Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Frank Capra week concludes with his most famous work of all time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A timeless tale of the American political machine at work, Mr. Smith is Capra at his most propagandist and poignant. Thankfully, it’s bluster comes from a pure place of political scheming and corruption that threatens the very roots of our country, a theme applicable throughout history leading up to today. After the death of a U.S. senator, average Joe, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is called to fill in as a junior senator. Idealistic and naïve, Jeff dreams of creating a boy’s camp. However, his plans threaten a pork-barrel bill led by the scheming Senator Taylor (Edward Arnold).
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is Capra’s masterpiece, and yet it’s shocking how everyone, including the U.S. government was against it upon release citing it as either showing how democracy worked (a refrain heard from Nazi Germany and other Axis powers during WWII), or fearing the perpetuation that government is corrupt (a fear the US had). Either way, Mr. Smith, like almost all the Capra features I’ve spotlighted this week, remains keenly relevant today. Capra was intent on recreating the Senate floor exactly, and outside of that the audience learns the process of how a bill becomes a law – pre-Schoolhouse Rock – and fearing one’s government is actively working against the people.
All of this would be staid and uninspiring without Jimmy Stewart at the helm. I’ve critiqued Stewart in the past for his choir-boy persona, but this is his masterwork where the persona is àpropos. It’s said Capra originally planned a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, this time called (no surprise) Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, with Gary Cooper reprising the role of Longfellow Deeds. Unfortunately, Cooper’s schedule wouldn’t allow filming and Stewart was tapped. Jean Arthur, playing Smith’s intelligent secretary, Saunders, was supposedly displeased by the casting and didn’t enjoy working opposite Stewart despite their work on You Can’t Take It With You. Either way, these two are more magnetic than they were in the previous feature.
Stewart, like Cooper’s Deeds, is the wide-eyed yokel who appreciates Washington D.C. and all its tributes to democracy, in a way the cynical Senators can no longer take in. He has a dream of starting a boy’s camp – the Boy Scouts were also against the filming of this movie and refused using their name – with the hopes the nation’s boys will turn into the next generation of Presidents and Senators. Obviously, women are excluded from this dream but I’ll let it slide this time. From the beginning, Smith is treated poorly by the press corp who understand he’s a stooge for the bigger Senators. Already, you’re on his side due to his underdog status. All of this builds up decently, but it’s once Smith is accused of being corrupt himself, hiding the graft that Senators Taylor and Paine (Claude Rains) are engaging in – that Stewart turns Smith into the portrait of a man bested. Smith loses faith in his government, and Smith’s lose of faith symbolizes America’s at large.
The filibuster sequence is iconic for a reason, and it’s because of how deftly Stewart moves from eager to haggard. You feel every stretch of those 23 hours like you’ve been in the room despite all the moving pieces and scheming Capra’s camera goes to. We watch the various children of Smith’s hometown create a newspaper, and are seemingly killed by Taylor’s men (it’s said an alternate ending was filmed to show Taylor being punished for that), and the media discussing what’s happening, but none of that feels as important as what’s going on with Smith on the Senate floor. Even though we’re moving to other areas, our mind is always right with Smith. As Smith goes through the reading of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and even the Bible (a blending of church and state as a necessity to Smith’s success…not sure how that works out), his voice becomes hoarse, his eyelids droop, he’s starts sweating. For Smith, this is the seventh circle of Hell and we’re all watching. And yet, his indomitable spirit is worth valuing. I can’t fathom anyone being able to talk for that long, and yet these things happen in our Senate today. It’s a testament to our system, for all its fallacies, that the sheer determination of someone talking constantly until they’re truly heard has an impact. I doubt Cooper would have had the gravitas to pull this off and still remain likable. You know Smith is naïve, but he’s no hayseed.
And leading him on is Jean Arthur’s Saunders, a woman after my own heart. Saunders and Arthur’s Mr. Deeds character, Babe, are both tough ladies who refuse to let the world beat them into submission, so they’ve become toughened by it, climbing up the ladder with all the grace and poise you’d expect. They work within the world around them, but they don’t take things lying down. During one conversation Smith notes the struggles Saunders has had being a woman working in the dark world of politics. Acknowledgment was never expected for me, but once Smith lets it out in the universe, it only strengthens the resolve you have for them to get together; he understands her struggles in ways no one else does. As she gives Smith instructions from the gallery during his filibuster sequence, the old adage of “behind every great man, there’s a great woman applies.” Again, I can’t complain about it too harshly, because you understand that without her, Smith would be a horrible failure. There’s no success without her, as it would be in a movie of lesser quality where the man would magically find a way to solve his problem. Without Saunders, Mr. Smith’s trip to Washington would be a lot shorter!
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a classic which lives up to the reputation around it. Jimmy Stewart is at his peak while Jean Arthur plays a character integral, and practically responsible, for the titled character’s success. Emotionally poignant and relevant to our own times.
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The Frank Capra Collection
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington / It Happened One Night / You Can’t Take It with You / Mr. Deeds Goes to Town / American Madness / Frank Capra’s American Dream)
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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