Film Review: Mr Smith Goes To Washington

If you’re ever feeling like you’re up against it and in need of some welcome reassurance that it will all work out in the end, then you can do no better than watch either one of Frank Capra’s most famous films, It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr Smith Goes to Washington.  (Failing that an enormous bar of chocolate usually does the trick for me, but watching Capra is definitely less fattening).  The key message in both these films is that every one of us plays an important role in the grand scheme of things.   Consequently, every individual makes a vital difference to the lives of those around him.  As such, both are truly uplifting and heart-warming movies.  In both films the kern of the story is of the little man standing up against corrupt, powerful forces and overwhelming odds; and in both films it is the hero’s inherent goodness and tenacity that win through in the end.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington was made in 1939.  The film extols the American ideals of liberty and democracy as personified by Abraham Lincoln, whose Washington monument is a major symbol in the film.  Democracy and the freedom to speak one’s mind – even if it is hours of nonsense as in the case of the filibuster executed by the film’s hero Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) towards the end of the movie – were political ideals that were in sharp contrast to the repressive and totalitarian political systems which were then springing up throughout Europe, and where the individual was regarded as a mere cog in the state apparatus.

By 1939 it seemed as if democracy in Europe had had its day.  Dictatorships were taking root throughout mainland Europe.  Two of Europe’s major players – Germany and Russia – were totalitarian states while Italy had Mussolini, Spain had Franco. Other European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Greece and Lithuania were hardly faring any better. With the exception of a few countries including Britain of course, who, in true British tradition, chose to be different from most of mainland Europe as a matter of principle.  It looked as if the era of democracy was coming to an end and the era of dictatorship was running roughshod over most of Europe.

Though the film is a panegyric to American political ideals, Capra also shows that the reality can be somewhat different.  In his film the American political system isn’t perfect.  From the very start of the movie it’s made plain that the very freedoms such a system engenders can also be used to enhance the advantages of the powerful few, thereby enabling the system itself to become corrupted.  However, individuals, as epitomised by the film’s hero, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), can make all the difference.  In the movie the politicians – the State Governor and Senator Paine (Claude Rains) are puppets of newspaper magnet, Jim Taylor who has a stranglehold over the press.  Jim Taylor is using his media outlets firstly to place and then keep the Governor in power as well as build up Senator Paine as the party’s next presidential candidate.  Presumably this is so he can pull the strings of a future president in a similar way to how he is manipulating the State Governor.  As a result, the politicians kowtow to him for the sake of past and future media support.  (I know the thought of politicians being at the beck and call of a newspaper magnate.  The very idea!)

In fact, some studio heads and political figures were worried about the film’s portrayal of the American political system being so corrupt and its depiction of graft and the misuse of political power.  Some even requested that the film not be released.  Fortunately for the film-going public that didn’t happen.

The film is helped in no small measure by James Stewart’s performance – a performance that was set to make him a star.  With the possible exception of Gregory Peck, no one can do innate honesty and decency like Stewart whilst at the same time Stewart manages to induce an immense amount of sympathy, likeability and warmth for his character.  No wonder Capra chose him to play the lead in It’s a Wonderful Life a few years later.  His sparring partner is Jean Arthur – then the bigger star and now largely forgotten.  You can’t help loving the characters that many of the 1930s female stars portrayed in their movies.  Jean Arthur’s character- Saunders – is one hell of a spunky female. She’s capable, intelligent, no nonsense, worldly-wise and far more politically savvy than Stewart’s Jefferson Smith. It is she who in the end is the catalyst for Jefferson standing his ground and fighting the good fight.

The film opens with the death of Senator Samuel Foley.  The State Governor is now obliged to choose another senator to represent the state alongside Senator Joseph Paine.  The Governor is a pathetic individual who, besides not being able to control his numerous children, is an abject figure when confronted with newspaper magnate, Jim Taylor.  The appointment of a new senator has come at a critical time.  Both Taylor and Paine are participating in a corrupt land deal around Willet Creek by buying up the neighbouring land under dummy names.  They then plan to sell this land on to the state at inflated prices once they have pushed through a proposal to build a damn in the area by burying it away in the Deficiency Bill currently going through the Senate.  The last thing they need now is for anyone to ask questions or talk out of turn.  Paine is nervous about carrying on with the land deal under the circumstances.  Taylor manages to assuage his worries by dangling the fact that he is using his newspapers to promote Paine as the party’s next presidential candidate.

