Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ★★★½

In the middle of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, our overenthusiastic but lovable protagonist Jefferson Smith has this to say:

Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.

That's beautiful. That piece of dialogue right there convinced me once and for all that Frank Capra's film had its heart in the right place. After that, I dropped all my doubts and allowed the film's over-optimistic but admirable sentiments to wash over me.

It's worth noting that Frank Capra was an Italian born in Sicily. He came to America when he was six years old and was presumably always a bit of an outsider, considering his birthplace and culture. Yet he made some of the most American of all films. It's delightful for me to think about, especially since I was just two years older than Capra was when I came to this big beautiful land of oxymorons.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is about one small man who dares to take on the world. It's heartbreaking to watch the hopelessly idealistic Jeff Smith find out that the very people responsible for the country are too jaded and businesslike to believe the words of their founding fathers. It's also heartening to watch his secretary, Saunders, change from the most cynical of people into a wounded but determined idealist of the same breed as Jeff Smith himself.

The film employs wonderful dialogue, some marvelous character development, and an ensemble cast of good actors headed by the ever-wonderful James Stewart, who brings an earnestness to Jeff Smith that ends up being the farthest thing from the type of "patriotism" put on display by those dolts on Twitter who use the hashtag 'merica without the slightest trace of irony. He never preaches. He just is.

But aside from the frank political nature from the film, which holds up admirably well even today, there are a lot of other delightful things taking place. There's the aforementioned character development, which always seems wonderfully organic. There's the fact that Jeff Smith is the most endearing of all everyman heroes.

And there's the scene in which Capra engineers an ingenious way of expressing James Stewart's nervousness around Senator Paine's daughter. Instead of focusing on his face, he brings to our attention the way Stewart fumbles with it as he attempts to carry on a conversation with the girl. He fiddles with it, shakes it, drops it a couple of times, and attempts to put it on his head and fails, until finally the girl offers to take care of the hat for him.

I really liked Mr Smith Goes to Washington. It's a delight to watch even today, when a filibuster of the sort that Jeff Smith pulls off would accomplish absolutely nothing.

Or perhaps it would. You never know.

Man, I'm coming down with a case of Capra-style optimism. But that's probably not a bad thing. After all, I'm already sort of like Clarissa Saunders, minus the swanky wardrobe and Jefferson Smith. Just for today, I'll allow myself to feel optimistic about politics. Just for today, though.

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