#26 Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”
Jefferson Smith

Frank Capra and James Stewart team up to bring the world Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

When an unnamed state’s senator (Montana) dies unexpectedly, the remaining senator and governor devise a plan to get Jefferson Smith (James Stewert), a popular leader of the boy rangers (boy scouts), elected to senate hoping that his small town mentality will allow them to manipulate him into voting however they want him to on various bills.

Mr. Smith quickly makes an impression in Washington when his overqualified secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), decides that she is tired of wasting her talents baby-sitting an under-qualified senator. She decides to ambush Smith with a gaggle of reporters in exchange for a nice little bribe.

Mr. Smith, who is unused to dealing with the media, is manhandled by the various members of the press and is represented negatively during his first day at the senate.

Smith immediately begins a one man wrecking crew to seek physical vengeance for the acts that the various journalists have committed against him. This leads Smith into a bar that is predominantly filled with members of the press. They quickly end his rampage by pointing out that, while they may have taken advantage of him, this is only an indication of how unqualified he is for the job. They even suggest to him that his inexperience is why he was elected.

Smith is immediately humbled. He confronts his fellow senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who, in an attempt to distract Smith, suggest that he work on proposing a new bill as a way of showing his experience.

Smith retains the help of his overqualified assistant and immediately begins work on a bill that would see a national camp opened, and paid for, by the boys of America. But when his plans interfere with a bill that Paine had already submitted, Smith runs into problems.

It seems that the bill that Paine has submitted is not exactly on the up-and-up, he, along with the State’s governor, stand to make quite a bit of money off of it.

Smith discovers this, and is about to bring the transgression before senate, but before he can Paine forges several documents and discredits Smith as a senator guilty of graft.

The senate quickly becomes a battleground between Smith and Paine that threatens to tear apart the senate. It is Smith, integrity, and the truth, in a battle against Paine, the governor, and miles of red tape, in a battle that will decide whether lies or truth will rule the senate.

This movie was tagged as Capra’s greatest work when it was released, and for good reason. Capra displayed his skill with a surgeon’s precision. He lets the film develop at it’s own pace and this is so important. The start of the film, which could have been unwatchable had it not been for the genuine performance of Stewert, sets the pace of the film perfectly. As the Story progresses, so too does the pace, eventually leading to a climactic end that gives the viewer very little time to react to what has happened and demands to be thought about long after the credits have rolled.

As skilled of a director as Capra was, this movie would not have been possible without the performance of James Stewert. While the film was slow his nice-guy demeanour and stuttering voice keep the viewer glued to the film. When the film picks up, little exists besides what is on the screen.

This is the truly great thing that the film accomplishes. While it is being viewed it is an exercise in external minimalism. The problems of the world seem to disappear, and the only two things that matter are the misplaced hair falling on James Stewert’s sweaty forehead and his ever-increasing raspy voice.

When the film is over though, so to is its experiment with minimalism. It holds a magnifying glass to the corruption and greed that plague the political landscape. One of the senators of Montana walked out of this film’s premier because he felt it negatively portrayed his profession. Adversely, the film was banned by many European dictatorships for fear that it would show the affective nature of democracy.

This film was controversial, and probably still should be, but it is also an entertaining ride. It is hard not to get captured in the idealism of the naïve Jefferson Smith, and it is even harder not to recognize the importance of his character, just as it is hard not to recognize the importance of this film.

I’m going to end on another quote by Mr. Smith…

“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!”

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#20 It’s a Wonderful Life

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Clarence

Frank Capra’s tale of the affect that everyone has on the people around them is a timeless Christmas classic that begs to be rediscovered by every generation.

This film observes the life of George Bailey (James Stewart), a good and selfless man who has put his life on hold for the good of his town. He had many dreams for his life that he had to sacrifice in order to prevent the takeover of his town by Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a relentless man who is obsessed with the complete ownership of Bedford Falls.

George is so important to the town because his building and loan company is the only thing that stands in Mr. Potter’s way. But when George’s 8,000-dollar deposit goes missing, George not only faces the possibility of serving jail time, but also the complete collapse of his company. This would allow Mr. Potter to finally take over the town.

Stricken with grief George decides that his family, and his town, would be better off without him. George brings himself to the town bridge, and is about to end his life, but he is visited by an angel.

This angel (Clarence, played by Henry Travers) offers George a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the ability to see what his life would be like if he had never been born.

The result is a trip down memory lane for George as Clarence leads him through the various deeds in his life that have benefited those around him.

Frank Capra’s dedication to this film was obvious. Everything about this film was put together meticulously in order to create a believable town, as well as believable characters to inhabit it.

Capra’s vision of the town of Bedford Falls is one of the most complete creations of any society on screen (perhaps with the exception of Kevin Smith’s “Askewniverse”). Characters had relationships that were son intertwined it would seem that they were real people that Capra was filming.

Perhaps it is due to the genius mechanism of George re-experiencing the prior events of his life, but nothing feels forced in this film. Nothing is said for the benefit of the viewer. This adds to Copra’s complete vision of the characters. Because there is no one needlessly explaining anything to the viewer, the reality of the characters remains firmly intact.

It is unclear as to how Capra, along with the various credited and un-credited writers, was able to create such a clear vision in this film, but whatever he did, he did it well.

Something that definitely didn’t hurt this sense of realism was the superb performance of James Stewart. This was his first performance after serving in world war two and, though he thought it was too soon for him to be making a film, the affect the war had in his performance was clearly beneficial. That is not meant to sound glib, but it is worth speculating that the scenes of overwhelming emotion would not have been as powerful had he not been in this emotional state.

This film looks good, sounds good, and is good. It deals with themes that are both universal, and timeless. More importantly, it doesn’t fall into the trap of making every decision George made into a positive one. So often films like this go too far in their search for inspiration. They toy with the notion that everything happens for the benefit of everyone. This film manages to not give off this sugar-coated sense of optimism, while simultaneously creating a sense of inspiration for the viewer.

Some people will feel that this movie has become a cliché of itself. After all, nearly every cartoon, sit-com, and family drama has copied the plot of this film at least once. But this should serve as nothing more than a testament as to how important this film is to the industry.

So, if you watch this film for the first time and bells are going off due to how familiar it seems just smile, cause every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.