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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/22/00

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1939 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/B-

Specs and Features

130 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), B&W, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 57:24, at the start of chapter 14), Amaray keep case packaging, commentary track (with Frank Capra, Jr.), theatrical trailers for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night and Lost Horizon, behind-the-scenes featurette Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, gallery of vintage advertising artwork, talent files, film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

"My dad used to tell me that the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes…"

Next to It's a Wonderful Life, it's hard to find a film that more perfectly exemplifies the film vision of director Frank Capra than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. All of his favorite themes are present here: high ideals, patriotism, having the courage to fight for what's right and even the little guy making good against impossible odds. If any modern director tried to put half as many lofty convictions in a movie today, people would call him a sap and a rube. But Frank Capra really believed these principals he captured on film, and God bless him for it.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a deceptively simple film which, when you look closer, reveals a great deal of depth and subtlety. The story is as follows. When a long-time senator from an unnamed Midwestern state passes away, a whole lot of people get nervous, including fellow state senator Joe Paine (played by Claude Raines). You see, Paine's written an amendment into an appropriations bill to build a damn on a small creek back home - a dam that no one but a fat-cat businessman named Jim Taylor wants. Taylor and his associates own the land the dam is to be built on, and when the bill goes through, they'll pocket the government's payment for the land as graft. Taylor's media machine built Paine's career, and he pulls the strings of every politician in the state, including the Governor. So when it comes time to appoint an honorary senator as a replacement, Taylor and Paine need someone they can control - someone naive enough not to ask any questions and vote as ordered. That's where Jefferson Smith comes in.

Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) is a local hero, an everyman do-gooder who publishes a newspaper for boys and fights forest fires in his spare time. Taylor and Paine think he's just wet-behind-the-ears enough to fit their needs. But they've underestimated the new junior senator. Smith may be naive (he idolizes Paine), but he's got Honest Abe's ideals. When Smith unknowingly introduces a bill to build a national boy's camp along the same creek intended for the dam, Paine and Taylor suddenly have their hands full. And when Smith discovers their graft, and decides to speak out about it on the Senate floor, Paine and Taylor turn their powerful and corrupt political machine against him. Is Smith licked, or will he fight the good fight, odds be dammed? Is this a Capra film?

While some might consider the film heavy-handed, Capra's direction is artful and tightly paced. Based loosely on the novel The Gentleman from Montana, Capra's Mr. Smith is filled with great moments. There's a wonderful scene where Smith meets (and is taken with) Senator Paine's daughter - all we see is his hat, as Stewart nervously drops it again and again. And that's all we need to see. Jean Arthur delivers a great performance as Smith's cynical secretary Saunders, who eventually becomes his sole ally. Great character actors abound here - you'll notice Guy Kibbie, Claude Rains and Harry Carey among others. And fans of It's a Wonderful Life will notice Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi and H. B. Warner (who would later play Uncle Billy, Ma Bailey and Mr. Gower respectively). This film is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. And Stewart is perfect as always, bringing Smith to life with great honesty and genuine emotion. If you don't find yourself rooting for Smith in his darkest hour, you might want to check your pulse.

On DVD, the film's B&W, full frame image is as close to pristine as you'll ever see it. Sure, there's light to moderate grain and other occasional print artifacts visible. But the contrast and clarity are superb, and you'll see little to no digital artifacting. The audio is a solid 2.0 mono, featuring clear dialogue and another wonderful score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Capra's son (Frank, Jr.) chimes in on an interesting full-length commentary track, where he discusses his father's work and the making of the film. There's also a 12-minute featurette with Frank, Jr., featuring lots of behind-the-scenes photos and stories. Also included in the way of extras are a fascinating trio of Capra film trailers (including Mr. Smith), a gallery of studio one-sheets and other vintage advertising materials for the film and talent files.

I'm extremely happy to see Columbia TriStar delivering so many older films from their catalog to DVD in such outstanding quality. Whether you're a fan of Capra, Stewart or just great movies in general, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a classic. Capra's themes here are universal. He knew that greatness of character doesn't come from money or fame. All it takes is a belief in what's right and having the courage to fight for it - something we could all use a little more of these days. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt
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