James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Best Actor of 1939)

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties), John Clements (The Four Feathers), W.C. Fields (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man), Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Jean Gabin (Le jour se lève), Cary Grant (Only Angels Have Wings), Shotaro Hanayagi (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Burgess Meredith (Of Mice and Men), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein), Michael Redgrave (The Stars Look Down), Maurice Schwartz (Tevye), Roland Toutain (La règle du jeu)

Robert Donat’s performance in Goodbye Mr. Chips is generally regarded as the best of 1939. He took home the Oscar and retrospectives often back up the choice, but I’ve never understood the almost religious reverence for Donat in this film. While I enjoy much of what he did as the young, introverted schoolmaster, his characterization of the elderly man is some of the worst playacting that ever won an Oscar. It is sentimental teetering on parody, unworthy of an actor as good as Donat. There are many other male leads I would choose over Donat, but only James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands above the rest.

Frank Capra originally intended Mr. Smith as a sequel to his 1936 hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town but, unable to secure the services of Gary Cooper, Capra shifted to plan B and cast another all-American, aw-shucks kind of guy, Jimmy Stewart.

Everything about Stewart gelled perfectly for his role as the naïve young senator: his artless face and straight-forward way of speaking sparked an instant connection with audiences. But Stewart brought a gravity to the role that Cooper, frankly, probably would not have been able to muster. When the political machine appointed the hapless Smith, they expected him to be a dupe, to sit back and take orders without too many questions, but Smith takes the opportunity to peel back the shiny veneer of government and see the rot of corruption underneath. He pushes back, threatening to expose them of corruption, but the machine strikes first. They frame him for using his office for his own profit and in a dramatic Senate floor trial, Stewart cycles through so many dark emotions that his earlier optimism and faith in the government already feels antiquated. From disappointment in the institutions and people he once revered to frustration that an honest man like himself can be smeared (and the public will believe the lies) to resignation to anger to a stubborn refusal to give up.

Stewart in the dramatic filibuster scene as Jefferson Smith is on the verge of despair

His Senate filibuster scene is almost painful to watch. We feel that Stewart’s exhaustion and pain aren’t entirely put on; he’s reaching down someplace deep to revive emotional memories most of us would rather forget. This is the core of great acting and though Stewart is often criticized for playing the same part over and over, he proved in Mr. Smith (and later It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo) that he understands the commitment to recalling and replaying those disquieting emotional episodes his characters demand. Because he is so convincing as the likeable wide-eyed optimist and as the disillusioned man fighting to regain his reputation, his futile one man struggle against public opinion becomes all the more poignant. I love Gary Cooper, but he wasn’t a good enough actor to pull off what Stewart was able to do.

Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is the embodiment of the American ideal: honest and hardworking, but also a tad green when it comes to the shady worlds of government and corruption. Capra explores what happens when the ideal (Smith) meets reality (D.C.). They will surely clash and without an actor who could take even more cynical modern viewers on the journey from the wide-eyed idealist who treats his Constitution and myths of the Founding Fathers as articles of faith to painful disillusionment, we could never believe that Smith would stand and fight as hard as he does; and we wouldn’t care all that much whether he wins or loses. Luckily Stewart rose to the challenge and helped deliver an American classic.

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4 Comments

Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Performances

4 responses to “James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Best Actor of 1939)

  1. As you no doubt can anticipate Jason, I fiercely stand by Donat’s performances, one of the greatest ever recorded on film in the history of the cinema. I didn’t at all have the issues you have as far as the film’s later passages go when Donat gets older, and his work there lovingly negotiates teh film’s elegiac underpinnings. Perhaps no actor in history had a more beautiful voice, and his performance in CHIPS (agreed upon even by the unsentimental Allan Fish) never fails to move one to the heights of what acting could ever hope to aspire.

    It’s simply one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid.

    Still, Stewart is fantastic, and for me is a close enough second. It’s a rousing, resilient performance (my favorite by Stewart in his illustrious career) and a milestone in American cinema.

    Wonderful qualifying piece and I will return soon with my assessment of the runner’s up in what may be the greatets acting year ever, at least for Hollywood. Lawrence Olivier’s performance in WUTHERING HEIGHTS is extraordinary, and also deserving of high hors. But there are more of course, as you note here….

    • I knew you — along with just about everyone else — admire Donat’s performance. I am willing to concede he was good but, like I said, his characterization of the elderly Donat ruined it for me. So he was fine, but I cannot go along with the whole “one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid” statement. Maybe it’s because I never really liked the movie, but it still must be some defect in my intelligence that fails to connect with this role.

      But I absolutely agree that Olivier was great in “Wuthering Heights” and was one of two or three vying for the top spot.

      Thank you as always for the high praise!

  2. I have seen ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’, but a long time ago and I only really remember the last part – especially that last line. So not sure how I’d rank Donat alongside Stewart, but I do love Stewart’s performance in ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’ and especially the whole filibuster. (I think you are a bit hard on Gary Cooper, though – he would have played it differently, but I am sure he would have been great too.)

    Also from this year I am a big fan of Cagney in ‘The Roaring Twenties’, one of his finest roles, and also in ‘Each Dawn I Die’, where he gives an astonishing performance as a man completely falling apart in prison. I also like Ronald Colman in Wellman’s ‘The Light That Failed’ – admittedly it is a very meaty role, as an artist/war hero tormented by unrequited love, who is going blind and hitting the bottle, and I sometimes wonder if it is a greater triumph if an actor manages to give a great performance in a role where not so much is happening on the surface – but, anyway, Colman is excellent in this.

    Oh yeah, and I also love Olivier in ‘Wuthering Heights’… and Cary Grant in ‘Only Angels Have Wings’. For some reason Grant always tends to grab me more in slightly more macho roles, like this one and ‘None But the Lonely Heart’, even though he was better known for romantic comedies. At the start of ‘The Talk of the Town’, where he is wounded and on the run in the rain, I find myself wanting to see the rest of that film rather than the romantic comedy we actually get, great though it is.

    • I think you are a bit hard on Gary Cooper, though – he would have played it differently, but I am sure he would have been great too.
      I wasn’t saying that I thought Cooper didn’t have the acting chops for the role, but let’s be honest, he wasn’t as good of an actor as Stewart. Plus we have essentially seen him do this part in Mr. Deeds. It would have been retreading the same ground and would not have worked as well. It was fresh with Stewart.

      And I know you are huge Cagney fan. You have a great post over at Movie Classics about him.

      I have not seen “Each Dawn I Die” or “The Light That Failed” so I need to add those to my to-see list.

      I agree that Cary Grant is surprisingly good in the macho roles though he thrived in comedies. One more to add to the list is “Sylvia Sidney” with Katherine Hepburn. Not a great movie, but he plays a great cad.

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