Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
We academic writers are taught to avoid clichéd expressions, but some films embrace traditional ideas on such a bold level that only tried and true sayings could suffice to explain them. I thus shamelessly give into the temptation here: They frankly don’t make them like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington anymore.
Who is “they?” Certainly not Frank Capra, who specialized in nonpartisan, feel-good patriotic pictures in which the hero is an everyman who wins the day and gets the girl out of sheer force of will power fueled by honestly, integrity, and moral decency. Imagine such a character in this day and age—a likable, average joe without any skeletons in his closet! If such a character sounds outdated in this age, it probably wasn’t much better off in Capra’s era: The director constantly defended his decision to have square, straightforward protagonists who could overcome all wrongdoings simply because he was such a force of good, because such a character never has been, nor ever will be, plausible in such a selfish world.
But perhaps that’s Capra’s point. In the era of a terrible Depression in which poverty ran out of control, the viewing public didn’t want realism; they wanted a decent hero to root for—one who could win a battle without ever getting into a fight. Capra’s films provided heroes born from among the people, who fought for their honor and stood for the romanticized view of the Way Things Ought To Be. That Capra’s films did so well financially reveal their merit among the common folk; his celebration of American’s values (or at least what America’s values need to represent to the world) lit a fire under the country and became a beckon of optimism in a time of despair.
For Capra, Social Darwinism isn’t a wrong outlook so much as it makes for a lousy reality. He prefers optimism over pragmatism, and it was always an uphill battle for him. Even in his own time, more violent, gun-toting heroes like the Ringo Kid were the preferred cinematic protagonist. In this day and age, when Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes are the box-office bread winners, we can only speculate whether or not a Capra hero could even make it into the earliest script stages of a film, since he’s so far removed from our frame of reference. Capra’s Everyman has been replaced by loud, angry chauvinists who scream at each other and will betray anyone necessary to come out on top. The Simpsons once featured a parody of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which Jefferson Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson on the show) loses his noble act and begins to savagely murder members of the senate, including impalement with the United States flag. This parody is hilarious because it is insightful—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington made today probably would have such an ending.
Fortunately, this is Capra’s Mr. Smith, and he is played with dignity and naivety by Jimmy Stewart, who would become a staple everyman forced to stand up for his strong beliefs against adversaries whose morality are not so strong. Jefferson Smith stages his fights by staying in the system and not compromising his principles. If that seems like a dull scenario to you, then you’ve probably got a lot of catching up to do before you can find a film like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tolerable. My suggestion: Start with Hitchcock films featuring Stewart (Rear Window or Vertigo), followed by Stewart’s collaborations with John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), before you work your way down to Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life, of course, is also essential). By the time you get to the Capra/Stewart films, you will have an understanding of what it is about Stewart that makes his performance as Mr. Smith so compelling: It is hardly a performance at all, but is rather an iconic idealism for a better, more honest mentality. Stewart is an actor who, no matter how dark his roles, always portrayed characters with the utmost integrity and best intentions. To see this sincerity in his more approachable films, particularly in Hitchcock’s when he is cast at a hard right angle against his type, is to allow yourself enough leverage to appreciate his legacy with Capra. He is absolutely essential to the director’s mission, because he seems to naturally emit every good quality Capra wants to engage.
I shall detail specific plot points in the next several paragraphs. I generally shy away at such outlines for great films that already have countless pages written about them, but I think that it is necessary to consider the story while aggressively recognizing that Stewart’s character never, who ever steps in a way that would contradict his humble or honest nature. Keep that in mind as you read the below words, and remember how much different a modern day version of this tale might play:
When a state senator dies, the governor (Guy Kibbee) must quickly appoint a replacement. We quickly find out that his state is really run by the twisted, corrupted businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who dangles the governor and Sen. Joe Paine (a wonderful Claude Raines) on his strings to push his own, money-making agenda. Taylor orders the governor to select a man who will not ask too many questions and submit to Taylor’s iron will. The public doesn’t trust Taylor’s candidate, and Taylor doesn’t trust the public’s candidate. Out of last-minute desperation, the governor picks a local boy-scout leader Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), a young, patriotic man with a naive appreciation for America and its many freedoms. In his own words, “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't, I can, and my children will.” Watch Stewart’s appropriate conviction when he speaks such words, and specifically note how it sounds like a real person talking, not a recitation of written words from a script; now: with the fervor of his delivery in mind, try to convince yourself that anyone but Jimmy Stewart could have played this part.
