This outstanding film was included as this month's contribution to the TCM Presents series. Originally conceived as a follow-up to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the film changed titles and actors when Gary Cooper proved to be unavailable. (AFI Catalog) James Stewart brings the needed innocence and gravitas to the role in his second film with Frank Capra and Jean Arthur (they had worked together the previous year on You Can't Take it With You).
One problem with Frank Capra films is that he doesn't always know how to end them. It's a big issue with Meet John Doe (1941); it's a smaller issue here. Mr. Capra does seem to back his character into a corner, and then create a deus ex machina to pull him out of his problem. However, in this film the director does set up hints that Claude Rains will be both the problem and the solution to that problem.
Mr. Rains is, of course, excellent as The Silver Knight, the senior senator from Smith's unnamed state. Best friends with Smith's father (a crusading newspaperman who was murdered after he wrote editorials against a mining syndicate), Paine has been in the pay of Jim Taylor for years. But Senator Paine remembers the ideals that brought him to law and to politics. As Mr. Rains looks at Smith, we see his yearning for the purity that he had when he worked with Smith senior.
A favorite villain for Mr. Capra is Edward Arnold. Mr. Arnold is able to be both affable and menacing at the same time. He helps us to understand why a respectable man like Senator Paine would fall into his clutches. He also has looming presence that gives the viewer pause - we know he is capable of any dastardly act to get what he wants. A stage actor at the beginning: between 1919 and 1933, he appeared in 13 Broadway plays, Mr. Arnold started his film career during the silent era. With his booming voice (and wonderful laugh) he was a natural for talkies, and appeared as the leading man in such films as The Toast of New York (1937) (he was billed ABOVE Cary Grant) and Diamond Jim (1935). Listed on the notorious "Box Office Poison" list, Mr. Arnold segued into more character parts, like Anthony P. Kirby, Sr. (James Stewart's father) in Capra's You Can't Take it With You (1938). Though he identified as a conservative Republican (and even ran for Los Angeles County Supervisor - he lost), he served as President of Screen Actors Guild, and was vocal in his opposition to the blacklisting of his colleagues during the HUAC era. Married three times, and divorced twice (he had three children with his first wife), Mr. Arnold died of cerebral hemorrhage in 1956 at the age of 66. His turn as Olivia de Havilland's father in The Ambassador's Daughter was released just after his death.
Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders) is picture perfect as the tough as nails assistant, who is sick and tired of the dishonest nature of politics. She's seen Taylor's influence on his state for too long, and is convinced that Jeff Smith is either an idiot or a stooge. When she finds he is a man of ideals, she becomes his staunchest ally. She is ALSO the smartest person in the film. She knows the rules of the Senate by heart, she understands the workings of the government, and she knows the people who work on the Hill. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Ms. Arthur giving Saunders such range.
The film is also blessed with a bevy of magnificent character actors: Thomas Mitchell (Diz Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGann), Capra favorite Charles Lane (Nosey), Ruth Donnelly (Mrs. Emma Hopper), Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine), and H. B. Warner (Senate majority leader). But leading this group are the always wonderful Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith) and Harry Carey (President of the Senate). Though their parts are small, you remember then. One only regrets that they are not on the screen for longer. Ms. Bondi would end up playing James Stewart's mother a total of five times (TCM article). This was the third outing in that role.
The film proved to be quite popular, though initially it was reviled by many U.S. Senators and by the Washington Press Corps. (WAMU article). Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley described the film as "silly and stupid," adding that it made the Senate look like "a bunch of crooks." (U.S. Senate article). The film was also banned in Germany and Italy (they didn't like the fact that the film was about a democratic government, even a government that was having problems); however it did well in England, France (prior to the German invasion) and in the United States. Despite the jabs at journalists, the New York Times review was glowing, calling it "is one of the best shows of the year. "
The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences obviously agreed; it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Picture, Actor (for James Stewart), Supporting Actor (for both Harry Carey and Claude Rains), Director, Art Direction, Film Editing, Film Scoring, Sound Recording, and Original story (for which it won it's only Oscar). But, in 1939 the competition was fierce, and the juggernaut called Gone with the Wind pretty much swept the awards (winning 9 of the 14 for which it was nominated). Among the other Picture nominees were Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, and The Wizard of Oz!
The film was added to the National Film Registry in the Registry's first year, and has appeared on multiple AFI lists including: 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary (#26; and #29 on the Original List); the Heroes side of 100 Years, 100 Heroes and Villains (Jefferson Smith is #11) and 100 Years, 100 Cheers (where it is #5). It was even made into a television show with Fess Parker (it only lasted for one season in 1962-63). If you've never seen the film, please try and find a copy. It's certainly an essential. In the meantime, here is the trailer: