April 14, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In which images of patriotism evoke a craving for mystery meat, Frank Capra demonstrates his eerie precognition skills, country bumpkins become U.S. senators, and politics is SERIOUS BUSINESS.  Intrigued?  Then it’s time for Mandie to review Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

This review is actually returning to my summary roots, but with commentary thrown in, so there are spoilers.
In the beginning, there’s this state (we don’t know which one because they never say) and one of the senators from it has just died, so there’s a mad rush to find a replacement.  The governor is a complete pansy and is incapable of making a decision by himself, so finds himself torn between who his corrupt political boss Karl Rove Jim Taylor wants and who some popular committees want.  Rove, er, Taylor, wants a stooge who will do what he’s told and not get in the way of his evil schemes, and the committees want a reformer.  During dinner, the governor’s eerily educated passel of children (seriously, they’re like Stepford children) urge him to pick Jefferson Smith, head of the Boy Scouts, er, Boy Rangers.  Well, obviously Smith gets the bid or we wouldn’t have a movie, so let’s move on. 

Oh, but before we do, let me introduce you to Karl Taylor.  No, Jim Rove.  Wait!  Jim Taylor!

 Frank Capra was psychic.  O_O

Okay, so Smith gets to Washington and promptly acts like a ten year old boy and just wanders off to sightsee without telling anyone, causing panic.  I found this irritating, because even though he’s supposed to be a common man without any corrupt political influences, he’s still an adult and should know how to act like one.  He should know better than to just wander off without telling anybody, especially as the head of the Boy Rangers, for crying out loud!  I mean, seriously.  What kind of survival skills is this guy teaching our youth?  Anyway, during this time we the audience are treated to a patriotic montage that suggests national pride and joy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Lincoln! Washington!  Glorious bells inscribed with the word “liberty”!  Democracy!  Eagles!  DEMOCRACY, DAMMIT!!

Made me want a hot dog, REAL bad.

Okay, not that bad.  Creepy what you can find on the Internet. 

But I digress.  Smith is in way over his head, his fellow senator, Paine, is as corrupt as Taylor (in fact he’s in Taylor’s pocket) and in an effort to keep Smith out of his hair suggests that Smith propose a bill.  Smith, with all the enthusiasm of a puppy immediately sets to work proposing a bill for a boy’s camp in his still unnamed state.  But rumthing was sotten in the mate of Stendark (my apologies to Spilliam Wakesheare).  It turns out that the very land Smith has his eye on is also the object of a shameless graft by none other than Paine (acting through Rove.  Taylor.  You know who I mean!)  Taylor orders Paine to deal with Smith, which he does be creating a completely bogus crusade against him using falsified documents and flat out lies to frame Smith as a greedy, unscrupulous grafter. 

Paine moves to have Smith removed from the Senate, but before the vote can commence Smith stands up and begins to filibuster.  He’s determined to clear his name, but ol’ Rove can’t have that.  He calls out his entire crooked arsenal of newspapers, radio stations, and local cronies to prevent any news of what Smith is actually saying from reaching the citizens of the state.  He just feeds them his lies and manipulations, even resorting to actual physical violence against the small group of people who try to speak out in favor of Smith (including running over a group of CHILDREN and I’m not even kidding).  Now that’s evil.

Back in Washington, after nearly 24 hours of filibustering, Smith has had it.  His voice is gone, he can barely stay standing, and Paine, in the name of all that is heartless and evil, moves in for the kill.  He brings in baskets of hate mail from the citizens who have only been fed lies and tries to make Smith believe that everyone has turned against him.  He almost succeeds, but Smith gets a small smile from the President of the Senate and tries valiantly to carry on, but physically cannot and slumps into a dead faint.  Paine and Taylor win.

 Except not, because now we come to the oddest part of the film, in which the evil and calculating Paine, having just succeeded in accomplishing what he was trying to accomplish for the whole damn film, suddenly suffers a change of heart and tries to off himself with a revolver in the hallway. What a drama queen. When that’s thwarted he rushes back into the Senate room and confesses everything, even his original graft scheme and declares that Mr. Smith was innocent all along.

And…scene.  Actually, and…film.  That’s the end.  There’s no wrap-up, no resolution, nothing.  What happens to Paine?  What happens to Rove?  Taylor?  Gah!  What happens to Smith?  We may never know.
Still, the movie wasn’t bad.  James Stewart annoyed me with his country bumpkin schtick and I thought Paine’s reversal was out of character and unbelievable, but the story was good and holds up well 70 years later.  Actually, it holds up VERY well.  All my jokes about Rove aside, the political maneuvering and corruption showcased in this film are all too relatable today.  We appear to have not progressed terribly far in the 72 years since this film was made, and that’s frankly pretty sad.

All right, here’s a hint about the next movie on this list:  What’s racist, sexist, way too long, not at all romantic, and completely overrated?


  1. I had thought that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a rather simple, sappy movie about American democratic values. I guess, at one level, it is; but, it is a more complex movie than I had remembered. Anyone who has seen (or heard about) the movie knows that Mr. Smith (James Stewart) stages a one-man filibuster in the Senate, but, even after seeing the movie I'm not sure I could explain the issue he is filibustering about. He is NOT just trying to prevent passage of a bill to allow the building of a dam, since that is not the business before the Senate when he begins speaking. The villains of the movie are corporate bosses and the politicians they own. At first I thought that this was a pre-war reflection on the difference between democracy and fascism, but now I think that is too prescient. In 1938 the United States had not yet decided that fascism was evil. But Teapot Dome was still fresh in living memory. The idea that politicians ask "How high?" when political contributors say "Jump!" was as topical then as it is (regrettably) today.

  2. It was the complex ending of the movie that especially surprised me. I remembered the cutaways of boys selling one-sheet amateur newspapers telling home-state voters about the filibuster; I had forgotten the corresponding cutaways of big professional newspapers telling the opposite story. I remember barrels and baskets of letters being brought into the Senate chamber right at the end - but I had forgotten what those letters said.

  3. If Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were the simple, sappy movie I thought it was, the ending would have gone like this: the boys with their one-sheet papers would have succeeded in getting out the truth. The story would have been picked up by the professional papers. Public opinion would have swung dramatically in Mr. Smiths favor and he would have collapsed to the floor knowing that the American people can sometimes be slow to respond, but that in a democracy, in the end, truth always prevails. The letters would have saved the day, just as they do in Miracle on 34th Street.

  4. But that's a different movie. In THIS movie the letters prove that public opinion has turned AGAINST Mr. Smith. His last words before he collapses are "Lies! Public opinion bought and paid for!" Democracy cannot succeed when politicians and the press are in thrall to corporate masters. Mr. Smith wins only because his heroic performance touches the conscience of one man, the very Senator Paine (Claude Rains) who had set out to discredit him. The movie ends suddenly, like Karate Kid, leaving the audience to infer a happy ending. But the ending is ambiguous. Senator Paine's cries of "Don't expel him! Expel ME!" appear to be unheeded and could just be the beginning of a new crusade for a new lost cause. The explicitly stated theme of the movie - that lost causes are worth fighting for - makes more sense if the ending is not as happy as the audience is allowed to believe.

  5. In short, despite the moving patriotic montage, the movie is not a paean to democracy and democratic values. It is about individual conscience vs. the Machine. It is not clear which one wins.

    It is certainly a movie for our times.