Idealism, Pragmatism, and the Relevance of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Idealism, Pragmatism, and the Relevance of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
Idealism, Pragmatism, and the Relevance of 'Mr. Smith Goes Washington'

Frank Capra always gets his fair share of love every December, with his masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” still standing as the definitive Christmas movie (all y’all “A Christmas Story” and “Die Hard” fans can take your complaints elsewhere). This year, however, is a special year for Capra fans, with two of his films hitting Blu-Ray just as Holiday shopping season begins. One of them, the Criterion release of his Best Picture-winner “It Happened One Night”  has already been feted from all corners of the internet for its spectacular restoration of the film that’s served as a template for romantic-comedies for 80 years. Less heralded, but no less important, is the 75th anniversary edition Bly-Ray of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from Sony Pictures, which hits shelves today.

Because of the unfortunate timing next to a Criterion release, it’s easy to gripe that this edition of “Mr. Smith” is comparatively light on new extras. Frank Capra, Jr.’s commentary, along with the “Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers” extras, are ported over from earlier discs, and while the Blu does feature the excellent, informative documentary “Frank Capra’s American Dream” (featuring fans as varied as Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Robert Altman and John Milius), so does the new “It Happened One Night” disc. The Blu-Ray does, however, have a strong featurette in “Frank Capra Collaboration,” which covers Capra’s love of actors and desire to bring out the best in them from stars to bit players, and an essay from Jeremy Arnold. 

The real draw, though, is seeing the film restored in 4K in its original aspect ratio. Where my old Columbia Tri-Star DVD had clear damage and dirt on certain, frames, this edition is clear, deepening the blacks and bringing out the finer details of Capra’s always precise reaction shots. When James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith gives his quixotic filibuster to the senate, you can see the faces studying him as he starts to win them over. When he crumples in despair at the Lincoln Memorial, the shadows he collapses in are no longer a vague pool of black. It’s the best the film has looked in ages, and certainly the best it’s looked on home video. 

It’s an important film in this day and age as well, one whose mixture of idealism about people and a country’s values and cynicism about politics and systems can most clearly be seen as an influence on Steven Spielberg’s mixture of the same in “Lincoln.” The film’s depiction of political corruption isn’t alarmist so much as it’s weary and sad-eyed, viewing the film’s primary antagonist Sen. Paine (Claude Rains) not as a monster, but as a decent man in the middle of moral and ethical failure. His ideals have been worn away over the years, so a little bit of corruption and graft to get the ideas he believes in through seem like a fair, pragmatic compromise.

That’s not to say that Capra’s film is about the dangers of pragmatism, but about the right balance of pragmatism with ideals. Smith falls on the other side of the equation, filled with such uncomplicated aw-shucks goodness and naivete that it’s hard not to join in when the other characters laugh at him or otherwise get immediately annoyed at his “phony patriotic chatter” (“Washington, huh?” “For the fifth time, Senator, yes, Washington!”). When Thomas Mitchell’s cynical reporter rebukes Smith’s self-righteousness, calling him an “honorary stooge” who’s clearly there to vote however Paine tells him to vote, Smith shrinks because he knows how unqualified he is. There’s no worship of the idealistic hero in Capra’s film. The director knows the limits of unchecked goodness and blind worship, and Smith pays for his blindness. It’s one of the many Capra dramas that show that uplift only comes through fighting off disappointment and despair and learning that the world is more complicated than it seems.

Two things stand out above all else in the film’s thirty minute filibuster finale. The first is Stewart’s performance, which confirms him as the finest actor of his generation (indeed, arguably the finest actor in the history of the medium), as he turns from folksy to galvanizing (and back again to folksy humor and self-deprecation whenever he needs to win people over). It’s a moment that’d play as cornball in the wrong hands, but Stewart, Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman attack Smith’s gospel of everyday kindness and decency like it’s the only thing that makes sense in a crazy world. As the filibuster extends past 24 hours, Stewart’s gangly body looks more twisted and ready to buckle and his voice goes from a folksy tenor to a croak, but it only confirms the difficult necessity of telling the truth, even to a world that might not listen.

The second is the pragmatism in the ending. Smith’s final call to fight for lost causes, even as he looks doomed to disgrace, only wins by the utterly miraculous reversal of Paine from outrage to shame. Even then, there’s no triumphant parade or vindication of Smith’s actions (Capra cut a too-neat coda implying that the corrupt political machine was dismantled). There’s a chance that for all the good he does, all that he’s done is removed one cog in a political machine that can easily be replaced while shining a light on the rest of it. It’ll likely be part one of a constant struggle, but one worth fighting.

Revisiting “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” I couldn’t help but weigh Smith’s final “lost causes” speech against greater, modern ethical and moral corruption. It’s easy, even human, to despair, for example, after last week’s ruling in Ferguson, to see the prosecution of an apparent murderer be totally thrown out, making any chance at getting a closer look at the truth impossible. It’s also easy to retreat into cynicism. A better mode is to continue to fight for so-called lost causes, like the battle against institutional racism and police militarization, because it’s a lost cause that’s worth fighting for. One can’t expect ideals to win out every time, or for governing systems to do the right thing, but they can balance their pragmatism about how much they’ll accomplish with optimism that they can reach more. As Smith says before he collapses in exhaustion, “Somebody will listen to me.”

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