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Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – 75th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Mr-Smith-Goes-To-WashingtonAnyone interested in the history of film knows that the 1930s was considered the Golden Era of Hollywood.  Technological advancements were changing the way the film landscape was shaping up, stories started pushing through and testing the limits.  The final year of that decade closed out an impressive run with one of the biggest Academy Award races ever.  It wasn’t called “Best Picture” back then, but “Outstanding Production” in the 12th Annual Academy Awards for films in 1939 featured a roster of The Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice And Men, Love Affair, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chip, Ninotchka and the film we’re here to talk about today, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  This 75 year old Frank Capra classic was nominated for 11 of those Oscars, but only took home one of them (Lewis R. Foster, “Best Story”).  However, I believe more important than an Oscar is being a film that stands the test of time, one that you constantly go back to and still remains relevant to the conversation even 75 years later.  While, yes, others on that list meet that qualification, it was as damn good year, but Mr. Smith Goes To Washington somehow has a timeless message and spirit that carries with it to make it one of the best and most important films ever made.

Stewart As Mr Smith

Film 

Jefferson Smith, head of a “Boy Rangers” organization, is appointed to the Senate to succeed Sam Folley who has recently passed.  Little to Smith’s knowledge is that he has only been chosen as a patsy for a few months until the election comes up, and the governor can keep happy Jim Taylor who is controls the town and the other Senator Joseph Paine.  Smith is a history nut, and is quite aw struck by all that goes down in Washington and quite overwhelmed with everything.  Paine makes sure that Smith is overseen by one of his assistants, Saunders who is to make sure he just sits around and does a whole lot of nothing while in office.  But, Smith wants to make a difference while he’s there and has Saunders help to propose him a bill for a national program regarding his “Boy Rangers” back home.  As harmless as that seems, his bill uncovers a scandal stemming from a lot of corruption with top officials in his hometown.

Inspired by both an unpublished story and a trip to Washington, Frank Capra has crafted an uplifting and inspiring film.  One that stands tall as perfection in the world of film and storytelling.  His level of detail, depth of character and imagery work to both pull at the heartstrings and also give mind that everyone can make a difference in this world and that yes, good-natured people can and do prevail.  Everything, down to the extras in the film work to establish this demeanor.  Even the smallest of glances can cause you to get so much warmth inside.  It’s a tiny moment, but I point to the scene where Jefferson Smith is at the Lincoln Memorial and turns to see an elderly man admiring it and taking his hat of and placing it over his heart.  The shot is very short, the action is very light, but it speaks an incredibly amount of volume and manages to tell a whole story within itself with just that couple seconds and that one elderly man who just barely makes the celluloid.  That’s the kind of inspired effort, care, thought and execution Capra’s film provides.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington wound up being a pretty controversial film when it was released, but also even before it went behind a lens.  The short story was submitted before the censors when the intent was to make it into a film.  It came back with a warning that it may not be such a good idea to paint the government in such a light that it may be seen as something to cause a huge backlash and not get to have a green light.  However, the adapted screenplay then went to those same censors and they absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to see the final product and felt it was going to have a nice positive impact and audience response.  Upon release of the film however, government officials got to have the premiere of it and they absolutely didn’t care for it.  Some walked out of the theaters and others were very vocal about their disapproval of the film.  Later on, the film was banned in other countries due to its message and ideals.  Of course, you could probably guess offhand that these countries were Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s USSR.  In addition, some European countries had the film’s dialogue dubbed as to promote more regional ideologies.  Interestingly, I did not check the alternate audio/subtitle tracks on the disc to see if this is still the case with the modern DVD and Blu-ray releases of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

