Monday, February 11, 2008

Classic Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Thanks to my Peerflix account, I finally got a copy of the Frank Capra 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington this past weekend (I've since found out that this movie is available for free via Google video, although I still haven't successfully downloaded a copy for my iPod, so I don't know how reliable a venue that is, but it appears you can watch it online in any event). I've been curious about this film ever since being re-introduced to Capra's It's a Wonderful Life a little over a year ago, but had never seen it until now. Like the later (1946) It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stars Jimmy Stewart, who had also worked with Capra for an even earlier film that I still haven't seen, 1938's You Can't Take It with You. I guess that one's next on my list....

Besides sharing the same director and lead actor, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shares a few elements with It's a Wonderful Life. Music is provided by Russian immigrant Dimitri Tomkin. Thomas Mitchell, who played absent-minded Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, has a significant role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as reporter Diz Moore. H.B. Warner shows up in minor roles in both. There are probably other connections, as well; one gets the impression that Capra had a group of actors that he believed in and was loyal to. But perhaps the most obvious similarity between these two classics is the idea (prevalent in many of Capra's films) that "one man can make a difference."

Here's a quick, spoiler-filled synopsis: A senator passes away suddenly, right before an important bill is about to be brought to a vote. This particular bill is important to a wealthy mogul named Jim Taylor, who has a financial interest in seeing this bill passed, and has lined up a group of corrupt senators (including the deceased) to make sure that it does. It's up to the governor to make an appointment, and when the Taylor-chosen candidate meets with massive public opposition, the governor ends up following the advice of his children to appoint local boy scout (or, more correctly in terms of the film, "Boy Ranger") leader Jefferson Smith (Stewart), a naive young man with highly patriotic ideals. The surprise appointment is extremely well-received by the public, and despite Taylor's displeasure at an appointment made without his permission, Smith is sworn in.

Smith's naivete gets him into some early trouble with the press, but he finds a quick ally--or so he believes--in senior senator Joseph Paine, who it turns out was a childhood friend of Smith's father. In the past, Smith's father and Paine were champions of "lost causes," a tendency that eventually led to the father's murder, and presumably was what attracted Paine to public service in the first place. Unfortunately, Paine is firmly in Taylor's pocket, and is simply trying to keep Smith from learning too much about the important bill until it is too late.

Paine tries to distract Smith from the crucial bill by suggesting that Smith write one of his own. Unfortunately, it turns out that Smith's bill involves creating a boy's camp near a creek that is intended to be dammed by Taylor's bill. When it becomes clear that the two bills are mutually exclusive, Smith learns of Taylor's scheme. An honest man despite Taylor's threats to break him, Smith intends to bring Taylor's intentions to public light, but before he can do so, Taylor forces Paine to sabotage Smith's efforts by accusing Smith of seeking to profit from the plan to build a boy's camp near the creek. Mounds of false evidence are presented against Smith, and the senate prepares to vote him out of office on corruption charges. Smith, shocked at the accusations and unable to defend himself, nearly gives up.

Smith is given encouragement to continue fighting by his formerly cynical aide Clarissa Saunders, who has been won over by Smith's integrity and ideals. Saunders encourages Smith to filibuster the senate: holding the floor and continuing to speak for as long as it takes to delay his ouster and get the truth to the public. Although the filibuster makes big news, Taylor is able to ensure that any news made public is hostile to Smith. Even a grassroots effort to distribute papers in Smith's defense, engineered by the Boy Rangers who know Smith best, is thwarted by Taylor's goons, who go so far as to run vehicles carrying the children and their papers off the road. Many children are injured, and Saunders vows to have Smith end his filibuster.

Before she can do so, Paine has a final ploy of his own. In a kind of reverse-Miracle on 34th Street (although that movie was still nearly a decade away!), he has thousands of letters brought in from citizens of the public calling for Smith's ouster. Smith, already exhausted from having spoken for many hours non-stop, is nearly broken by this revelation, but finds strength from the president of the Senate, who gives him a silent smile. Smith then reminds Paine of the man he used to be: the champion of lost causes. Vowing to continue fighting, Smith suddenly collapses.

This is the last straw for Paine, who runs out of the senate chambers and tries to shoot himself. Prevented from doing so by senate guards, Paine runs back into the chambers and tells everyone the truth, that Smith is innocent and that Paine is the one who should be kicked out. The senate chambers erupt in chaos, and the movie ends with Saunders shouting "Yippee!" to crowd while the president of the Senate smiles and leans back in his chair, amused at the outcome of Smith's victory.

I was actually a bit surprised at the ending. Although we are told that Smith has merely fainted, and will be all right, we never see him learn that he's won. Still, we know everything we need to know, and I certainly won't second-guess Capra, who wanted to show us the often-high price of true democracy, even when those most responsible for maintaining it seem to have been corrupted by money and power. This is a movie that I think is as relevant now as it was 70 years ago, and I highly recommend that people watch it.


  1. I actually just watched this a couple months ago. To tell the truth, while I can certainly be idealistic about America, I couldn't help but cringe at some of the over-the-top patriotic propaganda that was laced throughout the film. I half expected the Lincoln statue in the Memorial to start giving a speech to Smith.

  2. I tend to be more than a bit skeptical about over-the-top patriotism myself, but somehow I didn't have that reaction here. Maybe it's just because, as a film of such an early era, I was more willing to give it a "pass" than I would if the same thing were done in a modern movie.

  3. On further reflection, I actually don't think it's the movie's age that causes me to treat it more charitably. Rather, I think it's the fact that the "hyper patriotism" is NOT being used in favor of the government, here. Most of the government figures in this film are corrupt, and the call to American ideals is seen as in opposition to this. More often than not, patriotism seems to be "trust the government," which I have much more trouble stomaching.

  4. Good point about the distinction between governmental and national patriotism.



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