It’s quite clear that it’s Taylor who decides what happens in this state and the Governor is just his mouthpiece.  Taylor tells the Governor to suggest Horace Miller as the new senator.  The various committees though are outraged at the proposal of such an obvious stooge.  The Governor then tries to stand up to Jim Taylor, who reminds the Governor how tenuous his hold on power is: “I bought it for you.  I gave it to you and I can grab it back”.  Later that evening whilst at dinner, the Governor’s children suggest he select Jefferson Smith, the head of the boy rangers.  Jefferson is a local hero thanks to his work with the boy rangers and having singlehandedly put out a recent forest fire.

Convinced that Jefferson is a simpleton, a big-eyed patriot, who quotes Lincoln and Washington by heart and therefore no match for the political machinations of Jim Taylor and his cronies, Jefferson is made senator.

11 minutes into the film we catch our first glimpse of Stewart’s character.  Nervous and clearly out of his depth, in his acceptance speech Jefferson Smith mentions that Paine was in fact an old friend of his father, newspaperman Clayton Smith.  Clayton had been an editor and publisher of a small newspaper and a champion of lost causes who believed that: “The only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes.” Clayton had considered that Joe Paine was the finest man he ever knew.  Presumably it is the mention of Clayton and the reminder and embodiment in Jefferson of what Paine used to be himself which begins to stir Paine’s conscience.  Paine and Jefferson’s father had once been the twin champions of lost causes.  Whereas Paine allowed himself to be corrupted by power and self-interest, Jefferson’s father ruffled one too many feathers when defending the right of one small miner against the might of a mining syndicate.  Bribery and intimidation having failed, Jefferson’s father was later found murdered, shot in the back.  Jefferson says to Paine: “One man bucks up against an organisation like that; one man can’t get very far, can he?”  Paine agrees he can’t.  This proves a neat piece of dramatic irony as unbeknownst to both protagonists, Jefferson Smith is set to do exactly that against Paine and his associates and what’s more win.

Stewart is incredibly adept at making his character loveable despite the character’s extreme naivety.  This is aided in no small measure by Stewart’s rather comical fish-out-of-water act.  On arriving in Washington, Jefferson Smith is as excited as any young child would be when he sees the Capitol dome for the first time, forgetting his entourage and hopping onto a tour bus.  The tour provides Capra with the opportunity to show a montage of symbols of the American political system and the ideals it is based on: equal justice, Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, John Hancock and the constitution, the Liberty Bell, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Samuel Adams, Hamilton, the American Eagle, the American flag, the war monument, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Lincoln Memorial, the Gettysburg Address and finally the mantra – freedom of the people.

Saunders (Jean Arthur) is a secretary at the senate office and she immediately realises that Jefferson is no honorary appointment but concludes that he’s some dope they plan to run rings round.  Imbued with a major degree of Washington cynicism, she doesn’t believe for one second that Jefferson’s desire to go out to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon is for real.  All of Jefferson’s patriotic enthusiasm is too much for this hard-nosed dame and she assumes that Jefferson is just one big phony.  Consequently she sets him up as a patsy for the press.  Enraged at the results in the next day’s newspapers, Jefferson storms into the press club.  “Why don’t you tell the people the truth for a change?” he asks the press.  A question which is met by derision from the journalists who consider him nothing but a stooge.  When he then suggests to Paine he should study the bills, Paine is clearly shocked and tells Jefferson to forget it and that he’ll advise him how to vote.  In order to keep Jefferson away from anything that smacks of politics and in particular Willet Creek Dam, Paine suggests to Jefferson he writes up a law to establish a national boy’s camp.  Saunders tries to stamp out his naïve enthusiasm by explaining to him the tortuous reality of trying to get a bill passed.

It’s a great little scene.  Saunders points out: you first have to write up the bill; introduce it; refer it to the right committee so it can report back to the Senate; weeks later it goes over to the House of Representatives; then it must wait its turn on the calendar; then more amendments; more changes and the bill goes back to the Senate; the Senate don’t like what the House has done to the bill; so they make more changes; the House doesn’t like those changes; stalemate; so a conference committee made up of House and Senate members battle it out and finally if the bill is still alive; it comes to a vote. The big day arrives and ….. Congress adjourns. However Jefferson dismisses these obstacles as if he were swatting a fly.  Nothing can dampen his naïve enthusiasm.  He wants to make the Capitol dome come to life for every boy in the land. He doesn’t want them to forget what their country means –the freedom to think and speak.  As he points out liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. : Jefferson’s philosophy on life is a simple one: “Always try and see life around you as if you have just come out of a tunnel”.  It’s now that Saunders begins to see that Jefferson is not putting on an “honest Abe” act but has genuine ideals.

