Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart excels in Frank Capra’s tale of a country bumpkin appointed to the US Senate, where his idealistic plans collide with political corruption.

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“Not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom… and to the innate dignity of just the average man.”
Frank Nugent, The New York Times, 1939

Made during the Great Depression and just before World War II, this sharp-edged comedy marked a turning point for director Frank Capra from optimism to a more ambivalent vision. It celebrates democracy and the difference one determined man can make, but depicts a Washington so deeply compromised by vested interests that some feared the film might be used as fascist propaganda. In fact, it was banned in Nazi Germany.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington belongs to James Stewart as the goofy, stuttering dreamer. The role, originally intended for Gary Cooper, made him a star. Claude Rains also impresses as a politician who has abdicated his youthful ideals, while Jean Arthur is memorable as Stewart’s savvy, cynical Girl Friday.

Capra and Stewart developed similar themes in their later collaboration It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Mr Smith Goes to Washington was loosely reworked as The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), with Eddie Murphy.

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