About six months ago I watched this little gem of a film and fell completely in love. I am currently trying to watch all the films on IMDB’s Top 250 list, which I know is really cheesy, but it has introduced me to some wonderful films I didn’t know existed, such as this!
It stars my favourite ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ actor James Stewart. Before anything else, I have to admit one of the reasons I enjoyed this film so much is because of him. I love James Stewart. He brought an energy to every project he worked in and is simply likeable in everything he did, whether it be a grumpy photographer avoiding committing to Grace Kelly and suspects his neighbour of murder in Rear Window, or a man who may or may not be insane as he talks to his best friend, after who the movie Harvey is named, an invisible, 6ft tall bunny rabbit. I have yet to see Vertigo (for shame!), but even a film that I am not as enamoured with as everyone else seems to be, It’s a Wonderful Life, is made enjoyable because of him.
He plays Jefferson Smith a naïve, easy-going leader of a troop of boy rangers in an unnamed state in America. He’s well liked by the community and loved by the kids he leads. He is made a senator by group of corrupt officials, including the Governor and the other state senator, Senator Paine, as well as the man who controls them, Jim Taylor. They believe they can control him. They do not, however, understand how honest and good intentioned he is. Senator Paine doesn’t want to manipulate Smith more than is necessary – as a close friend to Smith’s deceased father, he is a father figure to Jeff and cares for him. He encourages Smith to create a bill of his own, not realising how it will affect his own corrupt plans. After Jefferson discovers Taylor and Paine’s corruption they turn against him, and he realises just how powerful these people are.
The supporting cast is fun and important, especially ‘Diz’, a journalist, and the President of the Senate. Stewart infuses Jeff Smith with a joy that is uninhibited and infectious. It permeates the film. He can’t believe how lucky he is to be in Washington, to see and discover this great city. As soon as he gets off the train he goes to see the sights, his favourite being the Lincoln Memorial. The shot of Smith standing at the foot of Lincoln’s statue looking up into the marble face, both of them captured in profile, is beautiful, as is the sequence of Smith, a little boy and his grandfather as the child reads Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
As the film progresses you can feel the loss of Smith’s joy as his enemies attack from all directions. His discovery that the man he idolised and trusted, Senator Paine, isn’t the man he thought he was hurts him and the viewer alike, and as you witness Jeff become steadily more broken, it breaks you too.
I have not yet mentioned another major character in the film as I felt she deserved some space devoted directly to her. For if James Stewart guaranteed that I would like this film, Jean Arthur’s character Saunders made me love it. She is his secretary and knows more about Washington than he probably ever will. She’s smart and sarcastic; if this film wasn’t both made and set in the 1930’s she would have been a senator herself rather than secretary to them. Cynical due to her surroundings Saunders falls for the idealistic Jeff. (But then, who wouldn’t? Of course, my bias towards James Stewart could be blinding my judgement.) The character is wonderful. Arthur allows her steely personality to be warm and not abrasive. Even when hurt she is strong and doesn’t fall to pieces – Smith relies on her far more than she relies on him, something rare in films even now. Funny and intelligent, she is a brilliant creation and makes the film for me.
This isn’t a pure comedy. It will break your heart (at least it broke mine) and cause you to question both those who are meant to lead us as well as the character of people in general. I would guess this is a film that would hold even more meaning if one were American (not being so, I can only speculate). It is funny, but there is more here than just laughs. It is bigger than that; it longs for more than to make you simply chuckle and that’s what makes it wonderful.