However as soon as he reads out his bill in the senate, alarm bells ring for both Paine and his crony, Chick McGann, when he mentions building the camp around Willet Creek.  Furthermore the Deficiency Bill is being read tomorrow and as it mentions the creek, Paine and McGann need to ensure Jefferson is not there to hear it.  It won’t be easy, as Paine acknowledges that Jefferson is not stupid but more troublesome than that – just honest.   In the end Paine uses his own daughter Susan to entice Jefferson away from the Senate.

Saunders, upset at the fact Jefferson is being hoodwinked, gets drunk and in a booze-filled outburst tells Jefferson to go home as he’s half way decent and therefore doesn’t belong in Washington.  She also tells him about the Willet Creek section in the Deficiency Bill and the real reason why Susan Paine went out on a date with him.  Armed with this information and much to Paine’s discomfort, Jefferson starts making enquiries and soon realises something fishy is going on and that somehow Taylor is the lynchpin.  On the defensive, Paine objects: “You’re accusing me of framing a bill for the benefit of one individual. Of helping to put through a scheme for graft.” Which neatly sums up exactly what he is doing of course.

McGann is immediately on the phone to Taylor who is none too happy with the Governor for suggesting Jefferson in the first place.  Taylor comes down to Washington to sort things out much to the chagrin of Paine.  Paine realises Taylor’s usual tactics won’t work with Jefferson as he’s one of those rarities in Washington – an honest man.  Taylor leaves Paine in no doubt that if Jefferson doesn’t fall in line, he’ll break him. When Paine again refuses to be involved, Taylor reminds Paine he’s been in league with him for the last 20 years and that he can easily replace him; whilst at the same time dangling the thought of the national convention and the presidency before him.  His final threat is to remind Paine it’s his bill and his reputation and that if Jefferson can’t find enough facts to ruin both, he is more than able to enlighten him.  Paine acquiesces.

Not surprisingly, Taylor’s talk with Jefferson is not so successful.  Taylor tries to bribe Jefferson into playing ball by offering him top positions in industry or within the political apparatus.  He also intimates that Paine and co have been kept in power precisely because they have followed his advice.  Jefferson, unable to believe that of Paine, accuses Taylor of lying.  Next day Jefferson confronts Paine who admits that decades ago he too was like Jefferson but decided to compromise so he was able to sit in the Senate and be in a position to serve the public in a hundred thousand ways.  And in order to do that he first had to play ball.  He warns Jefferson to stay away from the Deficiency Bill as great powers are behind it and they’ll destroy him if he tries to interfere.

Jefferson tries to speak against the Willet Creek section anyway but hardly has he said a word before Paine interrupts and denounces him in the Senate and accuses him of corruption by claiming Jefferson owns the land he prescribed in his own bill for a national boys’ camp.  Paine then asks for an inquiry to be set up with regard to the fitness of Jefferson to continue to sit in the Senate.  An inquiry is held and false evidence is produced implicating Jefferson in dodgy land deals.  The final nail in the coffin would seem to be Paine’s false testimony against him.  Faced with the overwhelming mendacious machinations of the Washington elite, Jefferson does not take the stand in his own inquiry but simply leaves.  He feels his position is hopeless faced with such overpowering odds.  Paine, however, is clearly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease with what he has done.

Jefferson retreats to the Lincoln memorial and the first shot is of an inscription at the memorial of one of the most famous quotes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people.  Now totally disillusioned, Jefferson comes face to face with the enormous statue of his hero, the epitome of all his cherished ideals, Abraham Lincoln.  Disheartened and with his bags packed and tears in his eyes, he turns round to see Saunders, who following a hunch, had gone to look for him at the Memorial. The next scene, beautifully and atmospherically lit, set within the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial is a belter and always has me shedding a tear.  Here Jefferson admits he has given up and that his ideals were – to use his own phrase – a lot of hooey.  Saunders however passionately argues for him not to quit and that she’s been thinking how they can do it though she admits it’s a “40ft jump into a tub of water”.  Encouraged nonetheless, Jefferson sets off with Saunders, giving a waive to the Lincoln statue as he does so.

