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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Originally cast with Gary Cooper in the starring role, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington met with an early setback in the production when the popular leading man pulled out and Capra was forced to cast the lesser-known Jimmy Stewart. Costing $1.5 million, a large sum for the day, Mr. Smith barely made its budget back during its first theatrical run in 1939. Capra's film was also widely condemned for its portrayal of double-dealing, back-stabbing congressmen — a sore point during a patriotic moment in American history, as the Great Depression entered its closing days and war clouds loomed over Europe. In fact, several Hollywood studios offered Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn a flat cash payment for the negative, which they intended to destroy. How times have changed since then. Rather than being a box-office failure or a reviled piece of propaganda, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was one of the first films selected by Congress to be placed in the National Film Archive, and it is also one of only a handful of American films to undergo a meticulous negative restoration (which, for Mr. Smith, took three years and cost $100,000). The wait for a DVD edition may have been a long one, but it's been worth it, as Columbia TriStar's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington disc is taken from the restored print — the same one in the Library of Congress. Jimmy Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a wide-eyed, optimistic boy-scout leader in a midwestern state (according to Capra, it's Illinois) who is hand-picked by a local political cabal to replace a deceased senator, primarily because the powers-that-be believe that he will cast the right votes and not make much trouble. Arriving in Washington, he is taken under the wing of the state's senior senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), but when he refuses to support legislation he regards as graft, the conspiracy drags Smith's reputation through the mud, accusing him of fraud and attempting to force him from office. While Capra relies on threadbare, stock characters in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (and what Capra film doesn't?), the young Stewart delivers one of his career-defining performances, and Capra keeps the plot moving right up to the final, climactic half-hour. Jean Arthur underplays her role as Smith's savvy secretary Clarissa Saunders, and Rains takes on the pivotal role of Sen. Paine with ease. The transfer on this disc is very satisfying and the original audio track (mono) has been cleaned up, leaving virtually no ambient noise under the dialogue. Supplements include a commentary track with Frank Capra Jr., a brief retrospective featurette with Capra Jr., original posters and lobby cards, a trailer gallery of Capra films, and textual supplements. Keep-case.

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