1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),
directed by Frank Capra

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),
directed by Frank Capra

A Once Controversial Look at American Politics Now Scans As Idealistic, But Still Charmingly So

No director in the history of American cinema has so badly wanted us to believe in the innate goodness of people as Frank Capra. A poor Italian immigrant raised in the United States, Capra’s success as a filmmaker is one of the industry’s most reliable Cinderella stories. After surviving World War I, Spanish flu and the Great Depression, he established himself as a movie director in the 1930s and dedicated basically every one of his films to the unbreakable human spirit and its ability to overcome adversity.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is no exception, telling a tale as old as time, in which absolute power corrupts absolutely, thwarted only by the refusal of one man to let it proceed unabated. James Stewart – the country-spun everyman born to portray fumbling decency – plays Jeff Smith, a young and newly appointed senator who believes wholly in his duty as a public servant. When the film starts, his biggest supporters are the Boy Rangers of America, a nation-wide troop of young men who uphold moral righteousness in the naive, boyish way gangs of youths often did in Hollywood’s Golden Age. In other words, Smith’s entire appeal is built on a foundation of romantic ideals that are rarely applicable in the real world, especially where politics is concerned.

This is a truth Smith soon discovers after moving to Washington, where his convictions are no match for a town beset with self-interest and cheap tactics. Within a day, the local journalists he grants a press conference to have framed his homegrown guilelessness into the mindset of a simpleton in the papers. When Smith confronts them all, however, they shatter the preconceptions he’s brought with him to the capital. “If it’s the truth you want, what are you doin’ in the senate?”, someone shouts at Smith, while the journalists remind him that he’s just an “honorary stooge” and they’re simply doing their job holding him to account as an inexperienced newcomer.

It’s a brutal awakening for Smith, one that only leads to further revelations about his position. Not only has he been appointed solely to ensure the passage of more senior senators’ legislation, he virtually has no power of his own or any idea of how to introduce bills for causes he’s passionate about. For that latter point, though, he receives a crash course in developing and submitting a bill to the Senate from one Clarissa Saunders (the smouldering Jean Arthur), his resourceful secretary. In one of the film’s best scenes that precedes their inevitable romance, Saunders patiently explains to Smith (and us) the steps involved in conceiving, writing and proposing a bill. And, while Smith remains optimistic throughout her instructions, it quickly becomes obvious how difficult drafting legislation is, and how unlikely it is to pass in the senate, no matter how well-intentioned it might be.

Claude Rains as the duplicitous Joe Paine observes the weary Mr. Smith. (Columbia Pictures)

Now, while we may take it for granted in 2017 that the democratic process often entails more obstruction than basic function, in 1939 the U.S. was in something of a budding international crisis that some believed made it ill-equipped to face such criticism. With mounting pressure building in Europe (both in the form of fascism and communism), the U.S. Congress summarily attacked Mr. Smith as anti-American simply for acknowledging that corruption could, possibly, flourish at the highest levels of government. The irony is that, predictably enough, the film was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s USSR, the very countries and figures that posed a threat to America at the time.

What’s even stranger is that such a negative reading of the film ignores Capra’s blatant endorsements of the nobility of governmental office. To begin with, all reverence is paid to the traditions observed by the Senate, not to mention Smith’s affinity for the Boy Rangers being reflected in the employment of the young pages and heralds who operate on the Senate floor. Indeed, Capra seems to hold firm that the next generation is always willing to assume the mantle of justice, so long as they are guided suitably by their forebears. But, beyond all that, it’s Smith’s marathon filibuster towards the end that cements the film’s legacy as a lingering (if fantastical) example of democracy at it’s finest.

Taking up almost the entire final third of the film, Smith’s long-standing speech at the Senate is one of the most iconic setpieces in cinematic history. Having discovered that those who appointed him intend to engage in a dam-building scheme that would ensure a huge payout to all involved parties, Smith elects to stand before his colleagues for as long as it takes to persuade them of his earnestness and the maliciousness of his superiors. For many hours he holds sway, maintaining his decorum, integrity and – with the help of Saunders – keeping one move ahead of his contemporaries on the statutes and policies of the arena he has chosen as his battleground. It’s a whirlwind of charm, staunch patriotism and defiance all at once that offsets the more restrained first hour of the film.

Director Frank Capra with the cast behind the scenes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Columbia Pictures)

In these scenes, as well as the majority of Mr. Smith, Capra maintains a sympathetic, unwavering eye on Smith, providing him with an attentive audience even when his peers shun him. He is often seen in full shots, dwarfed by monuments and statues, but always the contemporary of the men around him. At other times, the director’s approach is more varied, sometimes stumbling upon a scene or shot that is wildly, almost comically out of sync with the rest of the movie. Of course, being that cinema itself was hardly 40 years old at the time of its making, it checks out that so much of Mr. Smith would hinge on the established forms of the medium while occasionally employing techniques that seem jarring now.

Specifically, the montage of Jimmy Stewart pummeling the shit out of the journalists who misrepresent him has the air of a more light-hearted, less formal film. In it’s brashness and jerky physicality, it almost seems to belong to a garish silent movie. But then elsewhere, there’s a lovely scene where Smith, besotted by a female companion, fiddles with his hat incessantly as the camera attends to it. He scrunches it, places it behind his back, drops it and retrieves it once more, all the while Capra’s closeup on the hat doesn’t stray for a second. Beyond charm, the shot establishes empathy, a connection with Smith’s sincerity and warm lack of pretension, placing us even more firmly in his corner.

Mr. Smith is, at times, almost unbearably insistent that good will triumph over evil, that the best intentioned man will win out and that the misguided will see the error in their ways. But, considering it was once rebuffed as an act of cynicism and is now regarded as overly sentimental, it is perhaps best to accept it as existing somewhere in the middle ground. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is mutable in that way, a film that doesn’t quite scrape the lows or properly consider the heights that can be achieved in politics, but still projects a firm stance of goodness in any era.

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