Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains
Written by Sidney Buchman (screenplay) and Lewis R. Foster (story)
Directed by Frank Capra
The big surprise with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is how relevant it seems today. This is a movie that’s nearly 75 years old, and it’s talking about government corruption, graft, and how far politicians are willing to go to discredit and punish whistle-blowers. It’s a little shocking to see how deeply ingrained corruption was in our political process even back then, and it definitely puts our current crop of representatives in perspective. The machinery of Washington has been more firmly entrenched than most of us realize.
But I’ll try not to delve too deeply into the politics of this deeply-political movie. Instead, I’ll talk about its merits. James Stewart gives an incredible performance as Jefferson Smith, a small-town leader of a local Boy Scout analog. He’s appointed as the junior senator of his state by the governor on a whim, more-or-less. The governor (Guy Kibbee) is pushed into a minor act of rebellion against the shadowy businessman really pulling the strings — Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).
Though Taylor isn’t particularly pleased by this wrench thrown into his plans, he expects them to go forward regardless. Basically, he wants the government to buy land he purchased cheaply for a works project. That would make him a ton of money while bringing in a flood of business to the state. This same patch of land, as luck would have it, is targeted by Jefferson Smith as a nature preserve for kids to appreciate the splendor of the American wilderness.
Once Jefferson finds out what the land has been earmarked for and just how the process has worked so far, he vows to fight Taylor’s corrupting influence. The resulting stand-off leaves Jefferson’s childhood hero (and senior senator of his state) Joseph Paine in the middle, along with his secretary, the hard-boiled Clarissa Saunders (Arthur). They have to look at the system they’ve been a part of for most of their lives, and decide whether or not it’s something they still believe in.
This movie marks something of a transition for its star and famous director. Capra is best known for It’s A Wonderful Life, of course, but later on started making pictures that looked towards America with a slightly more cynical eye. Stewart, on the other hand, still maintains the wide-eyed small-town innocence that he was known for at the time. He manages to carry a weight with him, though, that we don’t see until later. It’s interesting to note the beginnings of the seriousness he had during his work with Hitchcock, on display right here.
The supporting cast is actually pretty wonderful, too. Edward Arnold is fantastic as the villainous Jim Taylor, the no-nonsense businessman who has an incredible amount of power and knows how to wield it. He tries to charm his way into getting what he wants first, but is pretty quick with the overt threat when he senses that someone won’t be glad-handed into rolling over. Claude Rains has just the right amount of troubled conscience etched across his face as Joseph Paine; he knows that what’s happening here isn’t right, that he’s made compromises he shouldn’t have, but you can also see why he would make them and why he might continue to make them. Washington is a place that seduces you away from idealism quite well, it turns out.
Capra does a great job creating the mood of the nation’s capital as both a shrine to the ideals of what our nation can be and the echo chamber of back-room deals that it really is. Jefferson’s enthusiasm and awe is infectious when he first arrives, and you get a real sense of patriotism during the scenes where he immediately goes out on a tour of national landmarks. It makes the slow realization of how far we’ve come from those ideals surprisingly bleak; you feel the disillusionment he does when he sees how the Senate really works. Capra doesn’t distract from the point he’s making by mentioning the party system once; he makes the corruption that runs rampant a human issue rather than a political one.
Yet, politics really is only the way we agree to act towards ourselves as a group of people. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I also believe it’s true. If we let the people with a thirst for power create a system that rewards the “might at all cost” mentality, this is what we get. And that’s as true now as it was in 1940. I love that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington offers us a glimpse of this truth filtered through the lens of pre-war America. It tells us that some of our country’s faults — as well as our strengths — are things that we need to be constantly in mind of.