Although Stewart is at center stage, a remarkable supporting cast backs him up. I found myself absolutely enchanted by Jean Arthur, who plays Clarissa Saunders, an aide who is put in place by the Taylor machine. She finds herself undeniably charmed by Jeff, which leads her to help him with his quixotic quests. Arthur plays the character as whip-smart, sassy, and sharp, but there's also something just perfectly adorable about her. Even though there's an intimation at one point that it's amazing that she can do all the things she can do – considering she's a woman, and all – she comes across as confident, capable and the kind of person you'd want on your side. If you want proof, check out this clip.
Claude Rains has the supporting role of Senator Joseph Paine, and I found myself really digging his nuanced take on the character. Of course, it's not the only time he would play a person with so many shades of grey – his portrayal of Captain Renault in Casablanca is one of my very favorite performances in a film ever, and it's because Rains never takes the easy approach. We can always tell there's more to Senator Paine than simple corruption and greed. This is a man who is struggling with his decisions and the direction his political career has taken, even as he feels compelled to cooperate with the machine that helped to put him into place. He hates what he has become but cannot escape it.
I might have been most surprised, though, by how much I enjoyed Harry Carey as the President of the Senate. He doesn't have a huge role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he makes the most of the time he has onscreen. Initially, the viewer might believe that he's a crotchety old guy, but as the movie progresses, we see him awash in admiration for the young idealist Jeff Smith. I loved watching him every time he smiled in a combination of delight and consternation.
While it sounds like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could almost be a fluffy, lightweight film, there lurks beneath it a darkness and dissatisfaction with the way the political world operates. Although we're obviously meant to be on the side of the angels (Smith and Saunders), there's a feeling of inevitability with regard to the Jim Taylors of the world. Even as one is taken down, five more will pop up in his place. We see how easily the public can be misled, and it can come to a point where it's hard to know who or what to believe. Saunders is a perfect vehicle for this cynicism – we see politics through her viewpoint, to a large degree. She's so weary of it all that she wants to quit, and it takes something entirely fresh and unique to remind her of the possibilities that exist when a man really exists to serve his constituency. Considering the subtlety of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I'm actually finding myself looking forward to watching Capra's It's a Wonderful Life through new eyes during the holiday season.
As far as its place on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list goes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an entirely deserving entry. It's a film that feels singularly American, focusing on the ways that one individual can make a difference even as corruption and greed dominate. It paved the way for movies with similar themes, from All the President's Men to Silkwood, The Insider to Erin Brockovich. It established Jimmy Stewart, one of our greatest actors, as a force to be reckoned with. It is timeless and still maintains relevance in 2009. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the kind of movie the 100 Years... 100 Movies list was made for.