Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

It seems to me we've heard a lot of references to this film in the last year or so (which is odd in its way, as Wikipedia says Frank Capra was a Republican). The restrained and pragmatic Barack Obama is no Jefferson Smith, but he does have some of that bashful innocence that characterized the young Jimmy Stewart, and he speaks with equal passion about American ideals. So, I thought it was time for me to sit down and actually watch this movie all the way through.

From the very opening of the film, we see what Smith (played by James Stewart) will be up against. A Senator has died, and his colleagues and those behind them spare barely a second to remember his passing before they're plotting to replace him with another machine stooge. The governor of this Western state is caught between opposing camps. The machine has essentially ordered him to appoint a Mr. Miller, but the citizens' committees -- who represent a lot of voters -- shout down that idea and propose Mr. Hill. Even at home, the Governor (Guy Kibbee) gets no peace -- his large family of boys urges him to choose a third, surprise candidate -- Jefferson Smith. Smith is leader of a boys' club called the Boy Rangers, and is something of a hero already for his bravery in fighting a forest fire. The Governor realizes that this is a way for him to wiggle out of his dilemma, and persuades the machine bosses that they will be able to manipulate Smith to do as they wish, particularly in the matter of a certain dam.

Arriving in Washington, Smith eludes his handlers to go on a sightseeing bus tour of the great monuments of freedom. He is re-inspired by them and shows up at his office hours late, but full of enthusiasm to take his part in government.

At his Senate office, Smith meets Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), the smart, cynical secretary left over from his predecessor's office. She and her friend Diz, a drunken and equally cynical reporter, at first don't know what to make of Smith, but soon begin to be won over.

Smith's one big idea, the one thing he wants to accomplish, is to found a national boys' camp in his home state -- sort of a cross between the Fresh Air Fund and the Boy Scout Camporee. Saunders agrees to help him draft the bill (after giving an explanation of how a bill moves through Congress that should be required viewing for all civics students) and as they work through the night on the bill, we can already see that she's falling for him. But when she hears where he wants to site the camp, she realizes that it's the same place where the machine wants to put a dam -- an unnecessary dam that's really a moneymaking opportunity for the corrupt group. But she doesn't dare to, or can't bear to, tell him about it, and the machine makes sure that he will be out of the chambers when the bill that includes the new dam is read.

When Smith finally learns what his colleague and the machine are planning, and refuses to go along, the other Senator (Paine), played by Claude Rains and pushed by corrupt and powerful newspaper magnate Edward Arnold as "James Taylor," starts a smear campaign against Smith, using forged documents to accuse him of exactly what Paine and Taylor have really been doing -- buying up land around the dam site in order to sell it to the government at an inflated price. We quickly see that there are no lengths to which they will not go to discredit Smith. Smith, desperate and in danger of losing his seat, begins a filibuster to get his story out, during which he reads the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and First Corinthians. But the machine is so powerful that all seems lost and we see James Stewart portray an agonized Smith, foreshadowing his performance in It's a Wonderful Life. Paine (Rains), who has known all along that he's been doing wrong, finally cracks and admits the truth, saving Smith's seat and dashing his own Presidential hopes. (No political parties are mentioned in the film, just that there are two of them. It's evident that Capra wasn't expecting FDR to run for a third term the following year!)

I was struck by a connection between this film and Dashiell Hammett's book, Red Harvest. Personville or "Poisonville," the setting of Red Harvest, is widely assumed to be based on Butte, Montana, and the unnamed Western state from which Mr. Smith goes to Washington sounds a lot like Montana, as Smith lyrically describes it to Saunders. The thugs in Poisonville, although in Hammett's book their violence is deflected toward each other, are in their origins similar to those who work for Taylor and Paine in Mr. Smith. The film is often used as shorthand for the idea that Washington, D.C. is the seat of corruption, but its real message is that corruption at home comes first, and leads to and feeds corruption in Washington. Unlike Red Harvest, though, in which the Continental Op who came to clean up Poisonville finds himself being sucked into the culture of senseless violence, Mr. Smith is meant to leave us feeling hopeful that one man or one woman can make a difference if he or she acts with integrity.

The settings are, of course, contemporary to the film as are the costumes -- the one thing I noticed about costume was the contrast between Smith's rough tweed suit and the dark pinstripes affected by the denizens of the District of Columbia. Dimitri Tiomkin's music, melding well-known patriotic songs with Western-themed folk songs, underscores the essential Americanness of the film.

One wouldn't need cues from costumes and old cars to tell the film was made in 1939. The treatment of women and African-Americans would be the tipoff, especially of Jean Arthur's character, Clarissa Saunders. The constant reiteration of the words "man" and "men" reminds us that the U.S. Senate was an almost exclusive gentleman's club for many years. (In fact, though, there were two women serving in the Senate in 1939 -- Hattie Caraway of Arkansas and Gladys Pyle of South Dakota. Caraway had been appointed several years earlier when her husband died in office, but surprised everyone by running for and winning election on her own when her "place-holding" term was up. South Dakota's law called for an election to fill Senate vacancy and Pyle was elected to fill out the term of a deceased Senator, but did not run again when her term was up. I did not see any evidence of these two ladies in the film.)

As they get to know each other while working on the bill, Jeff Smith hears the story of Saunders' life and career and says something like "You've done really well for a woman." And she doesn't slap him! As for the African-Americans who were and are a large presence in Washington, the largest group of them we see are porters in the train station; there are only a few tokens elsewhere in the film.

Frank Capra is known for two types of movie: the screwball comedy like It Happened One Night, and the inspirational, humanitarian films like Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It's a Wonderful Life. (He also made two films I remember fondly from my school days: Hemo the Magnificent and Prelude to War.) It's a sad commentary on what has become of the GOP that I was surprised to learn he was a Republican.


  1. Excellent review, approaching brilliant when you discuss the connection between Red Harvest and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Are you the first literary critic to do this?

  2. ugh...trying this again...

    As far as the lack of African-Americans in the film... we learned in our film history classes that, during the early days of film, southern theaters forced studios to limit african-american roles to servants or other lowly characters and films that did not do this would seriously not be shown in the south. John Ford was one of the first directors to try and combat this and considered actor Woody Strode one of his best friends - and he was a Republican, too! Go figure!

  3. Good point, Sisterfilms. In this film then, Capra was actually even taking a bit of a risk, because when Smith goes to the Lincoln Memorial and a kid is reading the Gettysburg Address, among the others listening and admiring Lincoln is a distinguished-looking older black man in a suit and tie. The other black face in the film that I recall is, however, a cute little black boy who is part of the Boy Rangers.
    OHP, apart from one article that I can't read because I'm not subscribed to the academic thing, which might make a connection, most of the hits I got searching the two movies were just in lists. Interestingly, one article mentioned Mr Smith as being a "Marxist critique" of capitalism. Capra would have been surprised, as anti-Communism was an interest of his and I suspect he thought that treating people fairly was a good hedge against Communism.