at the time. The reproduction of the Senate floor cost $100,000.
There is an obvious conspiracy that has been going on long before Smith gets to Washington to build a dam to line the pockets of the politicians involved. The head of the conspiracy is a character named James Taylor who has had Claude Rains, the senior senator, in his back pocket. Rains ironically was close to Smith’s father years ago and Smith is shocked when he later finds out Rains is a crooked politician.
As we watch Smith struggle with his new feelings politically in trying to stay on the straight and narrow path, the political machine goes into gear to stop Stewart.
The climax of the film comes when Stewart filibusters for his cause (I have to admit I didn’t know what filibustering was; when a politician may keep talking as long as he can as long as he doesn’t yield the floor or sit down). Stewart does an awesome job with the suspension of disbelief enhanced by Stewart’s hoarseness, which the liner notes show came from Stewart painting his throat with a mercury solution for an authentic sound.
The film was nominated for 10 Oscars but only won for best writing.
This isn’t just a small guy against big corporations due to the great performance of Stewart.
Frank Capra was the director and there were some things that struck me such as shadowing and a hilarious scene where Stewart is so taken with a beautiful woman he can’t hold onto his hat.
I’m definitely going to go through the top 100 AFI films over time as I’m intrigued with the quality of the films and I recommend you guys do the same. It is definitely a departure for me and something I’m enjoying very much.