Even back then, Hollywood knew exactly what people wanted to watch...
In 1939 the Hollywood studio system was in full swing, and Frank Capra was cranking out drama films for Columbia pictures - a big name in the industry, from which we get a number of classics including It Happened One Night, It's A Wonderful Life, and this film: Mr Smith Goes To Washington.
This is a fun movie. It's about a guy who gets elected a US senator, by the machinations of a group of conspirators who need a stooge to vote their way for their profit. The man they pick is Mr. Jefferson Smith - leader of the boy scouts, and completely oblivious to politics. Over the course of the film we follow Mr. Smith as he struggles with his public image, his duties as a senator, and his purpose for being there. He's also totally overwhelmed with patriotic pride at being in Washington DC, amongst all the monuments and memorials to The American Way.
This whole film smacks of patriotic pride actually - if you love America you'll love this movie. If you can't stand that inspirational speech in Independence Day... Don't even go near it. There's a sequence (quite a brilliant one actually) in which Mr. Smith hits up all the landmarks of Washington in a gleeful romp around the city - from the Lincoln Memorial to the Liberty Bell - It plays like a tribute to the cities tourist spots. It's effective and moving and all that, but so, so cheesy. (I'm sorry if I come off dismissive, or get some of this stuff wrong... it's just that I'm not an American)
This is Hollywood at its most formulaic, so I'm not giving away much when I say that he eventually figures out what's going on and learns to play the system in order to stop the baddies, and affirm the values of liberty, justice and all that... There are quite a few surprises towards the end though, and the final few scenes take on a surprising amount of tension - even hinting at a dark tone... but all's well when the ending finally comes. It's a little abrupt, but those loose ends don't necessarily need tidying up. The truth prevails and the day is saved, we can figure the rest out from there.
James Stewart is one of the finest actors in history. A favourite of Hitchcock's, his acting falls between solid and exceptional in everything I've seen him in. This is one of his earlier works, but you can feel the heart and soul of this naive, loveable, courageous character as he takes on the corruption and bureaucracy of the system. David and Goliath indeed.
One thing I don't understand is why it was so controversial at release... I guess it does portray the senate as legalistic and corrupt, but American values win the day and ultimately I think it gives a positive impression of America as a whole. Obviously some disagree, because when it first came out it was attacked by the senate and the press for being "anti-American". But liberty wins again; the film was added to the National Film Registry for preservation in 1989, so it now carries official recognition of its significance, and it managed to show up in my film course...
Sure it's in black and white, and its extremely cheesy, but if you're in the mood for an uplifting popcorn flick, give it a go, you might accidentally get swept up in its breathless pace, happy humour and well-to-do charm. Go on, I dare you.