August 24, 2014

James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

as JEFFERSON SMITH
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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor
Immersing myself in 1930’s films has led to my bitching quite a bit about pictures that are too cheesy, too hokey, and/or too sentimental. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one such film—and it’s really surprising that the same man who made a fan out of me with the effortlessly entertaining Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night would end the decade with a string of underwhelming flicks. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tackles two subjects that I really don’t care for—the first being overwrought patriotism and the second being children (AGAIN with the little boys! Why were 1930s audiences so enamored with little boys?! When in God’s name will this madness end?!) Usually there’s no saving these pictures that feature such contrived circumstances as a handful of boys influencing who is elected to the senate or a group of men hitting a bunch of boys with their car to stop them from delivering their children-printed newspaper—I simply sigh, roll my eyes, drown in the ridiculousness of it all, and hate my life—but thank the heavens for James Stewart, who manages to keep this film from collapsing under the heavy weight of its own absurdity, who is the heart and soul of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and who, with his earnest and almost palpable charisma, singlehandedly makes this film worth the watch. 

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a strange combination of obnoxious saccharine and gripping drama, and Stewart is more than up for the challenge at bringing both aspects of the film together into a cohesive center. If I had to summarize Stewart's performance in a single word, that word would be genuine. His Jefferson Smith genuinely seems to care for young boys...he doesn't just passively say it like Spencer Tracy does. He genuinely seems to care for his proposed boys camp. He genuinely seems naive, genuinely shocked by all the political corruption, genuinely hurt by all of those who are trying to bring him down. Stewart says everything with meaning—there is not a single moment in his performance that rang untrue with me. So as vomit inducing as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can be at times with its much too glossy dialogue and ideals, it is Stewart who takes ahold of the material and makes it meaningful. Thus when Stewart is forced to sputter out some trite monologue about how amazed he is by all the D.C. monuments, how amazing our country is and how great it'd be to make a boys camp that'll nurture and raise boys into great men, he does it in such an earnest manner that is incredibly expressive and eloquent—and in doing so he is commanding attention as well as whittling away the ridiculousness of all of which the screenplay serves. What's left is a performance of sheer virtuosity. Stewart's sweet and naive Jefferson Smith is everything that Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds wanted to be—this is mainly because it's clear that Stewart is a much better actor, but he's also got a boy-next-door quality about him that makes everything more believable, whereas Cooper was much too tough and aloof a guy to pull that off. Whether his eyes are glazed over speaking with Senator Paine or awwshucksing around Susan, Stewart has the warmth to make it convincing, and he does it well enough so that I, like Jean Arthur's Saunders, also didn't want to see him hurt. This all culminates in the iconic filibuster scene, where Stewart's fuse finally explodes. It's a fiery display of bravura, executed with such energy—you really feel that this is one of those moments where a young actor is giving a scene his all as a means to show you what he's made of. That explosiveness—and his eventual crumbling—is laced with such vivid wounded emotion and is so expertly done. The entire performance is just a well-rounded creation. There's a line in the film where Jeff tells Saunders that his father used to always mention "...how grateful you are to see daylight again after coming through a long dark tunnel," and to make a dumb analogy, James Stewart is the bright light to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He's simply sublime here.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm disappointed with your thoughts on the movie, I love Capra and Jimmy and I am expecting to really like it.

    How was Jean Arthur?

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    1. i've just developed a very low tolerance for cheesy flicks. If that's not a problem for you, then I'm sure you'll like the movie a lot more than I did! Jimmy's sublime though, so whether or not you do like the film it's still worth sitting through just to see him.

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    2. also: Jean Arthur--eh. She's alright. Typical supportive love interest. Nothing too special.

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  2. Haven't seen this either.

    And how close was Jean Arthur to a Best Actress nom indeed?

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    1. You should! if ever you're in the mood for some good actor-ing :D

      Jean's is the type of role that I can see getting a nomination in a weaker year. Seeing as they liked the movie as much as they did I wouldn't be surprised if Arthur were like 6th or 7th in the placings.

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    2. but she wouldn't deserve it though ;) I've already seen two ladies who I firmly believe are deserving of a nomination.

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  3. Genuine is a good way to describe his acting in general, especially in these types of "aw shucks" innocent roles. He's just so damn adorable you can't help but love him. Still, I was a little more weary of him here, where I felt like he was a little too one-note for my tastes. But that final scene is indeed fantastic & he's still probably a 4 from me.

    Agree on Arthur. She's fine but nothing worth noting here. I also didn't have strong feelings of Claude Rains and Harry Carey's nomination is baffling.

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  4. You get so many things right in your assessment of James Stewart. He's the genuine article: youthful intensity, sheepish openness and virile youth. His filibuster sequence is extremely persuasive. This was an Oscar well-earned yet denied.

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