Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above The Title, is divided into 23 chapters with names like “Bitter Times And Bitter Tea,” “Five Endings In Search Of An Audience,” and “Burn The First Two Reels.” The chapter on Capra’s 1939 populist classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is called “If You Have To Think About It, Forget It,” a theory of filmmaking Capra expounds upon in a passage about the pre-production jitters he always got right as cameras were about to roll on a new movie:
I’d rush back to my office, lock the doors, read the story and script. It was drivel. Imbecilic drivel! The panic was on… Gradually, you’d remember that you were a pro; that all art demanded an iron discipline of form; technique. You’d remember that making films is making decisions. ‘Is it good or bad entertainment?’ If it hits you right off, it’s good entertainment. If you have to think about it, forget it. If neither alternative lights a fire, throw them both away. Start over. And you plunge into the picture wearing the strait jacket of discipline. Ten thousand decisions? Don’t think. Count as good only those that strike you immediately. And the film gets made.
True to Capra’s approach, Mr. Smith is not an intellectual exercise about the fine points of the United States government. Like its director, it doesn’t dawdle over details; not once does this film about the U.S. Senate utter the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” nor does it ever reveal which state Senator Jefferson Smith hails from. (The unpublished book the film is based on, Lewis R. Foster’s The Gentleman From Montana, takes a decidedly less ambiguous approach.) Written, shot, and released in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods of American history, Mr. Smith barely addresses any of the many important issues of its day, from the Great Depression to the war that had just broken out in Europe.
Critics then and now have knocked Mr. Smith for failing to engage with the complex practicalities of governance. But Capra never wanted to inform his audience; he wanted to inspire them. There are no Democrats or Republicans, no “right” or “wrong” party, because that would limit his influence on the people whose side prevailed. References to the Depression or World War II would have only dated it; instead, the film remains timeless and universal. Mr. Smith isn’t about politics, it’s about morality; it’s more interested in ideals than ideas. Capra, a deeply patriotic man who was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States with his family at age 5, wanted to galvanize each and every viewer by reminding them of the great power every single individual possesses, even against inordinate odds. There was just one problem: his leading man’s height.
James Stewart was pretty tall for an underdog. Stewart, who was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania—perhaps the most Midwestern-sounding city in history—exuded a wholesome all-American presence that was ideal for the role of Jefferson Smith, the naïve newspaper publisher and leader of the “Boy Rangers” (he’s literally a Boy Scout) who’s chosen to replace a senator who died several months before the end of his term. Smith’s state is secretly controlled by a media baron named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), whose financial backing has helped both its governor (Guy Kibbee) and its other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), get elected and stay in power. Taylor permits Smith’s selection because he believes the young journalist, who has no political background whatsoever, will be easy to control.
For a time, he is; intimidated by his office, attracted to Senator Paine’s lovely daughter (Astrid Allwyn), and distracted by a pet project—a bill to create a national boys’ camp—Smith is slow to realize that Paine is in Taylor’s pocket, and that both men are in on a plan to build a dam on the land designated for Smith’s camp, solely to line the mogul’s pockets. When Smith refuses to yield, Paine accuses him of the exact kind of graft that he himself is secretly perpetrating with Taylor. Soon, the entire power of the U.S. government and Boss Taylor’s media empire is brought to bear against Smith.
But even then, Stewart remained a towering 6 foot 3 inches tall—lanky and lean, with long, spindly arms and legs. Ominous forces and overwhelming odds pin Smith down, but Stewart still loomed over the rest of Mr. Smith’s cast—he was 9 inches taller than Rains, and more than a foot taller than Jean Arthur, who plays Smith’s cynical but resourceful secretary, Miss Saunders. How do you make a guy who stands head and shoulders over his co-stars seem like the proverbial little guy in danger of getting squashed?
The answer lay in Capra’s so-called iron discipline of form and technique, and an instinctive visual strategy that constantly diminished Stewart in the frame until he was dwarfed by the set, the furniture, and his much-shorter fellow actors. His on-camera introduction, for example, comes at a special banquet in Smith’s honor. He’s seated next to the governor—possibly in a ditch. His head barely clears the dais.
In short order, Smith is on his way to Washington, D.C., where he’s so distracted by his first glimpse of the Capital Dome that he wanders away from his welcoming party and onto a bus for a tour of the city’s great sights. In the montage that follows, Capra repeatedly shoots Stewart from very low angles, looking up at images of massive statues and monuments to Jefferson and Washington, or from great distances in extreme long shots, so he becomes an insignificant speck amid the enormity of American history.
These images not only reinforce Smith’s underdog status, they also start to establish his inferiority complex, which is the crucial conflict in the film. Although Taylor and Paine plot against him, Smith’s ultimate battle isn’t against his enemies, but against himself and his belief that he’s unworthy of his office because of his lack of experience or political refinement. (“A guy like me should never be allowed to get in here in the first place,” he says late in the film.)
