as profound, moving and relevant today as when it was made in 1939. if the film were made today (and it wouldn’t be, but perhaps that’s part of our problem), it wouldn’t be more than 20 minutes long. about 20 minutes through the governor is given the duty of assigning a new senator. the political bosses want him to pick a party stooge so he presents the stooge as his nominee, but it is met with vigorous outcry from the people and press. this is where the modern-day version would end. a vigorous outcry would never happen – the press is inept and impotent and the polity is ignorant, apathetic and disengaged. end of movie. but in 1939 the people felt they had reason to be politically aware and engaged so, in the movie, they reject the stooge and the governor is forced to make a different choice. enter james stewart, boy scout leader, local hero, all-around good guy.
james stewart is unmatched in cinema – i have him near, if not at, the top of my list of greatest actors of all-time. his range is great and his work with three major directors created at least three different james stewart personas. with capra he crafted the good guy/everyman persona. with hitchcock he crafted a more complex persona – in vertigo he’s a tortured soul, in rope he’s a bright professor who plays devil’s advocate, but he’s still the moral compass. with anthony mann he’s the supremely capable, but solipsistic and darkened westerner. with each director he added a layer to his work. here is no exception. in this film he sometimes acts without subtlety, yet that lack of subtlety lends a vulnerability to his character. it’s perfectly plausible that my love for his work has blinded me, but i really think that the overacting he does here is exactly what the film (and role) demand.
much of that is because of capra’s direction. i’m by no means a capra expert, but i feel like his style is one of being overly dramatic while still being poignant. it’s not pure luck that he was able to make some of the most inspiring films of the time – mr. smith goes to washington and it’s a wonderful life being the two biggest. both those films are so easily made fun of, yet so undeniably inspiring that it almost seems a paradox. exploring this ability would take studying his films more closely and i don’t have access to them right now so that’ll have to wait. at any rate, capra’s direction style is one of over-dramatization in spurts. the love that develops between jean arthur and james stewart is treated with care and subtlety, but the reaction james stewart has to claude rains’ daughter isn’t subtle at all. stewart’s realization that his filibuster is “another lost cause” isn’t overblown, but his introduction to washington d.c. is. the most important points of the film are dealt with just right, while some of the more whimsical or silly things are treated as entertainment. it’s as if capra comes up with an amazingly simple and inspired story, tells it in a fun and entertaining way, but slows it down just enough at the key moments to allow you to really feel the weight of what you’re experiencing. and, like george costanza, he quits while he’s ahead. there’s no fluffy conclusion, just the cast listing and a final piece from tiomkin.