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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Blu-ray Review)

15 Dec, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$19.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold.

Commenting a couple weeks ago on Criterion’s recent release of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, I noted that some of the restorations of Columbia releases from the Golden Era seem, of necessity, to have been taken from a variety of existing negatives, given the variation in image sharpness when it comes to even cleaned-up prints. But at least to the eye, this does not seem to be the case with this 75th anniversary treatment of another top-drawer Capra, with a screenplay by Sidney Buchman and an Oscar-winning story by Lewis R. Foster. It now looks better than I’ve ever seen over decades of viewings (though not lately) dating back to maybe 1960 when I was just entering my teens. Again, due to the potent mix of script, direction and performances, it’s easy to overlook the fact that so many Capras boasted lustrous black-and-white visuals as well.

My favorite book this year has been Mark Harris’s Five Came Back, about a blockbuster quintet of Hollywood directors who went off to make documentaries for the U.S. government during World War II, some of them leaving their careers in the lurch for as long as five years. In it, one can sympathize with the author’s having taken a fresh view of Capra’s more political movies from the 1930s — and then trying to discern just what the hell its maker’s politics were amid what looks like a mass of contradictions. But in its later going, at least, Mr. Smith, seems to crystallize what more than one said about the director: that he loved and trusted the common man (or woman) as individuals but was worried that humanity as a mass was not necessarily to be trusted and could be swayed by a dictator into a mob mentality.

Which — eventually — is what happens when Jefferson Smith (a career-defining role for James Stewart, then in just his fifth year on screen) goes up against Washington, D.C.’s political machine, and the local press back in his Western state lambastes him right and left in the kind of banner headlines usually reserved for world wars or maybe some new fake-or-not contour that’s just materialized on some Kardashian’s frame. This kind of unrealistic headline has always amused me to no end in vintage movies, but otherwise, the movie’s sentiments against “going Washington” have never been more on point than they are now, and no one can really claim the contrary, at least on the broader points that matter.

As the presumed lightweight yokel chosen by the machine to fill a senate vacancy brought on by a predecessor’s death, Stewart is amazing, and one can make a pretty strong case that the New York Film Critics Circle got it right when it named him best actor of revered 1939 when Oscar picked Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ Robert Donat — though as John Wayne says in Rio Bravo, “I’d hate to live on the difference.” The previous year had continued an escalating breakthrough for the actor with Capra’s Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It With You and arguably George Stevens’ Vivacious Lady — but when Stewart himself went off to war for a five-year hiatus, his superstardom up to that time was predominantly based on Mr. Smith, Destry Rides Again (also 1939) and then The Shop Around the Corner, arguably The Mortal Storm and certainly The Philadelphia Story, all from the following year. His only Oscar (for the last) was considered a kind of Mr. Smith consolation prize, and its net effect was to rob Henry Fonda of his own Oscar for a career performance in The Grapes of Wrath (a sentiment I heard expressed time and again even when I was a kid in the ’50s).

Just about everyone in the who’s-who of ’30s character actors makes an appearance here: Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell, Guy Kibbee, Harry Carey Sr. and Eugene Pallette — with Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, William Demarest and H.B. Warner further down in the cast. Rains (and his makeup) are so great that he almost generates the star power of an acting lead here, while Jean Arthur (already 34, though she’d been a screen force for only about three or four years) shows the actress battled it out with Barbara Stanwyck for the title of all-time Capra screen queen. Stewart’s famed climactic scene — which probably sustained the filibuster’s use as a political device for decades — became folkloric almost at once, with Bob Hope even satirizing it in his first color film: 1941’s Louisiana Purchase.

Sony has given Mr. Smith the kind of deluxe treatment we don’t see very often from them anymore — recycled but standout featurettes from the long-ago DVD release and digibook packaging with a Jeremy Arnold essay and the kind of glossy, high-test paper stock that gives still photos super-snap. Revered academic Jeanine Basinger from Wesleyan University talks of her works with the Capra archive, and the late Frank Jr. (on his commentary and several featurettes recorded many years ago) really knew how to communicate an anecdote. It also should be noted that in a far more brutal parallel with what happened to Capra himself when his patriotism was questioned by Congressional hacks who in a just society would have been selling pencils, screenwriter Buchman — of one of history’s most patriotic movies — was later politically blacklisted with the help of the same types who are skewered here. Maybe it was because he had just penned a very good script for 1951’s Saturday’s Hero, which put a dent or two into the sanctity of a real American institution: college football.

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