by Matt Levine
I continue to love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington not necessarily because it’s a great film (which is debatable), but because it has uncannily coincided with my changing tastes and perspectives as a film lover. In 1998, after the American Film Institute unveiled its list of the 100 best American movies (with Mr. Smith appearing at #29), I used this spotty canon as a tool for teaching myself about the history of American cinema. The 14-year-old that saw Mr. Smith in 1998 took it on faith that Frank Capra’s willfully idealistic ode to democracy was an indisputable masterpiece. Watching it again five years later, as an undergrad in film school (who probably viewed most things with a little too much detachment), its unabashed sentimentalism and stars-and-stripes Americana was off-putting and laughable. Since then, though, I’ve come to view Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as an enormously moving fantasy: a stubbornly optimistic image of what democracy could (and should) look like, whose anachronistic lack of cynicism is precisely one of its most attractive qualities.
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Writers: Sidney Buchman, Lewis R. Foster (story)
Cinematographer: Joseph Walker
Editors: Al Clark, Gene Havlick
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall
US Theatrical Release: October 19, 1939
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
The Wizard of Oz is often understandably labeled the finest fantasy movie released in 1939 (one of Hollywood’s strongest years), which it undoubtedly is; but it has competition from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, another movie about a young, innocent idealist who is ripped from his proverbial Kansas (we never learn what state he’s actually from) and ultimately prevails against his own Wicked Witch, in the form of corrupt political machinery. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is an aw-shucks woodsman so homespun he’s even the master of a Boy Ranger troop (the Boy Scouts themselves wanted no form of endorsement in Capra’s movie). After his life-saving heroics during a forest fire make him a front-page star, he’s propped up by two corrupt politicians—Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of Jeff’s father; and the vile Jim Taylor, who basically owns all media and telecommunications in his home state (he’s a mini-William Randolph Hearst)—to replace a recently deceased senator. Paine and Taylor are hoping to build a dam on Willett Creek (which Taylor owns) in order to pocket money from government funds; they need someone dim and obedient who won’t question their enterprise, and they think they find him in the wide-eyed Smith.
Hardly ten minutes have gone by on Smith’s first day on the job in D.C. before he up and leaves his handlers to wander, awestruck, throughout the city—it’s the Capitol Dome beckoning in the distance that initially lures him from their grasp. This allows Capra and his editors, Al Clark and Gene Havlick, to concoct some patriotic montages replete with flags waving, stars and stripes dissolving on screen, and images of the Lincoln and Washington monuments—accompanied, of course, by tunes such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “America, America.” When he ambles up to Lincoln’s Monument, there’s even a cherubic little boy reading aloud the Gettysburg Address for his grandpa. It’s precisely this kind of flag-waving earnestness that once seemed absurd and excessive to me, but now the film’s gung-ho schmaltz seems like a clever counterpoint to Jefferson Smith’s unabashedly sincere persona (as well as a compromise with the Hays Office, who wanted to ensure that the film ultimately conveyed wholesome, pro-democratic propaganda).
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s precocious innocence quickly becomes a laughingstock with both the Washington Press Corps, who enjoy painting Smith as a witless buffoon on their front pages, and his appointed secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur), who believes her job chaperoning a childlike senator is beneath her (which it is). Gradually, though, it becomes clear that Smith isn’t stupid: sharp as a tack and ready to deliver retaliation when he discovers the journalists’ slander (there’s a montage of Smith punching out beat writers that is absolutely ridiculous), Paine and Saunders begin to suspect that he’s not the idiot they assumed he was. Saunders even becomes enamored with Smith’s gushing idealism, which she considers a fading concept at the time—though certainly James Stewart’s tall, lithe features and deep, dark eyes have something to do with it. As a way to distract the idle and ambitious senator, Paine puts him on a seemingly meaningless task to occupy his time: Smith wants to create a Boys’ Camp in his state where young ones might learn “what their country means,” he proclaims fervently. The only problem is that Smith’s proposed camp encompasses Willett Creek—the proposed dam by which Paine and Taylor hope to exploit their taxpayers (as a sign of the film's stereotyped characters, Taylor even uses the phrase "it will be like stealing candy from a baby").
