Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Cleaning Up the Swamp

STIRRING – IN THE SEEING! PRECIOUS – IN THE REMEMBERING!

No one finds Frank Capra’s best movie controversial today. But it certainly was back in 1939. Many politicians and reporters in Washington saw the film and did not enjoy it. Its depiction of corruption in the halls of power was not something to show the world, they thought, and called the movie anti-American. The Democratic Senate Majority Leader labeled it ”silly and stupid”, and ”a grotesque distortion” of the Senate. Efforts were made at boycotting the film.

Joseph Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, contacted both the studio and Capra, telling them that the movie would damage American interests in Europe. It was also banned in many dictatorships, like Russia and Germany. Perhaps Communists and Nazis understood the impact of Capra’s work better?

It begins with a death. When a U.S. senator representing a western state dies and needs to be replaced, the governor (Guy Kibbee) naturally turns to the man who put him in power, the political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). He has a puppet ready, but the governor’s children pressure him into appointing Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the head of the Boy Rangers. Smith has no political experience and is a little overwhelmed by the public support for him. Infuriated at first, Taylor believes that Smith can be manipulated; upon arriving in D.C., the junior senator is taken under the wing of Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the state’s senior senator who also owes his place and fortune to Jim Taylor. The two men need to see a bill passed that will benefit them financially, and Paine promises Smith that all he has to do in the Senate is take his advice.

Smith gets an assistant, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who reports back to Paine. She’s jaded, but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with seeing the idealistic Smith get duped…

A beloved masterpiece
Over the years, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has become a beloved masterpiece where a simple, honest and kindhearted American rebels against corruption and greed in Washington, leading to a stirring last half-hour where the senator filibusters the bill he was meant to rubber-stamp until he’s won the day. People on the right and left have always idolized this moment; occasionally, senators do their best to repeat Mr. Smith’s achievement. The idea of a lawmaker as a lone maverick lives on as a positive role model. Like Capra’s previous films, this one is an effective (if longish) fantasy that continues many of the same themes that were the backbone of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938), both of which also starred Arthur. She’s terrific as the tough secretary who knows exactly how Washington works, but slowly finds her way back to idealism thanks to her new boss.

This was Stewart’s breakthrough and the role defined him forever. He’s obviously brilliant, even a little touching as a sweet man who can’t stand injustice; when Smith learns just what a man Senator Paine is he knows what kind of excruciating ordeal he must go through to stop him. Seemingly weak, he has considerable strength, and all this is convincingly projected by Stewart. Rains is also magnificently cast as the corrupt senator who has sort of given up on trying to assert some kind of independence against Arnold’s towering boss.

There are several beautifully, powerfully staged scenes where Smith gets his D.C. education, including a memorable visit to the Lincoln Memorial that should have anyone’s hairs stand on end. The film’s patriotism is strong and vibrant, almost a quaint thing to see these days when the Trump Administration has forced an entire political party to put its leader before country. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939-U.S. 129 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Sidney Buchman. Story: Lewis R. Foster. Cinematography: Joseph Walker. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson ”Jeff” Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell… Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey.

Trivia: Remade as Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977); later a 1962-1963 TV series.

Oscar: Best Original Story.

Last word: “Hollywood has always been a dirty word in Washington anyhow. And the fact that somebody had nerve enough to make a film about the Senate – this real aristocratic club, private club, private preserve – have this snotty-nosed thing called films get in there – was a revelation to them of the power of film, the power of film to do what they hadn’t been able to do, which was expose the workings of something and really tell people all about it visually.” (Capra, interview with Richard Schickel)

 

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