Viewer Guide: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Maiden Heist

November 29, 2019 | Richard Peña


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

This week’s classic is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a 1939 political comedy-drama starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, written by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra.

Capra originally hoped to adapt Lewis R. Foster’s story as a follow up to his great 1936 hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but Gary Cooper turned out to be unavailable to reprise his role as Longfellow Deeds. Having already worked with Jimmy Stewart in the film adaptation of George S. Kaufman’s hit play You Can’t Take It with You, Capra soon began to re-imagine the role for Stewart, changing parts of the story (such as the final scene) to accentuate the special qualities of his new leading man.

Stewart plays Jefferson “Jeff” Smith, head of a Boys Scout-like organization named “the Boy Rangers.” When a mid-term replacement for a senator in his state is unexpectedly needed, the governor decides to appoint Jeff to fill out the term.

Arriving in Washington starry eyed and with the lofty words of Jefferson and Lincoln ringing in his ears, the utterly naïve rookie Senator Smith is soon taken under the wing of his state’s senior Senator, Joseph Paine, played with malicious gusto by Claude Rains. An old friend of Jeff’s father—a crusading newspaper editor who paid a high price for sticking to his ideals—Senator Paine sets about trying to acclimate Senator Smith to his new job, which basically means learning which way he’s supposed to vote. Senator Paine calls on his veteran aide, Clarissa Saunders, played by Jean Arthur, to show Jeff what being a Senator really means—while also making sure that Jeff doesn’t catch on to some of the nefarious dealings of her boss. A gripping, moving lesson in civics is about to unfold—yet who gets taught and who does the teaching may come as a surprise.

Also starring are Edward Arnold as a ruthless backroom power broker and Thomas Mitchell as Diz Moore, a veteran Washington reporter. Watch for delightful turns in character roles by members of Capra’s stock company such as Guy Kibbee, Harry Carey, H.B. Warner and Beulah Bondi.

An Italian immigrant from a small Sicilian village, Frank Capra is without doubt one of the most recognized auteurs of the classic American cinema. Forever grateful for the opportunities bestowed on him by his American citizenship, patriotism and belief in his adopted country became a recurring motif in his films. Although contemporary detractors sometimes deride his stirring social comedies like Mr. Smith as “Capra-corn,” the films are less simple celebrations of Americana than they are projections of the way that life in America ought to be. Known for shooting with two cameras—so that he could capture a single take from different angles, and thus allow an actor more freedom to perform without worrying about edits—Capra guided many of Hollywood’s finest actors to their most memorable performances.

As preview prints circulated around DC, initial reaction to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington generated some pre-release jitters inside the Beltway: some senators reportedly walked out of preview screenings, and the American ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy, implored Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn to abandon European distribution for fear of creating bad morale among US allies at the start of World War II. Regardless, Mr. Smith was released as planned and proved to be one of Capra’s most successful and emblematic films, garnering 11 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. However, the 1939 Oscars turned out to be pretty much owned by Gone with the Wind—it won ten that evening—and thus only Lewis Foster took home a statue for his original story.


The Maiden Heist (2009)

This week’s indie is The Maiden Heist, a comic crime caper from 2009 directed by Peter Hewitt.

If you’ve ever wondered how museum guards occupy themselves throughout their long shifts day after day, The Maiden Heist offers a fanciful answer. Christopher Walken stars as Roger Barlow, a longtime guard in an unnamed Boston museum rapidly approaching retirement. With ample opportunity to study the art works on the walls, Roger has become especially fascinated with “The Lonely Maiden,” a prime example of “an offshoot of the Northern French naturalist movement,” for those who are wondering. Gazing devotedly into the lonely maiden’s expression, described as being of “desperate longing and overwhelming passion,” Roger is much more than just an expert on the painting; he’s literally fallen in love with it. And when he hears the news of the sale of the painting to a Danish museum, Roger is devastated. But his anguish is soon softened by the realization he’s not alone in his heartbreak; two other guards have also developed “special attachments” to certain works. Morgan Freeman co-stars as Charles Peterson, a kindly artist in his off-hours who has similarly unrequited feelings for the “Young Girl with Cats.” And the military-minded George McLendon, played by William H. Macy, has an obsession with “Bronze Warrior,” a muscular, nude male sculpture that inspires George to secretly display his admiration in reciprocally clothing-free fashion. Banding together, these three extra-passionate art connoisseurs hatch a plan to keep their objects of affection close to home, with the trio becoming the most unlikely of bungling burglars. And watching it all from the sidelines in a steadily increasing state of confusion is Roger’s wife Rose, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who’s just trying to take a Florida vacation.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard about this fine comedy it’s because just as it was about to be released The Maiden Heist, ran into a sea of troubles. Despite being able to boast a cast of three Oscar winners with Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and Marcia Gay Harden, as well as an Oscar nominee in William H. Macy, The Maiden Heist, fell prey to the 2008 economic downturn and never received its originally intended theatrical release. Financed by producer Bob Yari—one of the producers behind the Best Picture Oscar-winner Crash in 2004—Yari’s distribution company went bankrupt soon after its successful world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and the American economy entered the treacherous ups and downs of the 2008 recession. The hedge funds that the film’s producers had been counting on to generate the backing for the $20 million marketing campaign quickly evaporated. And with the film’s DVD and Pay-TV rights already pre-sold, there was little hope of another theatrical distributor picking up the movie. Languishing without a clear path forward for several months, the film was finally released on DVD in May 2009.

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