It’s devastating to watch Smith’s rapid plummet from high-minded optimism to bitter reality, as he discovers Taylor’s graft and (even worse) Paine’s manipulation of him. Credit Stewart’s performance in his first major lead (this is essentially the film that made him a star): his humble drawl is able to imbue Sidney Buchman’s syrupy dialogue with surprising emotion. Realizing that Senator Paine has no interest in exposing Taylor’s corruption, Smith attempts to blow the whistle on them in Senate, though he loses all credibility when he himself is framed for graft. He’s about to return home to Palookaville, dejected and hopeless regarding the government’s truly despicable nature, when the once-cynical Saunders meets him (again at the Lincoln Monument) and gives him a fervent pep talk: “You had faith in something bigger... You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world, a lot of it.” Clearly Jean Arthur is also saddled with a lot of clunky dialogue, but the underrated star brings them alive with her usual flinty self-confidence—she knows she’s better than any of the slimy politicians who surround her. Saunders proposes a last-ditch effort for Smith to save his political career—the climactic filibuster that has become this film’s most famous sequence. As Smith holds the floor in the Senate for over 28 hours, reading from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (of course), he waits for public support in his home state to turn against Taylor and towards him, in the faith that the strength of the citizen in American democracy is powerful enough to take down the despotic Taylor.
Like many other scenes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this grandiose ending is moving either despite or because of its obviousness. At one point, Smith speechifies, “I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too”—a quote which basically sums up this movie’s political ideas. Smith’s eventual collapse, and a deus-ex-machina line of dialogue at the climax that instantaneously restores Smith’s reputation, certainly constitute crude screenwriting, but that isn’t to say they’re not extremely effective; by the end of the film, we’ve been sucked into its populist world of optimism and common decency.
Upon Mr. Smith’s release, a number of US senators also disparaged the film’s cartoonish depiction of the Senate as a group of hardened bureaucrats, not to mention the kindly Senate President (Harry Carey) who winks and smiles at Smith to offer his silent support—a sappy example of the movie’s blunt, pre-packaged emotionalism. The Senate Majority Leader, Alben W. Barkley, labeled the film “silly and stupid” and even alleged that its distortion of the real-life Senate was “as grotesque as anything ever seen!” Barkley might have a point—at times Mr. Smith seems like a clichéd underdog tale that happens to be played out on the Senate floor—but that’s why it works extremely well as political fantasy, with only a theoretical relation to the world we actually live in.
In its visual style, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can hardly lay claims to innovation, with Capra and cinematographer Joseph Walker typically opting for quick-and-simple medium-shots and relatively little cutting within scenes. (One charming exception provides a closer shot on Smith’s hands as he repeatedly fumbles his hat while speaking to Paine’s beautiful daughter, Susan.) The aesthetic is workmanlike but highly accomplished, as the expected soft-focus close-ups of Jean Arthur and the monstrous long shots of the US Senate (actually a replica that took up two soundstages at Columbia Pictures) can be breathtakingly beautiful. There are occasional moments of stylistic verve, especially in the fast-paced montages conveying an eye-popping whir of visual information (the montages are credited to Slavko Vorkapich, who is able to inject a dash of formal ingenuity into the solid but uncomplicated style of the film).
One might assume that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would only seem anachronistic to modern audiences, given the film’s lack of cynicism and outdated lingo; but it seems the film was viewed as an anachronism even at the time of its release, as the film derives much of its humor from the ignorance of a man who actually thinks he can make a difference in modern politics. Perhaps this is why the film has been considered a classic basically since its creation (it received eleven Oscar nominations in 1939). Of course there are other elements that make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a beloved moment in Hollywood history, especially the touching performances by Stewart and Arthur. It’s certainly one of director Frank Capra’s finest hours as well: though it’s not as contextually rich as American Madness (1932) or as deceptively bleak as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it is an agile example of Capra’s entertaining, unobtrusive style.
But beyond its economical storytelling and warm performances, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continues to entrance because it is anachronistic: Jefferson Smith is an idealist untarnished by the truth, an optimist in a cynical world. This was true to an extent in 1939, but Smith’s out-of-placeness is even more overt in 2014. Smith is an attractive, if not vital, concept for a democratic system—the belief that one person can change society. For those trying to retain their faith in democracy after receiving only manipulation and lies from our politicians, how can we still trust the people we elect to positions of power? We need Jefferson Smith—the idea if not the man—to believe that we can shrug off cynicism and still attempt to change the world. If the film’s star-spangled endorsements of folksy patriotism and the beauties of democracy occasionally seem absurd or over-the-top, it’s because they embrace a political sincerity that has become passé, if not entirely elusive. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s depiction of a just, honest American government is an outsized fantasy, but it’s a nice one to believe in.