Jimmy Stewart: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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Frank Capra created some of the most memorable films in American history. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands out as one of the best, in which Jimmy Stewart gave one of the finest performances of his young career in this 1939 classic.

The role of Jefferson Smith, a newly appointed Senator, might as well have been written for Stewart. The film focuses on the appointment of an unlikely young man to the empty senate seat of his home state. While under the guidance of his late father’s good friend Smith writes a bill to establish a camp for the young men of America. This bill opens him up to the wrath and dirty underworld of politics. All the while, a humble Smith maintains his faith in the United States government.

In addition to Jimmy Stewart, this film features Jean Arthur and Claude Rains. Arthur plays Clarissa, Smith’s secretary and unlikely supporter as she loses her willingness to be part of the machine. Forced to bring a naive Smith into the 20th century, Clarissa finds herself caught up in the boyish enthusiasm he carries with him. Claude Rains plays Senator Joseph Paine, friend to the father of Senator Smith. Paine becomes tangled in this drama and becomes a conflicted villain in the end.

This is a magical film about the idealism of young Americans. Smith is a simple man who believes in the United States and seeks to do good. Each of the actors did a wonderful job creating a movie that has the feel of all the great Capra pictures. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this movie takes advantage of Jimmy Stewart’s ability to make you believe. In the famous filibuster scene he works his magic as a desperate and honest man reaching out for help. His efforts were even rewarded with a nomination for Best Actor by the Academy Awards. Rains also brought forth a masterful performance in the film as he transforms from senior Senator to desperate man.

Like many of Stewart’s other works, he was flanked by great stars. Jean Arthur had begun her career in silent films and went on to star in films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Shane.  Frank Capra called her his “favorite actress” and she was also nominated for an Oscar in 1944 for The More The Merrier.

Claude Rains would also find success throughout a long career as a wonderful supporting actor. He succeeded with roles in Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and Notorious. Perhaps the most impressive note on his career are his four nominations for Best Supporting Actor, he made the Supporting Actor role an A-list job.

As I continue my focus on Jimmy Stewart I hope that you, the readers, are able to explore the life and works of this man for yourselves. I’ll continue with many films over several genres and multiple decades, each of which will show the versatility of an actor often accused of playing the same man in every role.


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