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One of Hollywood’s greatest all-time legends is actor Jimmy Stewart.  He may not be a household name to younger generations, due to the fact he’s no longer with us and didn’t have a real role in a film (did some TV work in the 80s) for almost 20 years before his death.  But, the moment you study a little film, you’ll find he’s attached to a lot of the biggest films of his era.  It takes a movie to make the star though, and this was the film that elevated Stewart to superstardom and also earned him an Academy Award nomination, his first of five nominations over his career.  Stewart absolutely amazes in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  His everyman feel and child-like wonder carry this film to such a believable and realistic character place.  Before Stewart’s image even appears on a film cell, his characters is discussed and described by a group at length beforehand.  Once Jefferson Smith comes onto screen, you just know he’s the exact person they’ve described.  We also get to see the man go from such a place of wonder and innocence then dragged to a place of deep anger, desperation and then finally to becoming almost entirely broken.  Stewart pulls it off so naturally and almost with a sense of ease.  This is the type of role that someone is so good in that you just don’t see anyone else but the character.  Stewart was able to on and have one of the most illustrious careers ever in Hollywood, but I wonder if not for a couple years, he wasn’t just thought of as “Mr. Smith” instead of being Jimmy Stewart.

One of my all-time favorite scenes, and I’m pretty sure one of Hollywood’s greatest third acts of all time, is Jefferson Smith’s filibuster to the United States Senate.  The scene is one that brings a wide range of feeling and emotion.  There is some nice light hearted fun and comedy, but its matched by an intensity and darkness that has you on the edge of your seat feeling such a strong effort is going to be wasted on a loss.  It’s a filibuster that wages on for about a 24 hour period, but feels like a big event spanning over much more time when taken from the outside perspective of the Boy Rangers Vs Jim Taylor press race back in the hometown.  There is also some fantastic dramatic sparring between Jimmy Stewart and Claude Raines during the finale as well.  In your heart watching this conflict, you’re so on Smith’s side that you just want to go on a punching spree, serving the finest knuckle sandwiches to Taylor, Paine and their whole twisted crew.  Like a film that would come a little under 40 years later, Jefferson Smith has the backing of the audience so much, it feels like the political version of the exhibition match at the end of Rocky when he goes toe to toe with Apollo Creed for the first time.  The battle builds and hits so many success and snags, and then ultimately feels lost, until that final moment of almost defeat where good prevails in the end.  You have a hard time resisting the urge of jumping out of your seat once Paine confesses to the senate of his wrongdoing.

You know those movies, that whenever you’re flipping through or something and you see its on TV or you just happen to catch some of it, you wind up seeing it through to the end no matter where you jumped in at?  One of those movies for me is Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  I know its not like its airing on a lot of channels that you go by all the time like a Shawshank Redemption (One that I know is popular among this type of thing).  But I am an avid fan of Turner Classic Movies and I spend time roaming around the Premium Channels where it gets linked up with in my cable grid.  Its one they tend to show plenty of times throughout the year.  If I’m not busy and I’m looking around for something to rest my eyes on, I find it hard NOT to land on it and watch the film to the end.  The film is led by such a terrific performance by Stewart and the finish is just so spectacular, I can’t help but not catch it.  The film also leaves you feeling good in the end, and leaves you feeling like no matter how big the world is, you can and are an important part of it.  Personally, I find the events, themes and message of the film to be timeless.  A factor that is outstanding for a film that’s 75 years old.  Its one that should be on the checklist of every film fan and every generation.  It works wonders still to this day.  Having the accolade of being one the greatest cinematic achievements of all time is a tall order, but its also one that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington lives up to almost effortlessly.

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Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Clarity/Detail: Sony has done a beautiful 4K remastering of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  The film has a nice crisp and sharp look to it.  It’s not overly sharp and some of the close ups, do have a nice intended softness to them because of the lighting.  Fabric, patterns and surfaces all display a wonderful amount of detail.  This 75 year old classic has found a fountain of youth in this luscious and gorgeous transfer.

Depth: This film is never going to be some marvelous 3 dimensional wonder, but there are some really great moments here with character/object foreground and background relations.  The Senate meetings look pretty impressive as well as the offices and Lincoln Memorial scenes.

