Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra
If only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz had been released a year later. In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith goes to Washington, James Stewart releases a rage against America’s political machinery. The writing was brilliant—it did, after all win an Oscar. But Scarlett O’Hara and the Wicked ol’ Witch took the rest of Capra’s ten nominations.
The story is pretty simple, even for 1939. A popular senator from an unnamed state in the American west has passed away, and at a most inconvenient time. The corrupt political machine has to convince the governor of the state (Guy Kibbee) to appoint a useless puppet, one that can get their issues through without putting up a fight. After a bit of harassment from his children, the governor picks a local Boy Rangers leader, Jefferson Smith (Stewart), believing he will be a simple-minded fellah not willing to talk back. After all, Smith was “a perfect man, never in politics in his life,” as the governor put it. Once he got into his post in Washington, however, Mr. Smith had some ideas of his own that he thought would be for the good of the people. The machine, however, didn’t agree. What comes next is a classic story of betrayal, inhumanity, and corruption like nothing ever seen by the average citizen, a complete social commentary of the state of government in the early part of the century.
Mr. Smith, ever the patriot, embraces the capitol’s best qualities right along with the worst. Upon arriving to D.C., Mr. Smith acknowledges in shock the beauty of the Capitol Building’s large dome. He studies the Lincoln Memorial multiple times, embracing the words of the Emancipation Proclamation—taking in the extremely patriotic sights of a small boy and a black man enjoying the words of the great document of freedom. Monuments of all kinds fill a montage across the scene, accompanied by an array of nationalistic music, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Hail to the Chief,” and bugle taps. Near the end of the film, Mr. Smith again visits his beloved Lincoln Memorial, and reads the Gettysburg Address. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” it reads. He smirks, knowing the once honest idea is now ludicrous.
James Stewart represents Hollywood as much as he does the people in this iconic performance. Watching it almost immediately after another great movie, Black Swan, Stewart’s “metamorphosis” from the average Joe to one of the most well-known—even notorious—Senators is a role not easily perfected. During his would-be record-breaking** Senate filibuster, Stewart uses his strong, commanding voice to talk down to his senior colleagues, in arguably the best scene of the movie.
While Stewart was at the top of his game, the supporting cast held up their parts as well. Jean Arthur shines as the love-struck secretary Clarissa Saunders. Her note to Mr. Smith during his filibuster was one to remember and recount for years. Claude Raines, as the mechanized Senator Joseph Paine, plays a significant role, and his battle with Mr. Smith also during the filibuster was just as memorable. Harry Carey has a hardly substantive role, but his sympathy makes his one of the most easily-loved characters. On the other hand, one of the more hated characters, Jim Taylor, was played by Edward Arnold—talk about a boring name playing an equally boring name—and he didn’t shine like the rest. Sure, he looked pretty angry. But most actors would tell you it’s the deeper, more emotionally charged roles that are the toughest.
While the opening credits insist that any coincidences regarding the names or actions of any of the characters in the movie are just that, coincidence, I thought it would be fun to take a look at who would be in office had this film been a bit less…fiction. By not revealing the state from which both Smith and Paine are from, we cannot figure out their correlations in real life. However, we do know the Vice President at the time, and subsequently President of the Senate, portrayed in the film as a very kind, sympathetic man, was John N. Garner IV, VP of course to President Frankin D. Roosevelt. Garner was from Texas, he was a Democrat—before all that mix-up with the whole party belief system—and he left the White House in 1941.
While many black and white movies have lulled me to slumber, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kept me up on my seat, wondering what would happen next. A movie ahead of its time, Frank Capra’s classic should be watched and enjoyed by the whole family.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is now on DVD (and has been, ever since the DVD has been around).
**The longest recorded filibuster as of 1939 was by Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette Sr. His 18 hour, 23 minute rant in 1908, 4th longest in U.S. Senate history, halted debate on a bill that would have allowed the U.S. Treasury to loan banks money in times of fiscal emergency.