Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is How Things Should Be

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra
Columbia, 130 minutes, Not-Rated (lots of gosh darns!)

Cynicism over American politics is nothing new. Even George Washington had his detractors. But let’s face it folks, we are living in deeply cynical times. Maybe Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is just the antidote we need.

This Frank Capra comedy/drama is a quintessential New Deal film, a delicious leftover from a time in which millions believed that government could solve their problems. President Franklin Roosevelt, though a wealthy man, often railed against the rich and those who sought to parlay political power into personal gain. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is based on a Lewis Fowler story titled “The Gentleman from Montana,” but no particular location is identified in the film other than “a Western state.”

The movie opens with a crisis for Governor Hubert “Happy” Hooper (Guy Kibble). One of his state’s U.S. Senators has died and Hooper is faced with appointing a new one. Like everyone else in the state and quite a few in Congress, Hooper is controlled by political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Taylor demands that Hooper appoint Henry Hill, who will go along with a scheme to build a dam in a recreational area that, not coincidentally, would make a tidy profit for Taylor and selected cronies. The plan goes slightly awry when Hooper’s six sons and all their pals pressure the governor to appoint their scout leader Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Hey, it’s 1939, so who’s going to go against a bunch of kids?

Hooper, Taylor, and the state’s other senator, Joe Paine (Claude Rains) aren’t worried. They see Smith as a gee-whiz rube, plus Smith worships Paine as an icon and mentor. They’re right about the rube part; Smith is in awe of Washington and whenever they or his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) can’t find him, he’s out sightseeing with star-spangled dust in his eyes. The Lincoln Memorial practically intoxicates Senator Smith. He’s so goofily patriotic that the news media laps it up and he’s too na├»ve to know he’s an object of ridicule. He’s the perfect foil for the Taylor machine. One small problem: Jefferson Smith has a conscience.

This sets the table for high drama. Paine will try various tricks and cajolery, including baiting Smith with his glamorous daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn). When all else fails, use blackmail, smear, and crucifixion. Soon, Smith goes from joke to villain but, by gum, Jeff Smith learned at the Lincoln Memorial that truth and principle are worth fighting for. Stewart’s filibuster is a legendary Hollywood scene, and Harry Carey’s role of the bemused president of the Senate provides lots of comic relief. Jean Arthur is also perfectly cast as a tough-skinned scoffer trying to recover her ideals.

The best way to enjoy Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is to surrender to its innocence. Historians are fond of saying, “It was a different time,” when discussing the past. Those who roll their eyes at the film’s wonderment and unfiltered patriotism are products of the jaded perspectives of the present. Like all Frank Capra screwball comedies, this one is broad. As in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart’s character isn’t meant to be taken literally; Stewart is an Everyman archetype. Nor are Capra’s films intended to snapshots of reality but, gosh darn it, they are the way things should be.

Early on I pegged Mr. Smith as a New Deal film. It, like numerous films from the 1930s, is an indirect reference to FDR. When the writer Tillie Olsen was asked decades later what she recalled of the Great Depression, she noted that it was a time in which ordinary people came to believe that the government was on their side. She gave Roosevelt credit for that. FDR was neither saint nor superhero, but wouldn’t it be nice to experience what Olsen felt? And wouldn’t it be nicer still if the government really was on the side of the masses rather than the asses?

 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 10 Oscars and only captured one. That went to Foster for Best Writing, Original Story, which is ironic as his “The Gentleman from Montana” went unpublished. Want to know why Mr. Smith didn’t win more? 1939 was an extraordinary year in cinema and Mr. Smith had to compete against Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz. As the years have passed, though, Mr. Smith has weathered better than optimism. The American Film Institute ranks it as #29 on its list of greatest American movies. Give it a watch. It sure beats cynicism.

Rob Weir

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