Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Frank Capra’s peculiar morality tale set in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), wears its idealism on its sleeve. This is both admirable and grating. James Stewart (a Capra favorite) plays interim senatorial appointee Jefferson Smith with a broadness that was the signature of Capra’s comedies (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and with a spirited patriotism that would mark Capra’s, sometimes inartful, Why We Fight documentaries of the ’40s. Smith’s belief in American principles inspires young people (boys, primarily) back home. They see through their parents’ cynicism and complicity in the decline of the American Dream. An early scene between the weasley Gov. Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and his mouthy, but amazingly informed, kids is a model of timing and exposition. And how terrific is it these kids who think Jefferson Smith is just what Washington needs get schooled by reading the Boy Ranger newspaper?! Hopper sees an opportunity and sends the unprepared and, presumably, pliable Smith to Washington. 

In a wonderfully earnest sequence, the newby visits all of the famous monuments and words in the Nation’s Capital, but then must confront a political establishment that is steeped in graft and a press corp that is manipulative and, initially, unsympathetic to the cheeky, square-state junior senator. Smith finds an unlikely ally in the cynical and sassy Clarissa Saunders of Baltimore (played by another Capra favorite Jean Arthur), whose own dreams have been doused by power players like money bags Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and the once-honorable Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines). She finds news inspiration in Smith’s description of the unspoiled beauty of his home state, all of which sounds marvelous to a girl whose only known the wranglings of Congress. Smith quickly becomes a nuisance and when his passion leads him to cross Taylor and Paine, the Taylor Machine unleashes a character assassination campaign, with Paine’s help, that at first overwhelms but then ignites Smith. 

The final act of Capra’s classic is (in)famous and is what makes the tale so peculiar and, maybe, unsatisfying to some. It’s infamy comes from the unsatisfying ending that inserts “God’s deliverance” in the place of justice. Still, 75 years after its release, Mr. Smith warns about internal threats to personal liberty, the imbalance of power, disunity among the country’s citizens, the untoward influence of great wealth on policy-making, and the inevitable corruption that follows. And that makes it as fresh as today’s headlines.


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