Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Revisited

(Welcome to 1939: Revisited, a column dedicated to taking a look back at some of the films of one of the most highly-praised years in film history and explaining why they still matter today. In this entry: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells a story of political corruption that resonates 80 years later.)

So far in this series, we’ve talked about movies that were either literal fantasies, like The Wizard of Oz, or, like The Women, set in an era and class so distant from our own that it might as well be a fairy tale. However, the next film is set in a place far more real, and far scarier: Washington, D.C.. It’s a film with a clear, uncomfortable message, but it’s still hopeful at its core: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Released in October of 1939, the movie launched its star, James Stewart, into the Hollywood stratosphere, and marked a turning point for its director, Frank Capra. It not only made waves in Hollywood, it set dominoes falling in Washington that partially led to the collapse of the studio system and even foreshadowed the dark era of the Hollywood blacklist. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington told a story about everything wrong with American government. The content of the film and its reception in Washington and the greater world say a lot about how media can bring light to uncomfortable truths – and what people do when faced with them. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was based on an unpublished short story by Lewis R. Foster titled variously The Gentleman from Montana or The Gentleman from Wyoming. Frank Capra latched onto the story as it was developed for film and arranged for his leading man from Heaven Can Wait, Jimmy Stewart, to be loaned out from MGM for the production. Columbia pictures went to great lengths to physically recreate the nation’s capital on Hollywood sound stages, but the real verismo was the film’s story (in spirit, if not in actual procedural accuracy).

In the film, the hapless governor of an unnamed western state must appoint a new senator when the current man in the job dies. On one side, he’s pressured by a corrupt boss James Taylor (Edward Arnold) to appoint a political stooge to go along with his greedy schemes, but the people want a reformer. The Governor ends up going with his children’s suggestion: a local hero and literal Boy Scout. Well, he’s technically a “Boy Ranger” in the film because the Boy Scouts of America refused to let their name be used. 

The new senator, Jefferson Smith, is a wide-eyed idealist who loves the dream of America and look ups to the senior senator from the state, Joe Paine (Claude Raines). Smith gets lost, figuratively and literally, in Washington, caught up in the trappings of patriotism, much to the annoyance of his secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur). Poor Mr. Smith spends much of the film getting his naïveté knocked out of him as the Washington machine attempts to chew him up and spit him out. He’s mocked in the press, manipulated by colleagues, and eventually discovers that Paine and Taylor are in cahoots for personal gain and graft. Paine frames Smith for ethical wrongdoing and he’s set up to be expelled from the senate, but not before entering into an impassioned filibuster. In the film’s most famous sequence, Smith hold the floor in the senate, hoping to make his case to the people of his state and his fellow senators that decency should prevail.

But Smith fails. Mostly. Because Taylor controls the papers and the money and the muscle, Smith’s message never gets out and the people are fed lies. He’s confronted with thousands of telegrams showing that the people of his state have bought into the fake news about him and he faints on the senate floor. It would be a dark ending except that Smith’s pleas do change the heart of one person: Senator Paine, who confesses his crimes (and tries to kill himself!) so that the day is saved. There are two extremely powerful morals in this. The first is a message we all know is true: that information and the control of information is power. The very idea that a landmark filibuster could happen, and America wouldn’t know what was being said or what happened in real time, is mark of the film’s place in a bygone era. We’re so used to C-SPAN and livetweets from the senate floor that concept of someone stopping the news from reaching us feels crazy.

But then again, we live in a world where Russian bots and Facebook algorithms can distort reality in terrible ways, where truth is fake news and the word of the powerful is all some people will believe as long as it allows them to live in comfortable ignorance. The idea that an honest politician trying to do some good could be painted as a criminal by a powerful political machine is intimately familiar to all of us nowadays. Even moreso is the idea that when the truth is out there, people still won’t care.

In this first moral, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an incredibly cynical, yet realistic film. It stated something we take for granted now: that Washington is corrupt, that our elected officials are generally far more interested in reelection and lining their own pockets than doing something decent and right. It tells us that even when the truth is out there, things won’t change. But there is a second, far more hopeful message in the film: that one person can break through all that greed and cynicism to truly appeal to the human decency in another and change their mind.

Perhaps in that way Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is more of a fantasy than The Wizard of Oz, because it takes place in a world where some politicians have a conscience that could be appealed to, where the sincere pleas and suffering of one man could change the heart of another. The daily horrors of the news seem to have little effect, if any, on the leaders of our country, so it seems doubtful a good speech could do what years of bloodshed couldn’t.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, paints an extremely unflattering, if often accurate, picture of our government, and for that reason, it was met with extreme resistance and even outright fury when it premiered. In an incredibly ballsy move, the film premiered in Washington at the National Press Club, with dozens of actual senators in attendance – many of whom walked out in offense at the corruption the film implied. Lawmen called for the film to be banned, said it was communist, and encouraged theaters not to show it. Since it would be unconstitutional for the senate to actually ban a film, they found a workaround, using the film to push through the passage of the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill. This bill was the first blow against studios selling their movies in “blocks” – meaning a movie theater had to buy five MGM movies to show, instead of one. The Neely bill led to a deterioration in block selling movies and the entry by the big studios into a consent decree with the government and the United States v. Paramount Pictures et al, Supreme Court case that effective spelled the end of the entire studio system. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington didn’t necessarily change Washington itself, but in the long run it certainly changed Hollywood.

Why, might you ask, were men in power so against this film, especially since it stands for classic American ideals of truth, justice and liberty? Well, its anti-business sentiment smacked of communism to some, and its distrust of the press and the corrupt rankled others. It was banned across Europe in the run up to World War II, and it was the final film played in German-occupied France before western films were fully banned. The perceived communist leanings of the film did nothing to affect its box office or critical success – the film was a hit and was nominated for multiple academy awards – but that too foreshadowed something pernicious: The Hollywood Blacklist. In the years following World War II, the House Unamerican Activities Committee would turn its sights to Hollywood and the major studios would conspire to shut out supposed communists from employment.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not an outright drama. In fact, there are myriad moments of comedy throughout. It’s not meant to be a fully realistic picture of Washington – I don’t think even now a senator would get away with running around town punching journalists in the face as Smith does here. Watching it now feels almost quaint: the performances James Stewart is comforting in it’s folksy, drawling familiarity. Jean Arthur is terrific as a quintessential fast-talking, jaded dame of the 30s and Claude Raines is the picture of dignity with a well of darkness just beneath. It’s a paragon of a studio film of the golden age and one with a lot to say about the power of the media, the importance of truth and freedom of information, and the banality of corruption.

Most importantly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shows us the impact a story can have on the world and other humans. Sometimes a story can upset the status quo so much it makes things worse. But perhaps, in the end, it can still give us hope that one day, someone will listen when the people speak and things can get better.

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