Frank Capra was indisputably one of the very best directors to ever come out of Hollywood. Starting his career on the very cusp between silent pictures and talkies, he would go on to make a multitude of great films that are stilled hailed today as some of the best ever made, including “It Happened One Night,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “You Can’t Take It with You.” In 1939, the golden year of Hollywood that many consider to be the finest year cinema has ever seen, he directed one of his very best masterpieces, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a film that tells the story of a young man, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), who is brought to Washington to replace a recently deceased senator.
Smith knows practically nothing about politics, but that’s the precise reason that he was chosen by the corrupt people who put him there, which includes his state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), and the man pulling his strings, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Their plan is to get Smith to vote exactly how they want him to in order to get a bill of theirs passed, a bill that involves building a dam that would put a lot of money in their pockets. However, Smith ends up having a different plan, one that involves getting a national boys’ camp built in the exact same spot as their proposed dam. Paine and Taylor soon realize that they can’t control Smith as easily as they thought they would, leading to a desperate plan that just might destroy him before he’s even had a chance to do some good.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is a film filled with heart, wonder, humor, tension, and even a little educational material for those who’ve ever wondered just how hard it is to get a bill passed in Congress. It’s one of those stories that’s an absolute delight from beginning to end, starting with an idealistic young man coming to the seat of power for the nation, filled with hopes and dreams of how he can do something good for it, only to realize that it’s not quite the way he imagined it would be.
Aside from a brilliant screenplay written by Sidney Buchman (Oscar winner for “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”), perhaps the film’s strongest attribute is the incredible ensemble that was assembled to help bring it to life, an ensemble that includes James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey. Stewart plays Smith with a delightful child-like persona, marveling at all the monuments and buildings of D.C., and barely being able to contain his enthusiasm when he comes up with his plan for the boy’s camp. He makes you care from his very opening scene right to the end of his infamous filibuster where he puts everything on the line for one last shot at setting things right.
Arthur is positively charming as his assistant, who helps him get used to the ways of Washington and the Senate, even going so far as to help him draft his bill. The great Claude Rains does a fantastic job at playing a kind of dual role, where he appears to be a good and honest man on the outside, but when Smith begins to threaten what he’s been working on for the past couple of years, he shows a completely different persona. All of these great performances, Frank Capra’s direction, and an engrossing story combine to tell one of the most unforgettable tales about government ever made, one that continues to have a strong impact on audiences to this day, and will continue to do so far into the future.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” comes to Blu-ray in a stunning 1.37:1, 1080p High Definition transfer for its 75th anniversary. The picture is positively radiant, looking better than the film has ever looked before. The only slight problem is that, like most other films from before widescreen, it’s been given the “shrunken box” treatment, but the film is so captivating that most probably won’t even notice. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is completely flawless, giving you every bit of dialogue and score at perfect levels, ensuring that you hear every bit of sound with absolute clarity. Overall, the film couldn’t possibly look or sound better than it does here.
Commentary by Frank Capra, Jr.
Frank Capra’s American Dream
Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers… Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Conversations with Frank Capra, Jr.: The Golden Years
Conversations with Frank Capra, Jr.: A Family History
Frank Capra: Collaboration
The Frank Capra I Knew
This is a fantastic collection of special features, most of which feature Frank Capra’s son reminiscing about his father, discussing not only the film, but also his family life. His commentary is fascinating to listen to as he provides interesting tidbits of information about how his father went about putting the film together. Also included is a fantastic feature-length documentary called “Frank Capra’s American Dream,” which is hosted and narrated by Ron Howard. It, along with everything else, is very much worth watching if you’re looking not only to explore the history of this amazing film, but also the incredibly talented director behind it.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” remains one of the quintessential films about American politics to this very day. Through the combination of a brilliant ensemble, a great screenplay, and, of course, Frank Capra’s impeccable direction, the film delivers a great deal of heart, humor, and spirit that is not easily forgotten. Frank Capra did indeed make a multitude of great films, but this might just be his very best.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.