“The Common Man Against the Political Machine”: MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON Turns 80!
By Movieguide® Staff
Editor’s Note: MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON debuted 80 years ago on Oct. 19, 1939. To commemorate the anniversary, we’re reposting a portion of our review. To read the full review, complete with a breakdown of worldviews, elements and values, click here.
The 1939 Frank Capra movie MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is one of the great all-time classic movies. It pits the wide-eyed naïve patriot Jefferson Smith against a nasty political machine. Cleverly avoiding party labels, the movie has inspired thousands of Republicans and Democrats to go to Washington to “clean things up.”
Director Frank Capra made a series of movies pitting a decent common man against big, powerful machines. Like his gem IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this one stars James Stewart as the common man, this time the leader of a boys group named Jefferson Smith, who’s appointed to finish out the term of a Senator who died while in office. The leader of the political machine in his state, Jim Taylor, and its other Senator, Joe Payne, think Smith will be the perfect patsy.
Smith shows up in Washington and immediately gets lost touring the various monuments in town. The press mocks him as a dummy sent to fill a chair and keep out of the way for a few months. Smith decides to try to pass a bill for the establishment of a boys camp in his state. Unknown to Smith, the camp’s location is the same as an area where the political machine wants to build a dam, as a political payoff to Taylor, who has secretly bought up the land in dummy names.
Senator Payne gets his beautiful daughter to escort Senator Smith to some events while the big bill where the dam is hidden in is discussed. Smith’s secretary, Clarissa Saunders, played wonderfully by Jean Arthur, tells him what just happened to him. The next day he stands up in the Senate to oppose the bill, but yields to Sen. Payne, who then calls for his expulsion by falsely accusing Smith of buying the land he wants to sell to the government for the boys camp. Smith is then framed in a committee hearing and made to look as if he only came to Washington to pass his one crooked bill and get rich. Rather than defend himself in committee, Smith walks out in disgust.
Saunders finds him at the Lincoln Memorial prepared to leave town a broken man. She encourages him to stand up to the machine and tells him how he can do so. Following her instructions, Smith gets recognized to speak on the resolution calling for his expulsion. He begins a filibuster, speaking against graft and reading from the Constitution and even the Bible.
Capra was clever to avoid mentioning state or party names. Regardless of party or state, the movie opposes graft. When it was released, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON was generally disliked by politicians and the press (who also come off looking corrupt). Over the years, it has gained popularity because it is a David vs Goliath type story pitting good against evil. It can rightly be said, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” One reason is that, while Capra’s movies are fun and inspirational, the characters are almost cartoonish in their exaggeration. Nevertheless, viewed as a work from 1939, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON has much more heart than the average modern movie. The truth be told, modern movie villains are even more cartoonish. They tend to be gigantic CGI monstrosities or, in the case of AVATAR, such nasty capitalist thugs that they make living in a tree look desirable.
Capra’s movies are great entertainment because they have stories and characters that grab viewers instantly and hold their attention while good battles evil, with the good winning in tremendous inspirational fashion. While his style may be dated, his superb editing and control of the actors is not. The world would benefit from more movies made with the heart shown by this master of cinema.