A Rare Man These Days

The Boy Scouts refused Frank Capra’s request to use their name in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In their defense, the Boy Scouts couldn’t yet see the movie at the time, yet the irony in fearing political backlash runs deep for a movie celebrating those who speak up and make their stand.

Frank Capra’s work is often sappy, sentimental, even improbable. Idealism is a constant on Capra’s resume. Jimmy Stewart’s plainly named Jeff Smith is less a character than walking civics lesson, framed as an average, utterly ordinary, every man dreamer. Yet pre America entering WWII, 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington begged for someone to take a stance. It was critical as fascism rose, and the hero comes from, of all things, an erroneous coin toss. That’s politics.

Hokey to a point of fairy tale, what matters is the message and the theme

Never once does Mr. Smith Goes to Washington mention Democrat or Republican; Smith’s party affiliation isn’t known. Viewers can draw their own conclusions as to which side represents corruption, or that democracy in total is inherently littered with selfish men seeking power. It’s a film working at all levels, on any ground, in any time. For its patriotic bluster and carefully composed visits to American monuments, the bravery in this story to look past that – at a truth, at morals – is all together timeless.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington finds an inarguable cause – Smith only wants the Boy Sco… err, Boy “Rangers” to have a plot of land, which they will pay for, to call their own, helping impoverished kids off the street during long summers. And that purely good, righteous cause requires Smith to filibuster an entire day because greed finds a way to block something so pure.

Behind Smith, a cabal works against him. On release, journalists were rankled by the mob-like tactics employed by a rich newspaper owner. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s world, trying to run over kids printing their own news is a plausible response. The heightened reality fits this inspiring political fable, to a point of charming audiences to Smith’s cause.

He wins, of course. That’s Hollywood more than politics. Smith’s opposition, overcome by guilt, rushes the senate floor in a delirious panic, admitting everything after Smith faints near the 24-hour mark of his filibuster. Hokey to a point of fairy tale, what matters is the message and the theme. One man, a blustery patriot, whittled down by other’s personal gain, but unwilling to relent – a rare man, or, even an impossible one.

Video

Dazzling with resolution, the stunning sharpness evident in this near spotless master represents total transparency to a 35mm source. Detail pours from this image, conveyed through both precise image reproduction and textural qualities. The longer Stewart’s filibuster, the sweatier he becomes, and the more facial definition shows. Wide shots in the recreated senate chamber capture each authentic touch. Without any debate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington hosts the cleanest moving images of the Lincoln Memorial from that period.

Gorgeous, beautiful grain is preserved, plus controlled by the encode. At no point does this image lose its organic film-like aesthetic. Consistent performance continues with contrast, expertly handled to draw out elements in shadows or dark suits. The extra power afforded by HDR ensures minuscule pinstripes stay visible even in darker spaces.

In terms of an upgrade though… eh. That’s credit to an equally cautious, well managed Blu-ray release. The HDR, while resolving some – or few – additional details, doesn’t generate any new depth or dimension in the gray scale. Brightness marginally improves (watch Claude Rains’ glasses reflect light during a fiery speech). The real benefit comes by way of encoding, the 4K disc better poised to handle the grain, and thus, deliver slightly greater definition.

Audio

Copying the DTS-HD track from the Blu-ray, there’s no need for anything more. For something recorded so early in the sound era, dialog replication is unusually precise and clean. The score muddies a little, especially in the lows, but that’s not problematic, just natural age.

Skipping, popping, or static stay sidelined.

Extras

Frank Capra Jr.’s commentary leads off the bonuses over on the Blu-ray, all of them recycled from previous releases, and mostly in DVD quality. The biggest is Capra’s American Dream, a near two-hour look at the director’s work, originally airing on AMC.

Archivist Jeanie Basinger speaks on her experiences with Capra for 13-minutes, with Capra Jr. leading the rest of these extras. He speaks to family life, history, and Hollywood’s best years.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
5

Movie

Sentimental but pure enough, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington looks past its time to tell a political fable that works in any decade.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 46 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: