Noel: There’s a lot to talk about with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in regards to how much has changed about D.C. culture over the past 75 years, and we’ll get to all that soon enough. First off, I’m curious: Where do we think this movie stands politically? In a general sense, it’s straightforward Capra populism, prizing the gumption and decency of ordinary folks over the cynicism and inefficiency of “the machine.” But I believe Democrats and Republicans alike want to think of themselves as champions of the individual over the dehumanizing forces of big institutions. It’s just that the two sides differ over what those evil institutions are, with one side railing against corporations, and the other railing against government agencies and unions. Capra himself was reportedly a Republican who loathed everything President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood for, but none of that ill feeling toward FDR or Democrats per se is evident in Mr. Smith. There are only two bills up for debate in the film: One is a pork-filled, catch-all appropriations bill, and the other establishes Jefferson Smith’s national boys’ camp. But Sidney Buchman’s screenplay doesn’t take a stand against the spending bill as a whole—only the line-item in the bill that will make some fat-cats fatter. As for the boy’s camp… Well, I’ve never really understood how Jeff’s camp plan is supposed to work. But whether it works or not, is it the sort of thing that a Democrat of 1939 would propose, or a Republican?
Tasha: Just as with the “Is Godzilla horror or science fiction?” debate, I think “Is this movie praising/denigrating Democrats or Republicans?” is the wrong question here. The film is hugely purposeful about not naming parties—and not even naming the state Jeff Smith and his fellow senator Joseph Paine are representing. (The script can get a little clumsy about talking around it, too, especially toward the end, when Saunders and company keep saying “None of what he’s saying is being heard in… well, you know, that one state. The state he comes from!”) This isn’t a film about political parties, or even party-based political ideology, either of its era, or now. It’s set in a deliberately timeless place where the only real signifiers are the Founding Fathers’ speeches and writings, carved in stone and recited from the Senate floor—literally alongside the Bible. People have attempted to find clues to Smith’s party affiliations by looking at Capra’s, and Jimmy Stewart’s, but isn’t that just a way of evading the film’s central anti-corruption message by claiming Smith’s righteousness as the sole province of one party? Seems to me that Capra ducked the signifiers specifically so he could set up the central fight in Washington as not between Republicans and Democrats, or liberals and conservatives, but between integrity and corruption, regardless of specific political affiliation.
Genevieve: Or between government and politics. That’s a fine line, I realize, but government is a system, whereas politics is about the people working within—or more often, exploiting—that system. And the latter is where things get messy. Mr. Smith (and Mr. Smith) is enamored of the purity of democracy and the republic, but not of the Democrats and Republicans who sully the ideals behind those words carved in the stone monuments Jefferson Smith stares at with religious reverence. And in the end, democracy and the republic win out, with a quirk of the American governmental system—the filibuster, or “The American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form”—and the grassroots machinations of the Boy Rangers eventually turning Senator Paine back to the side of idealism, from which he strayed due to his dalliance with the political machine. One of the most powerful images in the film is during the filibuster, when every politician in the room—save the endlessly amused President of the Senate—has literally turned his back on Smith, who’s exercising the rights they’ve sworn to uphold. They won’t, or maybe can’t, look at the face of democracy in action.
Nathan: Tasha, I agree that the film’s partisan leanings are irrelevant, since, for a film about politics and government, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is almost perversely apolitical. It’s strongly in favor of all of the good things—truth, honesty, democracy, the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence—and strongly against all the bad things, like corruption and greed and dishonesty. The crucial divide isn’t between Democrats or Republicans, or small government vs. a larger, more activist government: It’s between honesty and corruption, and the protagonist’s Boy Scout innocence vs. the wised-up folks all around him who laugh at him even as they admire his idealism.
