Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A charismatic outsider with no experience in government, a hero to his juvenile followers, arrives in Washington to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. He owes his appointment to some behind-the-scenes shenanigans by corrupt politicians in his home state. They think they can control him. Boy, were they mistaken.

smith-capitolImplausible? It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Stewart’s naïve character, Jefferson Smith, made it to adulthood, let alone to Washington. He doesn’t know how laws work, he doesn’t even know the rules of order that govern the Senate. Somehow this is endearing. His cynical secretary’s (Jean Arthur) faith in humanity is restored by Smith’s straightforward ignorance. She’s more than happy to educate him.

Smith doesn’t act like a grown-up. When unflattering articles appear about him following his first press conference, he punches out the reporters. It’s shocking, but you’re meant to cheer at this.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington paints the press as less interested in ferreting out the truth than in selling newspapers and pandering to the prurient interests of their audience. I guess they had it coming?

Jeff Smith is like a kid when he arrives in the nation’s capitol, wandering off to see the sights: statues and monuments to the founding fathers, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Awestruck, he stands in front of the copy of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives. We know he’s awestruck because patriotic music swells up beneath images of the Liberty Bell ringing, succeeded by a flaming torch as the words “life,” “liberty,” “pursuit of happiness” (penned as they were on the document) appear in front of his eyes.dwarfed-by-lincoln

He ends up at the Lincoln Memorial, listening as a little boy reads the words of the Gettysburg Address to his grandfather. Frank Capra apparently witnessed this very scene when he was making the movie. He’d been worrying that the time might not be right for this picture.

It was 1939. Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin to ensure that the Soviet leader would not object when he invaded Poland. “The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic,” Capra wrote in his autobiography, “but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose.”

The more seasoned senator from Smith’s state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), knows how politics works. “You can’t rely on people voting—half the time they don’t vote,” he tells Stewart early on. He’s quite ruthless, willing to lie to preserve his power and protect the interests of the fat cats back home. He wants Smith to grow up and face the facts: “This is a man’s world, Jeff, and you’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, just like you do your rubbers.”

Rains is by far the more interesting character, complex and increasingly tormented as he watches his protégé destroyed by the very machinations he set in motion. Smith is no match for the fat cats and their minions. In the famous filibuster scene at the end, when he pulls out the Constitution and reads the entire document, his Senate colleagues are unmoved. A good many of them are asleep.

But Rains has a moment of self-reckoning. He sees himself in Smith, his younger, purer self, and is ashamed at what he’s become. He confesses to having betrayed the country and his constituents, “the people who sent me here. . .  I’m not fit to hold office,” he shouts in the Senate chamber.

Talk about implausible.

25 thoughts on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

  1. What a contrast with the case of the next U.S. president, and yet there are similarities too. One of my college film courses covered Frank Capra—it may have been a whole semester long—but it’s blurry in my memory now. Thanks for this reminder.

    Coincidentally, there’s a new series on HBO that’s similar to Mr. Smith in setup. It’s called The Young Pope, and (to judge only from something I read) it’s about a Brooklyn-born archbishop who’s chosen by the College of Cardinals because they think they’ll be able to control him. It’s hard to believe a real outsider could reach the papacy or the American presidency or even the American senate, and yet…

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  2. Although I’ve never seen MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, I’ve heard people talk about it over the years. As I read your review, I thought about THE CANDIDATE. In that movie, Robert Redford’s character–Bill McKay–ran for public office and won. Unlike Mr. Smith, however, McKay was aware all along of the duplicitous and manipulative behavior of people in politics, including office holders, candidates and campaign managers alike. Thus, it was indeed striking that at the end of the movie he was at a complete loss as to what to do next.

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    1. Welcome back, Camilla! I’ve never seen The Candidate, but it was made in a very different era (early 1970s). Films were darker and often didn’t resolve cleanly. Mr. Smith ventures into that territory, but doesn’t stay there very long. Interestingly, Joseph Kennedy, who was at that time US ambassador to England didn’t feel that it presented America in a positive enough light and wouldn’t allow it to be distributed there.

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  3. You’re an historian, right, Lisa?

    So, what are the odds that under the USA’s newly elected president, we’re going to see a re-play of what happened in Europe in the 1930s?

    Your Hitler/Stalin comment in the review prompts the thought.

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    1. Hello, Wolf. (Wonderful name!) Any historian worth her salt knows better than to draw spurious parallels between past and present moments with an eye toward predicting the future. In this case, especially, I’d like to keep Hitler and Stalin in their respective circles of Hell. Even Mussolini had his peculiarities.

      That said, I believe that we can learn from the resistance to these dictators. Small acts of goodness are possible for each of us and they are important.

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      1. No problem with keeping Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini in their particular circles of the Inferno. However, as a movie enthusiast, I’m all for picturing alternative scenarios (in real life and on the big screen.) Think, for example, SLIDING DOORS (with Gwyneth Paltrow).

        The current talk (about trade, immigration, and nationalism, for example) all but compels our attention to a consideration of alternative outcomes based on what we saw play out in the 1930s and 1940s. In light of your training as an historian, I figure you can offer insights which might escape the rest of us.

        By the way, my name–Wolf–is short for Wolfgang.

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      2. Seems to me we’ve got a president (and his entourage) playing with alternate reality, alternate truth, alternate facts. Me, I’m staying focused on the world “as is.”

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  4. Did you see the first episode of HOMELAND’s new season last week?

    One of the criticisms of the episode is that conversations with the president-elect are almost quaint, in comparison with we we’ve seen in real life recently.

    I’m curious. How do you think Hollywood will be portraying politics on the big screen, given the reality we witnessed during the 2016 presidential campaign?

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    1. Good question, Barbara. I was reading an article on “Homeland” in a recent NYTimes (I’m a little behind on my newspapers . . .) that mentioned the alternate reality this season is playing with. Maybe by imagining similar but not identical scenarios to the one currently playing out, we can make change happen.

      Simone de Beauvoir said something along these lines in regard to the French Resistance. Before it existed, it was an idea. Collaborators could not imagine a future for France, except under the Third Reich. They accepted the reality of the present, whereas the future Resistance dared to dream, first, of something different and gradually made their dream a reality. When others stopped being demoralized and began to believe in that dream, the movement began to gather momentum.

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    2. What’s more interesting to me about the new season of Homeland is that the president-elect doubts the utility of American military and intelligence activities abroad (which puts her in opposition to most of the show’s main characters). In this respect, she resembles our new president, who appears to question overseas military commitments and the conclusions of the intelligence agencies.

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      1. We haven’t yet learned much about the background of the president-elect on HOMELAND. However, I’m guessing she’s far more knowledgeable about U.S. history and the key role of the U.S. government in maintaining the international system (consisting of such institutions as the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the GATT, etc.) that came into being after 1945 than is the actual current U.S. president.

        A recent piece in THE WASHINGTON POST focused attention on how he, among other things, prefers to surround himself with people who look the part. No kidding. So men who look like a general, a la George C. Scott in PATTON for example, get his stamp of approval. Appearance counts for A LOT with the guy.

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      1. Agreed!

        Remakes aren’t as good, without exception. (Case in point, last year’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. What a travesty! The original version, with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, remains one of my all-time favorites.)

        B-U-T…with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the point would be to highlight the lead character’s idealism in contrast with the machinations of his political enemies. Surely, a gifted director could succeed in portraying that situation exquisitely in an updated setting.

        For starters, I’d suggest having a female play the lead.

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      2. Of course, The Magnificent Seven was an American remake of The Seven Samurai. If you have not seen the original, I urge you to do so.

        As for the story of an idealistic but hard-fighting female senator pitting herself against corruption in Washington, I’ll just watch Elizabeth Warren.

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      3. The web page doesn’t allow me to reply to a deeply nested comment, so I’m making this a new one. I love this: “As for the story of an idealistic but hard-fighting female senator pitting herself against corruption in Washington, I’ll just watch Elizabeth Warren.” Warren has shown a bit of liberal populism that I’m unsure I agree with, but I want to hear more from her. As time allows, I’ll be watching her and Kamala Harris over the next few years.

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  5. Civics used to be a required class in high school. It appears that that is no longer the case.

    Movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON could be instrumental in helping people to understand (1) the role of government in society and (2) how its actions affect them directly. I’d say such an understanding is especially important for people seeking to become naturalized U.S. citizens, in particular those who have fled countries with oppressive systems of government.

    It’s noteworthy that Capra himself was born in Italy at the end of the 19th century.

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    1. It’s one of the little ironies of American life that if citizenship is conferred on you by birth, you don’t have to do anything to remain a citizen—even keeping up a driver’s license demands more—whereas if you were born elsewhere, time, effort, and expense are required in order to become naturalized. As a page on the FindLaw site puts it, “In order to be naturalized, an applicant must first be qualified to apply for citizenship. Then, he or she must complete an application, attend an interview, and pass an English and a civics test. Upon successful completion of these steps, the applicant takes an oath of loyalty, and becomes a citizen.” Christopher Hitchens talked about the process often; I thought he had described it in detail somewhere, but in a quick search I didn’t find it. There may be no such thing as an average American-born citizen, but if there is it’s conceivable that he or she knows less about our history and government than any naturalized citizen does.
      Still, there’s a lot to learn for all of us, and the fictional arts can play a part, as long as we remember that they are fiction. Frank Capra’s movies, with their faith in the ordinary man, represent an important thread in American life and could be useful, but as Lisa’s survey tacitly points out, Mr. Smith takes a dim view of the workings of government. I’d suggest as well, or instead, some episodes of the TV drama The West Wing. It happens to favor the Democratic Party (as do I), but it dramatizes the White House, the executive branch, and the entire federal government in the way one imagines it can work and should work, in the hands of people who are highly educated, who are committed on the whole to principles rather than personal gain, and who work harder than almost any of the rest of us do toward ends greater than themselves. In a word, it’s about ideals, and I’m always in favor of keeping ideals in mind. (That may sound undramatic; it’s not. The ideals clash with each other, and their pursuit conflicts with personal issues, and that’s where the drama comes in.) Along the way, The West Wing casts a few sidelights into little-known areas; for instance, there’s a sequence of episodes dealing with the 25th amendment to the Constitution.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked THE WEST WING, too.

        It’s important to note that while it was fiction, its creator and primary writer of the scripts–Aaron Sorkin–called upon real life people who’d worked in Clinton’s White House, such as Dee Dee Myers, to offer advice on how to portray people and actions accurately and effectively. So, as we watch such programming, even knowing that it is fiction, we can still become more educated about how government operates in reality (and often in contrast with the theory of government).

        The episodes where John Goodman’s character was called upon to serve temporarily as president, in place of Jeb Bartlett, played very well.

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  6. As Obama would say, “C’mon guys.”

    Lisa and John, we’re talking movies here. You gotta take the long view.

    Watching Elizabeth Warren in the here and now is okay for you. But….what about generations of U.S. citizens yet to be born?!?!? After all, neither of you was probably born when MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON first hit the big screen. Yet, here you are today, in the 21st century, talkin’ about it and its implications.

    So, for the benefit of people in years to come, all the more need for an update of the movie to be made AND with a female playing the lead.

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  7. True enough.
    True enough.

    Spokespeople for the new U.S. administration are dishing out untruths they want us to swallow hook, line and sinker. But there is a key antidote available to us, namely, the movies.

    The thing to keep in mind is that during the post-WWII era, Hollywood accounted for an appreciable quantity of U.S. exports. U.S.-made movies were and still remain exceedingly popular around the globe. Though offered as entertainment, their messages clearly serve to educate also. Just think, for example, of SUPERMAN and its “truth, justice and the American way” slogan.

    Seeing, through the movies, how people in the United States, live has caused people in various places around the world to want to enjoy the same things, from material products such as jeans to intangibles such as freedom. The Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, referred to this as the exercise of soft power and urged U.S. government officials not to underestimate its importance.

    All I’m saying is that Hollywood, like the press, can effectively challenge all those untruths, both here and abroad.

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