Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Year: 1939
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 26
Writer: Sidney Buchman (screenplay) Lewis R. Foster (story)
Director: Frank Capra
Star: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains

I remembered “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as much better than it really is. It’s a functional, inspirational film with great acting, but those qualities are almost overshadowed by the shoddy editing and confusing storytelling. It feels like the rough cut for something that could possibly be a masterpiece, but needs a lot of work and a few reshoots before getting there.

The first half hour of the film is the worst—I’d even call pieces of it horrendous. There are huge, awkward, unnecessary point-of-view shifts throughout that keep the viewer adrift, trying to latch onto something…anything of consistence. The film opens moments after the death of a senator in (as far as I remember) an unnamed state. The Governor (Edward Arnold) must decide between naming a political puppet (he’s pressured by a crooked businessman) or a popular reformer (he’s pressured by the citizens of the state). Instead he chooses Jeff Smith, the Mr. of the title, who is the leader of the Boy Rangers.

There’s a really awkward scene of men going to greet Jeff, building up his introduction, and then they walk into his house to the fanfare of a band playing…and the scene cuts before we meet Jeff. Why? Jeff’s real introduction scene at a celebratory dinner in his honor doesn’t function well as an introduction scene. It’s obvious Jeff’s introduction in his house was cut, but why? And if it had to be, why keep the random men-outside-the-house scene?

By the time we actually meet Jeff Smith (played very well by James Stewart), 15 minutes of the movie have gone by, and the movie still hasn’t shifted to his point-of-view. Instead we are with the corrupt Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the other Senator of the state and an old friend of Jeff’s father. More time passes and Mr. Smith does indeed go to Washington, and wanders around it in a five minute (five minute!) montage of him at all the great landmarks of the city. It’s sub-travelogue editing and shot-choice here, and I feel like it was just put in to pad the running time.

As with most Capra, the film improves exponentially in its second act, thanks to the introduction of “Don’t-Call-Me-Clarissa” Saunders (Jean Arthur). She’s as cynical as they come and begins as a paid stooge, but soon finds herself unwilling to allow Jeff to wander his way before a firing squad.

Screenwriter Sidney Buchman, working from a story by Lewis R. Foster, sets up a fascinating dynamic between Smith, Paine and Saunders. Many would call Jeff’s filibuster the heart of the movie, but I think Jeff’s relationships with these two people are what makes the movie work and garner a depth we would not expect of it. After meeting Jeff for five minutes you know he would go to any lengths to do what is right, so the filibuster is to be expected—it’s the changes we see in these characters that are surprising and rewarding.

First there is Paine, played brilliantly by Raines. It would have been easy to portray him as a simple villain. A stooge for another, more evil, villain named Jim Taylor. But he’s not. He’s a good man who made one bad decision and has slowly been losing his soul for the past two decades. We think that he’s going to use his relationship with Jeff’s father as a tool for manipulation, and though he does at times, it becomes clear that Paine really did love Jeff’s father and cherished the friendship. And, damn it, despite everything, he really likes Jeff too. He doesn’t want to do the horrible things he does, and the audience really feels sympathy for him despite hating what he’s doing.

Then there’s Saunders, who works so well because she inherently shouldn’t be likeable. Arthur infuses her with a great cynicism early and often, and even after she switches over to Jeff’s team, she does it knowing that, realistically, it’s not even David vs. Goliath, it’s an ant vs. Goliath. The scene at the Lincoln Memorial where she convinces Jeff to do the filibuster has been copied thousands of times in movies after this, sometimes better, sometimes less so, but Arthur is so good with her careful body language here that it’s some kind of magical.

Most of the filibuster is very, very well done, and Stewart is tremendous as showing Jeff’s will even as his body is failing him. The scene becomes even more emotional given the parallel stories of Taylor doing everything possible to keep Jeff’s message from getting to his home state. Hell, Capra goes so far as having a montage of Taylor’s men almost murdering Boy Rangers in order to keep a lid on the story. It would have been nice to see the grassroots movement in the state pay off, but that would be a different movie. This is about the difference one man can make. Many of my friends think that Paine finally breaking down, attempting suicide and spilling everything is a deus ex machina, but I disagree. Buchman and Capra set this moment up throughout the movie very well, and we can honestly understand Paine’s feelings at that moment.

Other plots in the movie are half-developed or abandoned entirely. The most blatant of these is Paine’s daughter Susan, who Jeff is immediately smitten with. Taylor wants to use Susan to get to Jeff, but Paine says “absolutely not.” Then, two scenes later, Susan does just that. Obviously a transition scene is missing. And then Susan disappears for the rest of the movie and is barely spoken of again. Whoops.

The other is the complete lack of closure for Jeff at the end of the movie. The last time we see him he passes out and is carried out of the Senate. Then Raines comes in and confesses everything, there’s cheering…and the movie just ends on a shot of the Vice President chewing gum. What the hell? Where’s the scene of Saunders and Jeff reuniting? Of Saunders telling Jeff he won? Of Taylor being arrested? Or a shot of Jeff’s reaction to any of this? It’s such a huge cop-out, and there was no reason why Capra and Buchman couldn’t have added more scenes.

There are other really, really bad editing choices throughout. The ones that take me out of the movie the fastest are when there’s a cut from a medium shot to another medium shot, only inches closer or farther away, for no real reason. There are shots that make no logical or story sense and a sequence of Jeff walking through Washington punching random reporters that should have been cut immediately. Seriously, that scene is in there and yet we don’t get to see Jeff and Saunders reunite? Really?

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” isn’t a bad film, but it’s an infuriating one. If only there would have been more care taken with the editing, continuity and storytelling this could have been a masterpiece. Right now, it just seems unfinished, with a first act that needs huge changes and a third act that is way too brief.

My Score (out of 5): ***