Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) featured image

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). 129 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart (as Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (as Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (as Senator Joseph Harrison Paine), Edward Arnold (as Jim Taylor), Guy Kibbee (as Governor Hubert Hopper), Thomas Mitchell (as “Diz” Moore), Eugene Pallette (as Chick McGann), Harry Carey (as President of the Senate), and Beulah Bondi (as Ma Smith).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is considered one of the great movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As a celebration of the role of goodness in American politics, the movie optimistically maintains that average, decent people can make meaningful contributions to democratic government, yet it also provides an unflinching depiction of the unprincipled nature of Washington culture.  At the same time, while it tells the morally tinged story of one man’s struggle to triumph virtuously over his political adversaries, it represents the American democratic process with a decent amount of precision and accuracy, despite the fact that it does not identify any of its characters by party affiliation. Unfortunately, the film is exceedingly sentimental at times, but in spite of its saccharine nature, it remains a valuable and much-loved underdog story about a little-guy outsider taking a stand against a powerful and corrupt insider.

The film begins when the senator for an unspecified Western state dies, and the governor of that state, Hubert Hopper, must appoint someone to take the senator’s place. Jim Taylor, who controls the governor financially, wants his own man appointed for the job, and there is additional pressure on the governor from action committees to choose a reformer. Nevertheless, the governor’s children, who are members of a youth organization called the Boy Rangers, want Ranger leader Jefferson Smith to take the position. Governor Hopper selects Smith after a coin toss. He assumes Smith, being naive and inexperienced, will be easy to manipulate.

Once in Washington, Smith is mentored by the other senator from his state, Joseph Paine, but Paine is secretly corrupt, controlled by Taylor, and pushing through legislation with Taylor’s backing that will create a dam back home and destroy Smith’s beloved prairies. Not knowing this, Smith drafts legislation with the help of his secretary Clarissa Saunders to build a boy’s camp on the precise location of Paine’s dam. Dismayed by Smith’s initiative, Paine and Taylor scheme to ruin Smith by suggesting that Smith owns the land that the camp will reside on and that he therefore stands to profit from it. At an ethics hearing, they engage in a professional frame job, complete with forged signatures and false witnesses to prove Smith’s guilt. Smith tries to clear his own name on the Senate floor by holding a 24-hour filibuster while Saunders, who is by now in love with Smith, helps to wage war against Taylor in Smith’s home state by enlisting the help of the press and the Boy Rangers. On the Senate floor, Paine produces bins of telegrams allegedly from Smith’s constituents demanding that he stop the filibuster. An exhausted Smith collapses. In the final moments of the film, Paine, thinking that the collapsed Smith is dead, runs out of the Senate remorsefully and attempts to shoot himself, fails, and rushes back onto the Senate floor, confessing all and asserting Smith’s innocence.

This movie entices us with two different political narratives, which it maintains in a strange kind of balancing act right up until its last minutes. On the one hand, in something akin to a comedy, the sunny and optimistic Smith triumphs over adversity and makes a meaningful contribution to the federal government; on the other hand, and in a darker vein, jaded and corrupt Washingtonians are shown nearly destroying the career and reputation of an innocent neophyte. In the more optimistic parts of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Smith’s honesty, enthusiasm, and political decency are extolled and admired, especially by characters like Saunders and the President of the Senate (played by the wonderful Jean Arthur and Harry Carey, respectively). Smith’s noble ardor is most evident during his first day in Washington, when he leaves his handlers at Union Station to tour Capitol Hill alone and awe-struck. There is a glorious montage of the outsider Smith visiting important buildings and memorials, seeing the life-sized statues of famous political leaders, reading scraps of seminal American documents carved on walls. It is an unabashed love letter to American democracy, sent both from Smith to Washington and from the movie to us, with the result that the tour of Washington may come across as propagandistic. Even the editing and musical score during the Capitol tour seem to be infused with Smith’s idealism and strident belief in the revolutionary foundational principles of the United States. In moments like these, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington seeks to persuade us, in part through emotion, that a well-informed and compassionate citizen like Smith is a crucial ingredient in the survival and success of the federal government.

The tour of Washington is not the only upbeat emotional appeal that the movie makes, for at other times the film can be very sentimental. This is a Frank Capra movie, after all, and Capra movies are known for their reliance on schmaltz to reach the finish line. The movie’s sentimentality is evident from the very beginning when the Boy Rangers are introduced. The Rangers are a kind of Boy Scouts organization that Smith commands and whose members are completely and utterly loyal to him with a fervor that borders on the strange. When Smith is filibustering and the filibuster move does not go over well in his home state (thanks in part to Taylor’s anti-Smith propaganda smears, which include signs, banners, radio broadcasts, special edition newspapers, and rallies), Saunders calls up Smith’s mother out West and has her enlist the Boy Rangers to print their own newspapers supporting Smith; and—wouldn’t you know it?—the small rascals can capably set an entire news sheet on a letter-type press within minutes and professionally print out thousands of copies of Smith’s defense. They scamper around Smith’s hometown with their Radio Flyer wagons and odd dogs in tow to get the word out that Smith is a good man.

