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.
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.