Jefferson Smith: Well, what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies?
F: Another one new to me.
R: Me too.
F: This film stakes its claim early on as the most patriotic on the list. Possibly even more so than Yankee Doodle Dandy and that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because we’re not American, but I found the whole scene where Mr Smith is walking around Washington very cheesy and quite ridiculous.
R: It plays an important part in setting up Mr Smith’s arc – from naïve boy scout to “woke” senator – but you’re right it’s a bit heavy-handed. I do think though that you’ve got to be mindful that this was made in 1939, when realism in drama wasn’t so standard. For the most part, the breezy tone of the film really worked for me.
F: I think this is the kind of role that Jimmy Stewart was made to play. The normal everyman who finds himself in extraordinary situations. He’s very relatable and I think without him this film could fall down quite easily.
R: Sure, he is one of the very finest of his generation – if not all time – and you’re right that his performance helps lift the whole film. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, so everything really hinges on us being able to empathise with what’s happening to him. You can always rely on Jimmy to bring the relatability to the table!
F: Feels a bit much too like It’s A Wonderful Life though. Even down to the scene of everyone singing Auld Lang Syne around James Stewart! That idea of a corrupt political system feels surprisingly timely though…
R: Yes. Who knew there were dodgy politicians before the 21st century? It was though particularly timely that we watched this when there are such corrupt shenanigans going on in the real US senate. And I fear the film will only feel more and more schmaltzy as the years go by. The redemption achieved at the end just feels totally implausible in the current political climate, doesn’t it?
F: Yes it is the Hollywood ending. And like a lot of films from years gone by it just suddenly ends which seems a bit of a cheap conclusion really. What did you think of the filibuster scene?
R: Like so many of the classic scenes on this list, it’s tough not to be influenced by all the parodies and see it with fresh, unbiased eyes. It’s certainly an effective way to conclude the film. Alongside Jimmy Stewart’s memorable performance as a very tired man, what makes it for me is the nail-biting seat-jumping performance from Jean Arthur as Saunders, which is what gives the scene a lot of its tension.
F: Yes I think you really get the sense of time passing too (not just because of the facial hair growth!) For me this scene saves the film from being just a bit dull. A very iconic and enjoyable piece of cinema and I also like how it’s supplemented with the scene from his hometown trying to publish the newspaper.
R: Yes, cutting between the senate and Jefferson’s home town adds a sense of urgency and helps up the pace, which I found very welcome after the slightly ponderous second act. But the reason perhaps film is a “bit dull” in the middle is because we’re now so much less reverential towards our politicians. In 1939 it was novel for a film to be so critical of the political establishment and it caused outrage for how corrupt the senate are shown to be. Whereas in 2018, I think a lot of Americans watching this would happily replace their real life senators with the ones in this film.
F: You mentioned Jean Arthur above and I think it is good to see another strong supporting female role. But I actually found the rest of the supporting cast to be quite weak and cliched. This might be because this film is nearly 80 years old but I do think this film hinges so much on the central character and performance.
R: Yeah, I think you’re right that beyond the central pair the other characters are all a bit shallow and not particularly interesting. Which is good news if you’re a Jimmy Stewart fan, but arguably doesn’t make for one of the 100 greatest American films of all time.
Is it worthy of the top 100?
F: I just don’t think it’s as good as other films from this era so it’s a no from me.
R: Feels a little tame now I think, so it’s a no from me too.