Matt: I’d place the central divide as one between insiders and outsiders. Almost all the members of the Washington establishment in the film are either hopelessly corrupt (like Senator Paine) or so emotionally beaten-down by the rampant corruption (like Saunders) that they’ve stopped trying to fix it. Smith nearly succumbs to hopelessness himself, and considers walking away from Washington completely after Paine and his allies accuse him of trying to profit from his bill—one that blocks Paine’s cronies from profiting off a bill of their own. Smith is chosen to replace a dead senator because those in power believe his “Boy Scout innocence,” as Nathan puts it, will make him easier to control. And for a while, it looks like they’re right. But ultimately, his naïveté is the very thing, in Capra’s eyes, that’s needed to restore Washington to the values of its Founding Fathers.
DEPICTION OF THE GOVERNMENT AND THE PRESS
Genevieve: At the heart of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington lies a divide between American idealism and harsh reality, a divide that’s most apparent in the film’s portrayal of big institutions, specifically the United States government and the media. For every instance of large-scale, institutionalized corruption—the invasive, invisible hand of the Taylor political machine, the D.C. press corps twisting Smith’s words into sensationalist headlines—there’s another instance of an individual or group exercising the basic principles that have been corrupted, like Smith sitting down to write a bill with his own hands, or the Boy Rangers printing up the truth of Smith’s filibuster on their own press, and hand-delivering it to the populace. (Perhaps the most literal, shocking representation of this divide comes in the moment when Taylor’s minions literally run the Boy Rangers down with cars to keep them from getting the word out about what’s really happening in Washington.) As representatives of government and the media, the jaded Saunders and Diz, respectively, personify the way extended exposure to D.C. politics can lead to indifference, which nurtures corruption. And though both eventually give in to Smith’s heroics and embrace his optimism—Saunders especially—I always come away from Mr. Smith with the feeling that nothing is going to change all that much once this particular scandal dies down. The apathy and greed of the Washington we’ve seen throughout the film is just too entrenched. What do you guys think? Is the film ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about the institutions of the United States government and press? Do you get the sense that Smith’s victory ultimately means anything in the grand scheme of things?
Tasha: Maybe it’s my cynicism showing, but I don’t think the movie ends with a great and definitive victory. When it comes down to it, it’s just one morally compromised senator confessing his malfeasance. Given the Senate’s corruption, entrenchment, and entitlement, Jim Taylor’s power, and the degree to which Jeff Smith has been tarred in print, that confession doesn’t mean the Senate will do anything about it, or that Taylor’s evil empire has been dismantled, or even that the dreaded Deficiency Bill won’t be passed. And even if it does get shot down, that just means one little crick in one unnamed state won’t be unnecessarily dammed.
But the results in Unnamed Home State aren’t the point. The meaningful victory is that Jeff Smith refused to back down, give in, or get scared off. He fought back, and the other guy broke. This is the John Henry-type folk tale, where the end is bittersweet, but at least Henry went down still swinging, and won the moral victory. The film purposefully ends on an up note with Paine’s confession, so viewers can ladle on as much optimism as they want: Who knows? Maybe the entire Senate will be so shamed by Jeff’s example and Paine’s self-abasement that they’ll all reform, right after confiscating everything Taylor owns and giving it to those kids his henchmen ran off the road. …On the other hand, maybe not so much. But the press, at least, seems to have been impressed and galvanized by Jeff’s determination and fight. Maybe there’s hope to be had from the revitalized Fourth Estate, and we can head directly from here into His Girl Friday… or for that matter, All The President’s Men.
Nathan: I agree with you there, Tasha. One of things that makes Mr. Smith Goes To Washington palatable and not nauseatingly idealistic is its sense that Jefferson Smith is remarkable precisely because he stands in such defiance to everything Washington stands for. And when I say “Washington,” I don’t just mean politicians, I mean the press and the whole damn system. I agree that Jefferson will not instill any real, lasting change. He’s simply a guy with a great story who had his moment in the sun; I suspect that business will proceed as usual as soon as the hype regarding his bold stand simmers down.
Noel: Believe it or not, I think I’m going to trump your cynicism, Tasha. I don’t see the members of the press being redeemed here—at least not much. When Taylor begins his campaign to wreck Jeff, Diz smiles with undisguised delight, saying, “Beautiful, that Taylor machine.” And while I believe Diz and his colleagues do come to respect Jeff, I think that respect has a lot to do with Jeff stopping the Senate cold, not what he stands for. It’s power the press bows to, not idealism.
Matt: I tend to agree that Smith’s actions won’t change much of anything beyond this particular situation, but what I find interesting in regard to Mr. Smith’s depiction of the press is how Capra uses it to illustrate another comparison between insiders and outsiders: The D.C. reporters, who chuckle and scoff at tales of corruption, and Smith’s Boy Rangers, who represent true democracy—and are summarily squashed by Taylor’s political machine. Smith certainly gains a victory in this particular case, but Genevieve’s question here emphasizes the fact that the full ramifications of his filibuster and its fallout are left totally unclear. The ending also elides one of the big issues with Capra’s fervent belief in outsiders’ power to “fix” Washington: Once you become an insider, what comes next?
Tasha: I’m going to kick back against your cynicism, Noel. I agree that the press is impressed by Smith’s power, though I think they’re even more excited by his ability to create headline-friendly drama. They’re trying to sell papers, after all. But I still get a sense that even if the film’s politicians are corrupt beyond repair, the press isn’t. A lot of Jefferson Smith’s political awakening comes from the press corps sitting him down and mocking him as a ignorant stooge. The reporters who mock him in print earn those punches in the nose he dishes out—possibly the most satisfying sequence in the film is the montage of him flattening the people who’ve done him wrong, since he won’t have such a clear shot at his enemies for the rest of the film—but he’s earned the licks they give him, too. Everything they say about him being unqualified and naïve is ugly, but it’s incisive, and it points to them at least being able to see the truth—unlike Jim Taylor, who really seems to believe there’s no compromise or shame in him buying off politicians, and that he’s just enabling a circle of people helping each other. He sold out for money and power, but I think the film suggests it’s at least possible to redeem people like Saunders, Diz, and the Washington press, who apparently sold out solely because they didn’t see any hero worth standing up for, and didn’t have the moral certitude to be heroes themselves. I always leave the film with a feeling that the politicians don’t want things to change, but the press corps—at least, the ones Taylor doesn’t own—really does, and maybe with a hero leading the way, they can see a way to help make that happen. In that sense, I see an optimism and a chance for lasting victory in the film.
Tasha: Jefferson Smith wasn’t Jimmy Stewart’s first leading role, but it was the one that took him from Hollywood success to Hollywood superstar, and the one that defined the first act of his long career, where he tended toward puckish romantic leads and shining idealists—sometimes embittered ones, often embattled ones, but still dogged good guys willing to walk into the lion’s den and not let the lions intimidate him. I grew up on his later iconic roles, so I’m always a little surprised by how young, raw, and unfinished he looks in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. He hasn’t fully grown into his face yet, and he looks every bit the untested, soft Boy Scout (well, “Boy Ranger,” since the Boy Scouts Of America refused to let the film use their name) that he’s playing. What strikes me most about Stewart in this film, though, is his towering height and scarecrow thinness. I don’t know whether Frank Capra cast him in part because he’s built like Abraham Lincoln—the film certainly identifies him with Lincoln, visually and verbally, several times over—but Capra certainly gets an immense amount of mileage out of his physique by surrounding him with shorter, more corpulent men. They’re literal Washington fatcats who look like they’ve been overeating at the people’s expense their entire lives, while Stewart looks like he’s had to work desperately hard for every bean he’s ever eaten. Capra further heightens the contrast by symbolically dressing Stewart in stark black-and-white, while the men around him are all in moral-compromise grey. Stewart stands out in this film for his moral stance, but he also visually pops off virtually every frame. It’s a genius bit of casting on so many levels. And to think, at one point, Capra considered giving the role to Gary Cooper, and making the film as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
Noel: I’m also always surprised by Stewart’s voice in Mr. Smith, especially in the first hour of the film, when he rarely speaks above a whisper. That’s a bold choice by a director and an actor, to make the hero come across as so meek in the early going that he’s actually difficult to understand, or connect to. But all that pays off when Jeff’s transformation begins, right around the time he stays up late with Saunders, writing his big bill. Suddenly, he’s flirty, funny, and more confident. He becomes Jimmy Stewart, right before our eyes.
Nathan: I was also impressed by just how weird Stewart’s performance is. He plays extreme innocence as both a state of grace and as a form of madness that separates him from adults, but unites him with the children that are his true peers and contemporaries. He’s so corny and wholesome that everywhere he goes, people laugh at him. He’s so pathologically idealistic and pure that he seems to exist in a different world than everyone else, a world where everything is as it is supposed to be. The character is so extreme in his Christ-like goodness that it’s difficult to identify with him; instead, the film invites us to identify with Saunders, whose cynical, wry humor and less-orthodox approach to ethics makes her much more relatable.
Genevieve: I can’t help comparing the Stewart of Mr. Smith with the Stewart of two subsequent romantic comedies: The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around The Corner. Both came out the year after Mr. Smith (man, they made movies fast back then), but Stewart seems at least five years younger here—not physically, mind you, just in the way he carries himself. Stewart had a distinctively boyish charisma as a romantic lead at this stage of his career, and Jefferson Smith seems like the purest distillation of that charm. Smith’s romance with Saunders almost feels like an afterthought, or at least a natural byproduct of his inherent idealism and candor; they don’t pursue each other so much as just succumb in the end. But that development works, because Stewart is so naturally charismatic as a bumbling yet confident naïf. Those qualities became more refined and sophisticated in those subsequent romantic comedies, working in that puckish quality Tasha mentioned; but Mr. Smith feels like the genesis of leading-man Stewart, a display of what made him unique as both a hero and a love interest.
RECEPTION AND LEGACY
Matt: Mark Harris’ excellent new book Five Came Back, about a quintet of Hollywood directors who served in World War II, introduces Frank Capra right as he’s finishing Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Harris writes about a preview screening Capra threw in Washington D.C. for nearly half of Congress, and recounts Capra’s own recollection of the event, which included “cries of ‘Insult!’ and ‘Outrage!’ reverberating in the auditorium and a handful of walkouts eventually turning into a stampede that left more than a thousand seats empty.” He also writes that Capra may have been embellishing slightly (or greatly), but notes the film really did earn some harsh criticism from members of the U.S. government; U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy even called the film “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country.”
And yet Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is remembered today mostly as a wholesome piece of Americana, the sort of innocuous, mildly educational movie a high-school social-studies class might watch on a quiet Friday in late June. Time has a way of dulling controversies and making even the edgiest films see tame by comparison with modern tastes. How does Mr. Smith strike you guys now? Does it feel seditious or harmless? And how do you think Congress (or certain sectors of the American media) would respond to a modern Mr. Smith? Would cable news freak out over a movie that depicted the Senate as a den of iniquity?
Noel: This goes back to what I was asking at the start, about whether the movie has a political slant. I think the film is vague enough about what it stands for that the more ideologically slanted cable news shows on the right and the left would each see Mr. Smith as backing their point of view. (The left would see Jim Taylor as an analogue for the Koch brothers, or Sheldon Adelson; the right would see him as George Soros.) Really, what I personally find inspiring about Mr. Smith is its faith in American democracy at its most basic, and in the processes laid out by the Founding Fathers—including the filibuster. It’s a movie about doing the hard work of governing. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Jeff learns that he’s sitting at Daniel Webster’s old Senate desk, and is part of a respectable tradition.
Nathan: Matt, I think cable news and the general public would be disappointed and surprised, if not exactly freaked out, by a depiction of Congress and the American media as anything other than a den of iniquity. We are a lot more cynical about politicians and the press now then we were back then; we not only tolerate a certain level of corruption and chicanery from our elected officials, we almost demand it. I think that helps explain why this formerly potentially incendiary film now seems like a quaint tribute to the American way, even when it depicts American values—particularly the values of the Founding Fathers that Jefferson Smith holds so dear—as being threatened by cynics and opportunists at every turn.
Genevieve: I think part of the reason Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is often remembered as a patriotic film instead of a political satire is because so much of it functions as a miniature civics lesson. If you take out all the stuff about the Taylor machine and the press, it’s a sort of pre-Schoolhouse Rock lesson on the basic workings of the legislative branch. There’s Saunders explaining the basics of proposing a bill, and how congressional committees work. Most famously, there’s the filibuster, a showy political quirk that’s rarely employed, yet that everyone seems to know about, thanks to this movie and the many pop-cultural references to it over the years. (Good luck finding an article about Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas Senate last year that doesn’t reference this movie in some way. ) What’s great about Mr. Smith is that it sneaks its inherent cynicism into what only looks like a celebration of American politics. But just as Smith has his eyes opened to the rotten core of D.C., the film’s true nature becomes more apparent the older and more jaded its viewers get.
Matt: What have we left out? One point I wanted to raise, but haven’t had any other place to do it, is my ambivalence about Smith’s whole Boy Rangers project. Sure, it seems like a nice little organization, but is this really something Congress should be involved in? The real-world Boy Scouts have a Congressional charter, but I can’t imagine the Senate spending too much time on them. Also, maybe I’m getting a little too sensitive here, but does it strike anyone as a wee bit sexist that Smith is so focused on the Boy Rangers, particularly when it’s a woman (Jean Arthur’s Saunders, top-billed over Jimmy Stewart) who shows him the ropes in Washington D.C. and becomes his most important ally? Hopefully the bill included an appropriation for the creation of the Girl Rangers, and the movie just never mentioned it.
Noel: And am I to understand that the camp is only going to be on this one plot of land, but that boys from all over the country are welcome to attend? I’ve never really followed the logistics of the whole thing.
Tasha: Not to mention the dreams-dashing prospect of having kids from all around the country sending Jefferson Smith their nickels along with letters saying how much they want to visit his camp. Thanks for the nine cents, shoe-shine boy for whom that may be a week’s wages, but that isn’t going to pay your air fare, room, and board at a place halfway across the country that’s already trying to host millions of kids from around the nation. Better keep saving.
Noel: I’ll tell you my favorite dated element of the movie: the idea that all Taylor needs to do is to get his cronies to see that Senator Paine will play ball, and then, “at the convention, anything can happen.” When’s the last time anything surprising or dramatic happened at one of the parties’ conventions?
Nathan: How utterly shameless is Capra and the film in its deployment of wide-eyed moppets to tug at the heartstrings and brutally manipulate emotions? Capra’s populist fables often pitted dreamy innocents against the forces of cynicism, age, and corruption, and in Mr. Smith, American boys represent a populist army backing their leader at every turn in his holy war against sad old men out to steal their pennies. Capra is among the most successful, effective filmmakers America ever produced, but he is not among the most subtle, especially where the children are concerned.
Genevieve: As is the case with so, so many films made before I was born, my first exposure to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington came via The Simpsons, in one of the show’s all-time best movie parodies, “Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington.” That episode’s most direct homage to the film, when Lisa goes to the Lincoln Memorial to seek advice, underscores how cynicism and apathy have diluted the idealism that drives Smith, in a haze of patriotic fervor, to the same memorial: When Lisa asks Mr. Lincoln what she can do to make this a better country, she’s drowned out by other tourists, no doubt inspired by Mr. Smith, seeking answers to much more frivolous concerns. (“Is this a good time to buy a house?” “Would I look good with a mustache?”) It’s a hilarious moment that plays on that perceived patriotism we were just discussing, and at the same time is true to the sometimes cynical spirit of the film that inspired it.
Matt Singer kicked off our Mr. Smith Movie Of The Week discussion yesterday with his Keynote on all the ways Frank Capra finds to diminish his hero until it’s time for him to take a stand. And tomorrow, Nathan Rabin wraps up the conversation with some thoughts on Frank Capra’s surprising skepticism.