Director Frank Capra is known for films that might best be described as symbolic of “Americana”. Not “American,” but the form of nostalgic patriotism that somehow embodies the country as many Americans wish it was. Now, I hadn’t seen much of his work until this project started, but back in my grad school days I shared an office with a guy who studied film, and his impression was that Capra’s work often has a dark underbelly that he nudges at before backing off at the last minute to play it safe.
That whole paragraph pretty much explains everything about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What was so dark about Mr. Smith? It sneaks up on the audience. Sure, from the very first scene we can see that there is graft and corruption. It’s obvious. Political boss Jim Taylor from an unknown state and in an unstated party outright says he has a lot of money riding on a long term scheme He says this to one Senator Paine, and the reason is the sudden death of the other Senator for the state. A bill needs to pass the Senate, and the governor (also in on the scheme from the looks of things), decides to appoint one Jefferson “Jeff” Smith (Stewart), the founder of a Boy Scouts type organization that the governor’s 43 (mild exaggeration) children all seem to belong to, or at least his sons do. When he’s stuck for a pick, the governor chooses Smith due to a coin toss going wrong. As such, no darkness to see so far.
But it turns out Smith is a true believer in all things American. He visits all the monuments in Washington, raises pigeons, and just wants to do his job properly.
And no one believes him. The press makes him look silly, other Senators question his qualifications, and even his secretary (top billed Jean Arthur) cynically doesn’t believe in the guy who seems just so gosh golly gee whiz about things like the Capitol Building dome lit up at night or convenient kids reading the words inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial.
But the thing is, Smith isn’t stupid. Simple? Sure. But as the late Terry Pratchett wrote in one of his Discworld books, “simple” isn’t the same as “stupid”. Smith really believes in everything in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And, as time goes on, Smith proposes using federal money to build a camp for boys in his state that will somehow benefit the entire male youth of the country.
Yeah, if you’re a girl in this film, sucks to be you because no one is looking to build you a camp or thinking you might be a Senator someday. To be fair, it was 1939. To be even more fair, it still sucks to be a girl in this film.
Now, if you’ve never seen the film, everyone seems to know about the filibuster scene. Why was Smith even doing that? Well, when he tried to bring the graft he was told to assist with or else to the attention of either the state or the Senate in general, he’s framed for the same crime. This comes after he went around punching reporters for lying about him. Somehow, that isn’t what gets him in trouble.
But see, that’s where the darkness comes in. Until then, we’ve seen mostly basic, cartoon character level evil in this thing, particularly when Smith learns his longtime hero, friend to his dead father, Senator Paine is in on the graft. Smith goes on to accuse Taylor, a man he somehow had not heard of until only a few days before, and Taylor responds by shutting down all of his state’s press to keep Smith’s accusations from getting home until it is too late. It seems unlikely that he controls that much of the media, but then Arthur’s Saunders remembers that Smith’s Boy Scouts knock-offs had a paper that Smith’s mother runs. And they quickly put together a pro-Smith edition. Why would voters read this? I have no idea.
And then Taylor’s men start preventing the boys from handing out their paper across the state. That includes firehouses against pro-Smith rallies of adults, louder anti-Smith rallies, and having a truck run a car with the boys in it off the road, possibly killing them.
No wonder the remake that was never finished went the way it did. Smith would have been entirely justified if there weren’t some good guys supporting him like Saunders and the President of the Senate who make sure Smith doesn’t accidentally give up his floor time.
Stewart was perfect in the role as a sincere young man following his beliefs. And he was young when this came out, possibly too young to actually be a Senator. Apparently, a number of people at the time this came out were upset with how the film presented the United States Senate, most notably members of the United States Senate. Since then, it’s become a classic, the idea of the lone do-gooder standing up to graft and corruption against those using positions of power simply to line their own pockets. It’s easy to see why. But somehow, Smith’s human decency prompts Paine to confess on the Senate floor, vindicating the unconscious Smith who passed out after his filibuster had gone on for hours on end. And then…the film ends. Like, there’s nothing after that.
I guess that’s all they needed to say. But man, I am not complaining about the abruptness of Hitchcock’s endings again…
NEXT UP: Arguably, Francis Ford Coppola made three really noteworthy and great movies, and all three are in the top third of the AFI list. We have the next one coming up next, the 1979 epic war film Apocalypse Now.