Black Levels: Blacks are deep and rich in appearance here.  No disguising or masking of detail.  No crushing noticed.  Detail on dark items is still pretty solid.

Color Reproduction: No color here, but the gray scale on display is pretty marvelous and well represented in this transfer.

Flesh Tones: Flesh tones have a nice consistent tone to them.  Facial features are adequate and pretty impressive.

Noise/Artifacts:  Some light grain.  As with all older films, some of the transitional shots appear a little rougher than the rest of the film.

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Audio 

Audio Format(s): English Mono DTS-HD MA, French 2.0 Dolby Digital, German 2.0 Dolby Digital, Italian 2.0 Dolby Digital, Portugues 2.0 Dolby Digital, Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Thai

Dynamics: For what we’re given, a 75 year-old film, I’m going to let plenty slide.  While no, this track may not wow or astound the modern day home theater enthusiast, its pure and true to its element.  This mono track is impressively clean sounding and features the most minimal of any sort of blips or distortions.  There are some impressive and impactful effects captured here such as the gavel hitting and some of the crowd cheering and horns honking.  Some sound effects leave a little to be desired, but due to the age of this track and keeping it intact there isn’t much more you can do here.  The whole presentation really engaged and impressed me, so I’m running the full gamut with this one and going to bat for it like I just discovered Brian is building a Blu-ray dam with Gerard’s discarded cases and looking to swindle money on it while Aaron feeds me some lines and coaching from the balcony.

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: For what it is, its pretty crisp and clean, featuring the almost faintest of analog hissing sounds.

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Extras 

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington comes in digibook packaging featuring an essay on the making of the film, profiles on the cast and an essay on the restoration for this Blu-ray.  It also comes with a digital copy.  The bonus materials appear to have been carried over from previous releases or are specials from the past.  All of them have AVC encoding, but are standard definition upconverts.

Audio Commentary

  • By Frank Capra Jr. – Having the son of the great director is no step down by any means. He gives a well registered and incredibly informative account on everything regarding this film’s production.

Frank Capra Jr Remembers…”Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (HD, 11:51) – This sort of feel’s like the Cliff’s Notes version of the commentary track, with a basic overview of the production.

Conversations With Frank Capra Jr.: The Golden Years (HD, 17:53) – He talks about the Golden Era of Hollywood and how his father and his films fit in.

Frank Capra: Collaboration (HD, 19:52) – A “talking heads” featurette that goes over Capra’s career and those he worked with.

Conversations With Frank Capra Jr.: A Family History (HD, 25:56) – Capra’s son tells of their family life, moving to Hollywood and what it was like having a famous filmmaker as a father.

The Frank Capra I Knew (HD, 13:05) – Jeanine Basinger recounts her memories of Frank Capra.

Frank Capra’s American Dream (HD, 1:49:02) – A feature length documentary, narrated by Ron Howard that goes over the life and career of Frank Capra.  Features many famous people chiming in to discuss his career.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:43)

International Trailer (HD, 3:55) – This trailer is notable because it features footage not seen in the final film, including Jefferson Smith in a parade back in his hometown which must have been an alternate ending.

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Summary 

Any serious collector or person that claims themselves as a “film buff” should have this film in their collection.  With how incredible well produced and thought out this release is, the fact that is only $12.99 is an absolute jaw-dropping, cartoon character eyes bursting out of their sockets type steal.  There’s an absolute treasure trove and abundance of extras that chronicle the production of the film and life and career of its director.  Sony has taken good care and presented absolute perfection in restoring this with and incredible presentation in both video and audio.  It’s somewhat a relief to see a relic of a film like this STILL getting the treatment it deserves.  I was worried, regardless of its importance, due to its age that putting a nice edition of this movie out on Blu-ray might’ve been an afterthought.  It’s the complete opposite as Sony (Who should be bowed to and applauded for this one) has outdone themselves and produced one of THE BEST Blu-ray releases of 2014.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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