Taylor agrees that Smith’s naivety will be a strong plus and speculates that he will be easily controlled as senator, and he agrees with the governor’s decision. Taylor also advises Sen. Paine to keep an eye on him while they are in Washington. Paine was the best friend of Smith’s late father, who was also a man of upright integrity, and Smith’s high moral standard seems to drill guilt into the back of Paine’s mind. As played by Claude Raines, the older senator is a man who has been on Taylor’s payroll for so long that he has forgotten that he has been corrupted. He talks to Taylor as if they are old friends, and while the businessman plays along, he occasionally reminds Paine who is really in control. Paine is therefore sympathetic of Smith’s innocence and child-like excitement, but he watches the new senator cautiously and tries to keep him from asking questions.
Smith travels to Washington D.C., all the while convinced that there has been “some kind of mistake.” He is stunned by the national monuments, much to the chagrin of his new secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur), who takes him about the town and considers his rants on liberty and freedom unbearably tacky. She eventually comes to appreciate his sincerity, and she wonders how such an honest fellow could have ended up in such a crooked, opportunistic town. Arthur plays Saunders as a low-class working girl who somehow manages to find a government job, hired because she couldn’t care less about Taylor’s corruption or anything else except for her next paycheck and flirting with local reporter, Diz (Thomas Mitchell). She knows the town and the way that it ticks, but Smith’s presence is a constant interruption of her way of life. She’d rather tuck the immorality away and simply do her job, but Smith’s respect for the nation’s ideals and principles force her to reconsider her position.
Up until now, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been all build up for the electrifying third act. Eventually, things come to a head. Smith eventually realizes that Washington D.C. represents ideals opposite of his own, and he also begins to ask questions about his state that Taylor does not want him to ask. When Smith finally threatens to blow the whistle on Taylor’s influence, Taylor and Sen. Paine stage a plan to remove Smith from office, in what turns into a battle of wits between one good man standing for his nation’s ideals against a corrupt system consisting of peers that have forgotten them.
Capra was a simple filmmaker, rarely utilizing quick edits or camera tricks when simply pointing his camera at his characters and allowing them to embody romanticized morals would do. He allows the premise to weave itself into a great entertainment without ever getting in its way. Mr. Smith contains a few valuable montages that contrast the chiseled, marbled features of Washington DC (the Capital Building, etc.) with Jimmy Stewart’s wide-eyed, boyish enthusiasm; in one particular instance, a nearly-defeated Stewart weeps at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Capra shoots the sequence from underneath Stewart so that Lincoln becomes a God-like comforter. Such shots are effective exceptions; otherwise, Capra trusts his actors to do the work for him—to gleam appropriately in the moments that the script requires it, and to embrace the idealisms of their sappy characters without ever compromising their humanity.
Stewart’s Jefferson Smith literally becomes a flawless messiah for just causes; he represents such stark decency that even a kindly, authoritative house president (Harry Carey) seems spineless by comparison. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington caused quite an uproar from the United States government at the time of its release, because senators felt attacked by Capra’s speculation that members of its establishment could be puppets for large businesses. Capra argued that if they had nothing to hide, then they had no reason to fear the film’s storyline. In any case, the director’s message is simple and universal, even beyond the social commentary against a corrupt government system: In the end, Jefferson Smith asks us to remember to “love thy neighbor,” and he insists all of the nation’s ideals depend upon this simple truth working. The entire film eventually boils down to this calm appeal.
Modern filmmakers would feel uncomfortable working with such a simple character as Jefferson Smith: If the film was made today, the hero would be juggling an extra-martial affair or some other secret guilt with his stand against the Taylor-Machine. But for Capra, Smith is the embodiment of all that is good and pure, and yet he still manages to make Smith startlingly human, which serves as encouragement that the morals that he stands for are not out of our reach. Today, the message still rings true if you allow yourself to view the picture as a representation of what we need over what we actually have: In a world torn in two by complex moral dilemmas that keep various, complicated ideologies at each others’ throats, it’s refreshing to have a film reflect on such a simple, moral man. Capra doesn’t abridge our multipart global concerns so much as he provides an important, straightforward approach though which we should always approach them: “Love thy neighbor.” It’s so uncomplicated it reaches out of the movie and slaps us in the face.
Jimmy Stewart: Jefferson Smith
Jean Arthur: Saunders
Claude Rains: Senator Joseph Paine
Edward Arnold: James Taylor
Thomas Mitchell: Diz
Harry Carey: Vice President
A Columbia Pictures release. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. No M.P.A.A. rating (fine—and recommended—for kids!). Running time: 129 minutes. Original United States release date: October 19, 1939.