1939 was one of the film industry’s most lucrative years because of the release of a myriad classics, including the winner of best picture that year, Gone with the Wind, and the wondrous childhood classic, The Wizard of Oz. But another, slightly overshadowed classic from director Frank Capra also came out that year — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Unusual for its time, Capra’s film showed the reality of political corruption and the conflicting interests between politicians and the people. Upon its release, The Washington Press at the time called it “un-American” and the first screening created offense to U.S. Senators, some of whom walked out on the film.
To actor Jimmy Stewart, though, the protagonist of the film, Jefferson Smith, was “the role of a lifetime,” and he had nothing but the highest enthusiasm for the film. His ardor for his role even impelled him to take the drastic measures of having his throat coated with mercury for his climactic scene.
As we await the upcoming TCM Fathom release of the film, we can take a look at its relevance to modern America. Does it hold up in our current society and speak to our current concerns about inequality and political corruption?
Stewart’s character, Jefferson Smith, is an idealistic Boy Rangers leader who is appointed to the Senate by a crew of corrupt senators who believe Smith will be more pliable than a more experienced man. Senator Paine (Claude Rains) and the seemingly omnipotent Taylor (Edward Arnold) are in cahoots to build a dam for the financial gain of Taylor.
To journalists, politicians, and even Smith’s secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith is provincial and childlike in his naiveté. The Boy Rangers are his biggest allies and ralliers, which further shows the innocent spirit of the new senator. Fittingly, the first bill he proposes would implement the construction of an educational park for the boys of America. In this goal, he butts heads with his mentor, Senator Paine, and the dubious Senator Taylor, since Smith’s park would coincidentally conflict with the building of Taylor’s dam.
Smith proves to be less malleable than the senators had originally hoped. After a failed attempt to coerce Smith into compliance, Taylor uses his power to smear the young senator’s image in the public eye, and through this smear campaign, he hopes to expunge Smith from the Senate. Though he’s shaken by the attack, Smith keeps his resolve and holds a filibuster so he can expose Taylor and his crooked cohorts.
In the Shadow of Men
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an undeniably male-centered film. Every person on the Senate floor, down to the pagers are men or boys, and throughout the film, Smith talks about inspiring hope in all the young men of the country who will someday rise to Congress. Capra’s film isn’t unique in this regard, though, since most films of that era reflect the patriarchal norms of the country. In fact, even the 1939 film The Women (which had an all-female cast) was given the tagline “It’s all about men.”
Despite this androcentrism, the character of Clarissa Saunders is one of the film’s most intelligent and important characters. Even if she stands in the shadow of the idealistic senator, she proves to be the brains behind Smith’s filibuster and she rises to the role of his mentor in place of Senator Paine.
What further makes her character ahead of its time is the fact that Saunders isn’t ridiculed by her male colleagues for her experience and intelligence. If anything, she’s praised by Smith for being so accomplished for a woman.
Still, we see a traditional gender norm perpetuated within her dynamic with Smith. That is, a woman must live almost vicariously through her husband or son and fulfill through them the dreams she couldn’t realize for herself. After Saunders coaches Smith on what to do on the Senate floor, she compares Smith to a son, likening him to a boy she’s sent off to school for the first time.
The modern viewer may lament the fact that Saunders has to take a backseat to the public role of Smith and other senators. But even though women have a stronger role in politics today, once must admit that Congress doesn’t look vastly different from the older, white-male congress we see in Capra’s film.
Hope and the Desire for Transparency
In pure Frank Capra style, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington centers around the underdog and the triumph of honesty over lies and inveiglement. To make the point, Capra designed Jefferson Smith to be almost unbelievably naive. At the start of the film, Smith doesn’t know how to write a bill, and he’s unaware of how a bill even becomes law. He willingly flies under Paine’s wing, overwhelmed as he is by the new political world he’s entered.
But this naivety is a strength in his character rather than a sign of incompetence. He doesn’t know much about the system because he’s more interested in ideology and ethics. He’s devoted much of his time to studying the philosophy of America rather than the turns of all its cogs.
And yes, this certainly comes across as syrupy to an incredulous, modern audience. But Capra sends a message through the character dynamics that should be lauded, even by those of us watching today. The message tells us that compromising on sincerity and transparency are true signs of weakness. Paine and Taylor’s PR man, Hubert Hopper, have become sycophantic and unable to come out from under Taylor’s thumb — a sure sign that the men aren’t as true to themselves or as strong in their ethics as Smith.
The downside of Capra’s message is that it avoids confronting some of the hypocrisies within the American ideals Smith upholds. He reads the line from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But when the modern viewer sees a group of African-American porters carry bags for the politicians at the D.C. train depot, it might make a lot of people cringe. The segregation of whites and minorities and women and men is swept over without much thought as Smith continues to expound rhetoric of equality and justice.
Taking the film as a whole, and considering its historical context, we see that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was daring and ahead of its time for its blunt portrayal of political corruption. It should also be taken into account that Capra is often said to have produced wartime propaganda, and indeed he did make films for the army, like The Negro Soldier in 1944.
The result in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is that its propaganda element gives it a clear moral, and you’re never confused about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.
Just the same, any movie buff who also follows current politics might enjoy the escapism into Capra’s ideal world, where a person can beat a corrupt system using just his honesty and tenacity.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Is it too outdated in the modern world?
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