Well, this one certainly feels fresh and relevant today, doesn’t it? Though Mr. Smith Goes to Washington doesn’t focus on partisanship—indeed, political parties aren’t even mentioned—corruption, lobbying, and manipulation are front-and-center. Jimmy Stewart—who’s rapidly outdistancing the field as my favorite classic era actor—is brilliant as the naive, idealistic Jefferson Smith, a county leader of the Boy Rangers who’s stunningly appointed to the Senate by the puppet Governor of his state, Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee), when Junior Senator Sam Foley unexpectedly dies. Of course, Hopper is merely a figurehead—local cutthroat business tycoon Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) controls everything, including Senior Senator Joseph Payne (Claude Rains), a publicly beloved but crooked man. Taylor’s current goal: to force a dam-building scheme through the Senate, hidden in a Public Works bill. When the overmatched, stammering Smith proposes legislation for a national boy’s camp that conflicts with Taylor’s plans, the floodgates open and the political machine unloads on Smith, trying to get him to bow as he begins to figure out what’s going on. But to their surprise, Smith, aided by his witty chief-of-staff Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), refuses to buckle, instead invoking the filibuster to prevent his expulsion from the Senate in light of a bloodbath of false allegations against him. Interestingly, their exact hometown is left unclear, though it appears to be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, like Oregon or Washington State.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s greatest strengths is the richness of characters. While it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Smith really being appointed to the senate—wouldn’t the Taylor machine have demanded someone whose character was more known to them, to be sure of no resistance—his loyalty to his constituents, respect for his predecessors (he’s seen gaping at the Capitol and fawningly gazing at Lincoln’s statue, and was named after Thomas Jefferson), and longing for transparency fit almost anyone’s vision of their ideal congressman, and are sorely missed in today’s vitriol-filled political discourse. Saunders is the typical Washington underling: tired of the backroom deals and double-crossing for a pittance in pay, she’s ready to quit, until Payne, in a move he’ll later regret, convinces her to stay on to help Smith sponsor a bill to keep him out of their way. Initially bemused by Smith’s idealism, she slowly grows to love his convictions and refusal to fold to business as usual. Payne, who owes his 20-year career to Taylor, is clearly weary of being his lackey, but he’s in too deep to fight his way out. Payne was best friends with Smith’s father Clarence, and several sequences between the two senators illustrate the battle being waged inside Payne’s head throughout the maneuvering, setting up the ever-so-slightly-contrived-but-mostly-believable finale. As for Taylor, you get the impression this sort of power play runs much more deeply than any of us know these days as well. Focused solely on, essentially, being a behind-the-scenes monarch, he shows no mercy to anyone, and his complete control of his state—the radio stations, the newspapers—evokes modern day Italy under Berlusconi. The script is very good, and enhanced by outstanding performances across the board. Capra also does a nice job of illuminating Washington’s media world, where anything and everything can be taken out of context if it serves someone’s interests. And hell…I’d like to see the filibuster used only as it is here: for forcing unethical, self-serving politicians to out themselves. But, alas, we can’t have everything we want in life…

70/100