When Smith first arrives in the Senate, Capra shoots his entrance from the balcony gallery, once again diminishing Stewart in the frame. Then Smith takes his seat at his desk on the Senate floor—supposedly, it used to belong to Daniel Webster—and again, Capra finds ways to make Stewart look comparatively weak and small. Suddenly he’s shorter than the boy playing his congressional page.
Time after time, Capra shrinks Stewart. When he takes the Oath Of Office:
Or when he’s accused by the D.C. press corps of being a paid stooge for Boss Taylor:
Or when Saunders teaches him some lessons about the harsh realities of the Senate:
Smith is the founder of the Boy Rangers, a job that links him, in a positive way, with the idealism and energy of youth. But Stewart’s posture and gestures are, at times, downright childlike:
Note also how often Stewart is not only small, but seated as he’s lectured about his misplaced idealism or fundamental confusion about Washington, D.C. As Smith slowly comes to understand the full extent of his state’s corruption, he’s brought to a private meeting with Boss Taylor. Taylor’s first words to Smith: “Ah, Senator, I was just passing through. I thought I’d like to meet you. Sit down.” Smith complies.
Next Smith goes to Paine’s office to confront him. Paine’s first words to Smith: “Listen Jeff, come over here and sit down.” But this time, Smith replies “I don’t feel like sitting down, sir.” And he doesn’t.
Just as Smith is about to expose Paine, the more experienced senator turns the tables on the younger man, and soon Smith is on the verge of expulsion from Congress. At his lowest ebb, he returns to the Lincoln Memorial, where he’d earlier gazed admiringly at the statue of the Great Emancipator and the words of the Gettysburg Address. This time, Smith visits at night, and the temple is cloaked in darkness. Demoralized and ready to quit, he shows his utter defeat by crumpling in a heap on his suitcases.
Suddenly, Saunders returns to inspire Smith to fight back against Taylor and Paine, just as he has inspired her with what she calls his “plain, decent, everyday common rightness.” With her help, he develops a plan to prove his innocence and Paine’s guilt: a filibuster. As long as Smith can hold the Senate floor, he can prolong the vote on his dismissal, and perhaps buy himself enough time for his allies to find the evidence he needs.
Finally Stewart stands tall, and Smith, with his plain, decent, everyday common rightness, towers over his fellow senators (who, from the low angle of Capra’s camera, are now the ones diminished by their enormous desks).
The struggle of the lonely, righteous individual against the inhuman mob was one of Capra’s favorite themes. Many of his films are about men who must defend themselves against overwhelming odds—as in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, when Gary Cooper’s title character must push back against corrupt big-city lawyers who charge that he’s insane—and achieve a victory not through cunning or bravery, but through superhuman feats of endurance. Or as in It’s A Wonderful Life, where Stewart’s George Bailey is so ground down by the machinations of another corrupt capitalist that he’s ready to commit suicide, until the intervention of a guardian angel convinces him to keep on fighting.
Capra thought of filmmaking in similar terms—and, as the earlier quote from The Name Above The Title suggests, he was often struck by the urge to quit before a task was completed. On Mr. Smith, that urge came when he was a guest at a White House press conference shortly before shooting was scheduled to commence. As Capra watched President Franklin Roosevelt address the media about the developing situations in Europe and the Pacific, Capra says he was hit by “panic” at the thought of making “a comedy about a callow, hayseed senator.” “The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic,” Capra writes, “but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world’s attention to the pimple of graft on its nose. Wasn’t this the most untimely time for me to make a film about Washington?”
Gripped with doubt, Capra wandered to the same spot where his onscreen hero eventually summons his own courage: the Lincoln Memorial. There, he watched a young boy recite the Gettysburg Address to an old man; a sight, he says in his book, that gave him the conviction he needed to carry on. His will restored, Capra went back to work (and promptly added a similar scene to Mr. Smith, where Stewart proudly looks on as a small child reads the Address off the Memorial Wall).
Mr. Smith goes to the Lincoln Memorial when he finds his faith shaken, and is re-inspired there as well. In that moment when Smith contemplates quitting and leaving Washington for good, his near-defeat is as much a result of his own self-doubt—and of overthinking things—as of anything Taylor and Paine do. When he stops moping and fretting, and simply starts doing in the form of his filibuster, he succeeds. Capra is essentially advocating for his theory of filmmaking as a theory of life in general. Don’t think; just act.
The filibuster, then, is the distillation of all of Capra’s ideas into a single visual motif: Sitting and bowing to the mob’s pressure (and indecision), or standing and fighting for one’s unpopular beliefs. To Capra, Smith’s most heroic act isn’t his destruction of Boss Taylor’s political machine—in fact, it isn’t at all clear that he does destroy Taylor’s machine, since the movie ends seconds after Smith’s filibuster. It’s in the simple but beautiful gesture of literally standing up for what he believes. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has endured for three quarters of a century because that message—that our potential isn’t defined by where we come from, or our education, but rather by our capacity to engage and endure—hits people right off. It’s good entertainment.
Tomorrow, our discussion of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington continues with a staff forum on the film’s politics, legacy, central performance, and more. And on Thursday, Nathan Rabin explores the disconnect between Capra’s reputation as a sentimentalist, and his often deeply skeptical films.