Next day Jefferson returns to the Senate where the report from the inquiry is read out stating that Jefferson should be expelled from the Senate.  Now coached by Saunders that as long as he doesn’t yield the floor to another senator, he can talk in the senate for as long as he likes, Jefferson finally says what he had wanted to say about the scheming behind the Deficiency Bill before he had been so adeptly stopped in his tracks by Senator Paine. Jefferson informs the Senate that Jim Taylor wants the Bill to go through for his own profit and that it is he who is pulling the political strings in his state.  He goes on to tell them how Taylor tried to bribe him and threatened to break him in two if he spoke out against the project.  Paine rises and attacks Jefferson once more and departs the Senate asking the other Senators to do likewise.  Jefferson tries to bargain with the Senate asking them to give him one week to enable him to go back to his State to bring back proof that he’s telling the truth with the proviso they promise not to pass the Deficiency Bill nor expel him from the Senate in the meantime.  The Senate refuse and all the members at first leave in protest.  Jefferson states he’s not yielding the floor till his message has got back to his home state and in order to give himself the necessary time, he starts on his filibuster – the right to talk your head off or as the film calls it “the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form” and “Democracy in action”.

Now the Taylor machine goes into overdrive, trying to stir up public opinion against Jefferson and ensuring anything positive about him is kept out of the newspapers.  They are clearly willing to use any method available to thwart the publication and delivery of any opposition newspapers.

Meanwhile Jefferson gives an impassioned speech to the Senate as to his refusal to go back to his boy rangers and tell them their former ideals are hooey and admit to them that the Taylors of this world always win.  However, word gets back to Saunders that nothing Jefferson is saying is being printed in his home state thanks to the Taylor machine’s muzzle over the press.  Not one to give in without a fight, Saunders gets Jefferson’s own boy ranger newspaper to print the story with the boy rangers not only printing it but out and about delivering the newspaper.  However the Taylor machine, once it learns of this, is merciless, even attacking delivery boys and driving them off the road.  With children hurt all over the city, Jefferson’s mum tells Saunders that Jefferson should now stop what he’s doing.  By this point Jefferson has talked for 23 hours and 16 minutes.  His voice reduced to a hoarse whisper.  However it seems by now the whole of the political apparatus have come to listen to him talk about the ideals behind the founding of America and the possibility of living up to them, and his conviction that America is greater than all the Jim Taylors of the world.  Paine interrupts to ask the Senate’s permission to show the response from their home state to Jefferson’s stand.

Baskets and bundles comprising 50,000 telegrams are bought in all demanding that Jefferson yield thanks to Taylor’s skilful manipulation of the media or as the pressmen refer to it “public opinion made-to-order”.  To hushed silence, Jefferson rummages through the piles of telegrams and looks as if this is the final blow.  He turns to Paine and remarks that this is yet another lost cause. And that you fight these lost causes because of one simple rule: Love thy neighbour.  Again it’s a great little scene and yet again it brings a tear to my eye.  Jefferson reminds Paine that he used to believe in lost causes too and despite the odds being so stacked against him, Jefferson states that he is going to stand his ground with one of the most famous quotes from the movie: “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these (the telegrams), and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.“ At which point, having spoken for almost a day, Jefferson promptly collapses on the floor of the Senate.  Shaken, Paine dashes from the Senate floor.  Shots are heard and Paine rushes back onto the Senate floor admitting that everything that Jefferson had said about Willet Creek and political corruption in their home state was true and that he should be the one to be expelled from the Senate.  Jefferson has won.

The film makes clear to a non-American such as myself the high esteem Americans must feel for men such as Abraham Lincoln, Washington and Thomas Jefferson, after which the eponymous hero is no doubt named.  Jefferson was of course one of the American Founding Fathers, the main author of the Declaration of Independence as well as a President of the United States.  Calling the hero of the film Jefferson Smith is a brilliant touch.  If Smith is shorthand for everyman, then the film is clearly saying anyone in America can be the next Jefferson.  Just like Jefferson, you too can fight the good fight.

The film also gives you a keen insight into the chasm between how America was viewed in the 30s compared to how it’s viewed now.  Though not perfect, at heart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington this is an America which has at its core the democratic values of liberty, the freedom to think and say what you like.  Good will come through in the end.  It’s still a country that can be considered to be a beacon of liberty and hope.  Contrast that to how America is largely viewed today – at least from the outside looking in.  For a while it seemed Obama would be able to roll back the years but even a figure as charismatic as he no doubt has his work cut out.

Yes, the film’s ending may be bordering on being rather pat but on the whole this is one hell of a movie.  In these more cynical times it would probably be impossible for a film to be made whose message was that goodness will win out in the end.  Made today, Jefferson would no doubt be assassinated on the orders of some shadowy group of conspirators.  However, in 1939 with war clouds gathering over Europe this is a message that people were no doubt only too happy to hear.  And if you fancy a night nice night in, don’t mind shedding the odd tear (assuming you happen to be as sentimental as I seem to be) with the added advantage of some reassurance that it will all work out in the end, then this is a film you’ll enjoy watching too.

© Maureen Younger and, [2013-2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maureen Younger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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