Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is one of the best-remembered films in a year full of great ones. Whenever its title is mentioned, we recall the Washington, D.C., setting; the patriotic montages; the thrill of watching the young senator played by James Stewart heroically fighting corruption. We remember basking in the warm, sentimental glow that only Capra can create, and wishing there were more Mr. Smiths in this world. We may even remember wanting to be one ourselves.
But if that’s what we remember about the movie, we’re remembering the wrong things.
When it opened in October of 1939, “Mr. Smith” was seen as anything but warm and sentimental. Gritty, dark, and dangerous were more like it. Members of Congress protested it, journalists warned against it, and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) tried to shut down its European release.
When you go back and take another look at the movie, it’s not hard to understand the strong reactions. For Capra sets his idealistic hero — who gets compared by other characters to everyone from Don Quixote to the biblical David — against a very dark backdrop indeed.
The film opens with the news that one Senator Foley has just died. Already the members of his political machine, run by a crook named James Taylor (Edward Arnold), are squabbling over who will take Foley’s place. Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) has just come from his colleague’s deathbed, and all he can say is, “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.” For without Foley, the machine may not be able to push through a bill that would bring illegal profit to Taylor and his cronies.
Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) impulsively appoints widely respected youth leader Jefferson Smith, a man who quotes Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to his troops of wide-eyed Boy Rangers. The governor is gambling that the young man is too naïve, and too excited at the very prospect of being in the nation’s capital, to understand that a graft operation is taking place under his nose.
But Jeff learns the truth from his secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur), a longtime cynic who’s drawn to Jeff’s idealism and integrity in spite of herself. When he tries to bring that truth to light, Taylor’s machine moves with terrifying efficiency to crush him. False testimony is given, signatures are forged, newspaper editors are bought, and a massive smear campaign is carried out. Even worse, Senator Paine, Jeff’s political idol and mentor, publicly betrays him. By the time Jeff’s being accused of letting Americans starve to death, modern viewers have come to realize that there truly is nothing new under the sun.
But just when Jeff is about to quit in despair, Saunders urges him back to the Senate floor for one last-ditch effort. This is what everyone really remembers: the climactic filibuster sequence, anchored by a performance from 31-year-old James Stewart that showed a power and maturity beyond his years.
Capra had as usual assembled a fine and colorful cast — in addition to the unfailingly great Rains and Arthur, there were Beulah Bondi as Jeff’s supportive mother, Harry Carey as the enigmatic president of the Senate, Thomas Mitchell and Jack Carson as sympathetic reporters — and all were at the top of their game. However, the film ultimately rested on Stewart’s shoulders. He was the third choice for the part, and when “Mr. Smith” opened, he was billed second after Jean Arthur. But what he achieved here would bring him his first Academy Award nomination and earn him a permanent place on the A-list. He infuses his characterization with passion, anger, pathos, and wry humor, making Jeff Smith’s battle a deeply real and gripping experience.
And not a sentimental one. There’s no denying that Capra could be the most sentimental of directors, but here he restrains the impulse, slipping up only once or twice. Wonderful little charcter-building moments litter the film (a running gag where Jeff starts crashing into things every time Paine’s pretty daughter (Astrid Allwyn) speaks to him; the revelation that the hard-bitten Saunders keeps a doll in her desk drawer), but they fit seamlessly into the narrative. The focus is tight and the pace hardly ever lets up.
This was the second of Capra and Stewart’s three films together, and the two brought out the best in each other, creating some truly inspiring moments. But we can’t realize just how inspiring they are if we focus only on the feel-good side of films like “Mr. Smith,” and ignore the grim reality that Stewart’s character is trying to transcend.
That reality points to an inescapable truth: No one really wants to be a Mr. Smith. We may think we do, but we don’t. Look around and see if you can spot a politician or commentator who doggedly sticks to certain old-fashioned principles and values, or who talks unironically about loving America. How popular are these people? Are they celebrated or ridiculed? Usually it’s the latter — and that ridicule often comes from the same people who claim that we need more Jefferson Smith types in politics.
Jeff himself is the kind of guy who easily falls into traps set by members of the press, then goes around punching them for misquoting him. He keeps pigeons and uses expressions like “doggone it” and “colder’n a mackerel.” And he stands on the Senate floor reading aloud from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bible. If Jeff Smith existed today, Jon Stewart would make sure his political career ended before it even got started.
It doesn’t matter that Jeff practices what he preaches. (It’s worth noting in this context that “Mr. Smith” is one of the exceedingly few films from that era in which an African-American character — one of Jeff’s Boy Rangers — is shown as being on an equal footing with his white peers. When Jeff talks about the promise of America being for those of every “race, color, or creed,” he means it.) He would still have to be punished for being hopelessly out of step with the powers that be.
Even Mr. Smith doesn’t want to be a Mr. Smith. Hours into his filibuster, Jeff says wearily to the assembled senators, “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I know I’m being disrespectful to this honorable body. I know that. A guy like me should never be allowed to get in here in the first place, I know that. And I hate to stand here and try your patience like this, but — either I’m dead right or I’m crazy!” He perseveres because he knows the things he’s standing up for are so important that they must be defended, even at great personal cost.
Capra was able to make this film so good because he both believed in the American ideal, and understood how easily it could be co-opted and undermined by the unscrupulous and the greedy. America, he’s telling us, should be celebrated because it’s the kind of country that can produce a Jefferson Smith; but at the same time, we must always be on our guard, because it’s also capable of destroying one.
In the final analysis, that theme is more than just an American one; it’s universal. Someone else warned us, long before America’s founding, of that double-edged sword in human nature: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4, NKJV) Looking back from 2014, it’s easy for us to celebrate Jefferson Smith and his “plain, decent, everyday, common rightness,” as Saunders puts it. But the ultimate takeaway from this classic should be a question for each of us to ask ourselves: If Mr. Smith went to Washington today, what would we do with him?
For Further Information:
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains, Harry Carey), and Best Screenplay (Sidney Buchman). It won one, for Best Original Story (Lewis R. Foster).
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is available on Blu-ray and DVD in a special 75th Anniversary edition.
Additionally, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was on Chuck Colson’s list of “50 Films Every Christian Should See.”
Previous Entries in BreakPoint’s Films of 1939 Series:
Katie Shupe, “‘Ninotchka’: The Pursuit of Happiness,” BreakPoint.org, September 5, 2014.
Christy McDougall, “‘The Wizard of Oz’: Where Love Is,” BreakPoint.org, August 1, 2014.
Ruth Anderson, “‘The Women’: Score One for the Good Girls,” BreakPoint.org, July 4, 2014.
Ruth Anderson, “‘Dark Victory’: Choosing Faith over Fear, ” BreakPoint.org, June 6, 2014.
Rachel McMillan, “‘Love Affair’: Deeper than Romance,” BreakPoint.org, May 2, 2014.
Gina Dalfonzo, “‘Wuthering Heights’: The Roots of Romanticism,” BreakPoint.org, April 4, 2014.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell, “‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’: The Problem of Nostalgia,” BreakPoint.org, March 7, 2014.
Alex Wainer, “‘Gunga Din’: High Adventure in Her Majesty’s Indian Army,” BreakPoint.org, February 7, 2014.
Alex Wainer, “‘Stagecoach’: The Classic Western Rolls into Hollywood,” BreakPoint.org, January 6, 2014.
Image copyright Columbia TriStar Home Video.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.