Yet this movie does not merely present quaint political endeavors for our consideration, and Smith and the Boy Rangers are not permitted to exist in an idealistic bubble. Instead they are tempered by the real malevolence and ugliness that we see in the anti-Smith campaign. This decidedly sinister effort on the part of Taylor is depicted as powerful, well-organized, financially impressive, often extremely successful, and fundamentally incredible. For example, there are some serious (though fairly unbelievable) consequences for anyone who takes a stand against Taylor. In one montage, Taylor’s men steal the boys’ papers and use nefarious automobiles to nearly run over the tikes as they promulgate the gospel of Smith. I say “nearly run over,” for the boys are safe in the end, although it looks for a moment as if this movie might take a very dark turn indeed in a strange case of saccharine mixing with vehicular manslaughter. Meanwhile, people protest at anti-Smith gatherings in favor of Smith and are silenced by the Taylor machine—we see one woman being grabbed and carried out of a massive rally. In another shot a pro-Smith march is washed out with high-powered hoses. I was practically expecting the film to show Taylor’s goons gunning down wholesome citizens, small children, and their loyal mutts in a St. Valentine’s Day-style retaliation for their political gumption.

Back in Washington, the story also has a darker side. The city does not greet Smith warmly: we see the entire jaded press corp laugh at him, his weary secretary chide him, and the whole corrupt senate jeer at him. Smith learns that his cherished beliefs and long-held ideals are not valued by the participants in the very system he holds so dear. There is a particularly upsetting scene where Smith has packed his bags and journeyed back to the Lincoln Memorial on his way out of town. Standing in the shadows, he tears up, thinking of how he and his principles have been betrayed. He seems so powerless at that moment, and the world seems so cruel. If the movie were to end there, and it could have, its message would seem to be that the American system, far from being the awesome and exceptional process that we are encouraged in school to believe it is, actually makes little room for the qualities of compassion and discipline that Smith embodies. This is one of the ways that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, while it is ultimately an exuberant movie about how good will and honesty prevail, nevertheless teeters on the verge of being a fairly somber movie, in spite of its frequent attempts to lift our spirits through Smith, Saunders, and the frequent appearances of the Boy Rangers and the young boy Senate pages. Although the film’s ending rescues us from drawing dismal conclusions about what happens to good people in Washington, nevertheless the movie supports the view that contemporary politics, in their resting state, are cynical and corrupt and comes very close to showing that corrupt system triumph.

It must be said that if we pay close attention to the details, even the movie’s romantic depiction of Smith is not always so romantic—that is, even though Smith is the movie’s idealistic character, Smith as a leader is, as it turns out, perhaps not ideal. When the press misrepresents him after an interview and photo shoot that anyone else would have seen as potentially loaded, he tracks down the reporters who participated in it and punches them all in the face—not a recipe for success in Washington or in any town. Additionally, he perhaps does not have the greatest ideas for legislation. His main contribution to the Senate is a bill that proposes building a summer camp for boys in his home state that the boys will, he insists, pay for. It is not clear exactly how this will work, why this is a federal issue, or why legislation of any kind is needed for it. Also, Smith refuses to testify on his own behalf at his ethics hearing, presumably because he is so disgusted by what is going on—but I have to wonder if a real leader would run out of the room in the way that Smith does. His choice to leave, while understandable, does not seem responsible.

At the same time, Smith’s imperfections are part of what make him a suitable candidate for democratic leadership: in American politics, our political system is based on philosophical ideals, but our politicians represent the people and (thankfully) are not paragons. One of the great things about this movie is that we get to see Smith’s missteps as he attempts to write a bill, introduce it on the Senate floor, and manage a filibuster. These processes, as the film shows, are governed by rules and procedural guidelines that are designed to help the inexpert and human Smith learn how to implement American ideals and put them into practice—a series of events that underscores the pragmatic and unglamourous but necessary realities of the system.

In spite of Smith’s flaws and the movie’s sentimentality, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a valuable and moving expression of the American democratic process. It is also an effective way to convey the basics of American life to a modern and non-American audience. My father-in-law, Ambassador Michael Kozak, ran the American embassy in Belarus from 2000 to 2003, where he created a classic American film series that featured this movie. He felt this series would be useful and effective given the unattractive depictions of U. S. culture that were widely disseminated there via DVDs of American-made films. These films were loaded with characters of poor integrity, constant violence, and gratuitous sex. Seeking to provide a counterpoint to the normative depiction of Americans that Belarusians had access to, Ambassador Kozak selected Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the series and considered its screening to be particularly successful. Most of the screening attendees were college-aged, and they enjoyed the film immensely: in particular, they apparently loved the way that Smith takes on the corrupt authoritarian government figures in the film. The American embassy’s movie series is a wonderful example of how classic films can contain relevant and enduring ideas that connect with audiences across time and culture.