|Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1939 - unrated - 129 Mins.
|Director: Frank Capra
|Producer: Frank Capra
|Written By: Sidney Buchman
|Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold and Guy Kibbee
|Review by: Bill King
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" told a story of government corruption so effectively that the film was denounced upon its premiere. Journalists and politicians alike had a lot of negative things to say about how they were presented, but their reaction only solidified the movie's stance as one of the most important films ever made. Director Frank Capra once again applied his theme of the little guy battling the system, but here the system is the federal government. The country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression in 1939, and politicians of the time could have very well caused it with their pork barrel ideas (look no further than the atrocious Federal Reserve Act of 1913). Any movie that would dare to show politicians in even a slightly crooked manner would experience a backlash of this sort.
Your own comic book! The Adventures of Mr. Smith.
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the embodiment of all that is pure, and just about the average American citizen. He doesn't possess the political muscle that would ensure a successful career in the U.S. Senate, which is why Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and Senator Paine (Claude Rains) choose Mr. Smith to succeed a recently deceased senator. Hopper and Paine are involved in a plan to fund the construction of a dam on a piece of land in their state that is owned by fellow cohort Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Someone like Jefferson Smith would be too naïve to suspect anything underhanded.
Jefferson Smith arrives in Washington, D.C. full of energy and anticipation. He has no idea how to be a senator on a daily basis, but he finds help in his new secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). She guides him along the initial stages of his tenure, advising him on the daily routines of the senate. Through Clarissa, Jefferson learns how a bill is proposed and how the bill undergoes a screening process before being put to a vote. (For further instruction on how a bill becomes law, watch the School House Rock video on the subject.) Jefferson gives the process a try and proposes a bill that would fund a national boy's camp in his state, to be paid for with taxpayer's dollars but repaid to the government using nickels and dimes contributed by the boys who attend the camp. The only problem with this bill is that Jefferson wants to locate the camp on the same spot where Senator Paine wants to build his dam.
Fearing their plans would be exposed, Senator Paine and Jim Taylor orchestrate a scandal that centers around Jefferson's desire to pocket all the nickels and dimes for his own use. Furthermore, they bring forth falsified evidence to show that Senator Smith already owns that land and simply wants to swindle the government for money. They produce a number of "witnesses" who testify against Senator Smith, citing conversations that never took place and documents never signed. Jefferson, appalled at the behavior of his fellow senators, panics and walks out of his hearing, without making a case for his innocence.
After an enlightening meeting with Clarissa at the Lincoln Memorial, Senator Smith realizes what he must do. He musters up the courage to return to the senate and state his side of the story. By then, his reputation has already been tarnished, both in the Senate and in his own state. In order to make his small voice heard, he unleashes an endless filibuster to remind the other senators of their duty to the citizens. As long as he can stand and talk, Mr. Smith forces the session to remain open, therefore keeping the other senators from leaving the building. He strays from his case and starts reading the Constitution in an effort to keep everyone's attention on him. He hopes to illicit support from his state (never mentioned in the movie) and repair his broken reputation. The filibuster sequence is a masterpiece of cinema. Jefferson gets tired, thirsty; he loses his voice and limps around the senate. He says all the right things and asks all the right questions, while his colleagues can do nothing except listen, or ineffectively coerce Smith into stopping.
This wrongful accusation isn't Capra's only way to show how far politicians will go to cover their actions. He takes the story back to Jefferson's state, where the newspapers have been ordered to report nothing on Jefferson's filibuster. In retaliation, Smith's old Boy Scout troupe prints its own flyers to clear Jefferson's good name. The boys circulate these papers by any means necessary, whether by foot or by wagon. Jim Taylor's political machine is too powerful, however, and his men confiscate the papers. Freedom of the press takes a huge blow in this instance. If such political usurpation of the press seems unbelievable, then you might be surprised to know that George W. Bush's staff ordered many media outlets either to ignore or downplay Third Party presidential candidates, so that no one except John Kerry (no different from Bush) could threaten his position. Frank Capra and writer Sidney Buchman didn't think such an action was out of the question in 1939, and it's a reality today.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is Frank Capra's best film, but "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is richer in subtext and more important in terms of social issues. James Stewart, the actor who began his career playing the ordinary guy, is at his best here. He portrays Jefferson Smith as a young idealist, who uses the old-fashioned values he grew up with and instilled in his boy scouts to fight a debauched system. The Jim Taylors and Senator Paines of this country possess a lot of power, but they'll never completely win as long as the Jefferson Smiths out there stick to their values and never back down no matter what the consequences.