Plot Summary: The film begins with one of the senators dying. The governor of whatever state Jefferson Smith is from is in quite a bind. He's being controlled by James Taylor (Edward Arnold), who desperately needs to get the appropriations bill passed so that he can steal lots and lots of money from the good people of his state, so he needs to appoint a political stooge. However, the people of the state want some other guy. The governor finally gets the solution from his kids: appoint this naive, patriotic shmuck Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) head of the Boy Rangers. He'll tramp around Washington pretending to be a senator and vote exactly the way Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines) tells him to. Senator Paine and Mr. Smith's father were friends back in the olden days. Well, Mr. Smith is getting bored in Congress, so Senator Paine advises him to write a bill for something he's always wanted: a national boy's camp. What site does he pick? Willet Creek, the same place that Mr. Taylor's graft is centered in. Mr. Smith tries to fight back, to no avail. Finally, as the appropriations bill is being presented, Mr. Smith steps forward to reveal the fraud. His colleague Sen. Paine steps in and accuses Mr. Smith of the same shameless graft that Mr. Taylor had set up. Mr. Smith is disgraced and offended. He did no such thing, but the political machine is too big. Saunders (Jean Arthur), his secretary, convinces him late one night at the Lincoln Memorial what he has to do: filibuster.

Review: Now, I can't ruin the ending, but the reason that James Stewart's movies are so awesome is his ability as a flustered orator. James Stewart was given the gift of making speeches that would sound melodramatic and cheesy from anyone else powerful. The prime example is his final speech to Paine in this movie (also, "I don't want any ground floors" from ItsAWonderfulLife). He's so natural as a human being and just plain likeable as the small-town nebbish. He brings pigeons to Washington D.C., for God's sake!

However, a lot of the artistry of this film, and the power behind it comes from Capra's manipulation of patriotic images to wrench your heart out. How do we first see the Lincoln Memorial? A little kid is reading the Gettysburg Address off of the wall and his grandfather has to help him with words like "freedom". It sounds terrible on paper, but it makes you want to cry seeing it on the screen. The montage of historical buildings put to an orchestral arrangement of "America, the Beautiful"? You could never get away with it now, but from this movie, you believe it. You are willing to suspend your disbelief and cynicism and share in the beautiful naive patriotic spirit until Jean Arthur comes and just breaks your heart.

Also, this movie certainly has its spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Harry Carey as the President of the Senate is just plain hilarious, and there are moments in the filibuster where the lounge just broke out in laughter. It's tense, and rightfully so, but that tension is made more powerful by its momentary release.

The ultimate measure of a film is if it changes your way of viewing the world. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reminds everyone who sees it that the little guy can still beat the political machine. God Bless America.

See it for:

Rating: Four and a half stars out of five. A beautiful picture which has aged well.



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