Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Best Movies of 1939 (#5)

James Stewart and Jean Arthur take on D.C.

Today it is almost unthinkable that Frank Capra’s beloved film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stirred up quite a bit of controversy in 1939. Some said its depiction of corruption in the U.S. Senate was anti-American, anti-democratic, and pro-Communist. These critics did not want to publicly acknowledge the insidious presence of corruption in Congress. In their eyes, to do so would undermine peoples’ faith in our government and our country, as though the presence of actual corruption was not more dangerous. These unimaginative critics only saw a U.S. senator taking orders from a political boss and shamelessly doling out graft, not his break with crime and reaffirmation of our political system in an admittedly unlikely public breakdown. I suspect that those who lambasted Capra, Columbia Pictures, and their film recognized Mr. Smith contained (and still contains) more truth than they were willing to admit, that despite Capra’s efforts to portray corruption as an anomaly among otherwise well-meaning and honorable men, the story exposed too much that most in Washington would have been more than happy to keep quiet. And, worse still, Sen. Paine’s last minute confession doesn’t strengthen our faith in the legislature. The system doesn’t work so much as one guy’s guilty conscience gets the better of him. This was a Hollywood ending Washington knew they would never see while the corruption continued to fester.

Capra tells the story of young and idealistic Jeff Smith (James Stewart) who is appointed by his state’s governor to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Jeff goes to Washington, dazzled by the sites and personalities, and eager to work for the best of his state. What he doesn’t know is that he has been chosen by their state’s political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) because he is naïve and will not muss with their plans to build a dam and extract as much graft out of the federal funds as possible. Taylor’s ally in Washington is longtime, respected senior Senator Joseph Paine, a man Jeff idolizes. When Jeff starts asking questions about the dam with the help of his cynical aide Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Taylor and Paine spring into action, first trying to hide what they are doing, then trying to explain it to Jeff and offering to cut him in. Once they realize they can’t reason with the young man, they set out to destroy him, pinning the entire criminal venture on him. This leads to the most famous filibuster scene in movie history.

Jeff Smith (Stewart) stands up for truth and justice in the dramatic filibuster scene.

James Stewart is phenomenal and a leading candidate for the best performance of the year. Apparently Frank Capra originally intended this to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but when Gary Cooper was not available, Capra switched over to young Jimmy Stewart. And what a great choice. Stewart’s natural vigor and idealism are perfect for the young Senator. He took those attributes and craft a superbly layered and at times dark character whose strength stumbles when his idealized vision of the government and his heroes in it are shattered by the truth of graft and corruption. It’s truly one of the great performances of his career.

The end, of course, is a little too easy, but it doesn’t bother us too much. We know, especially with the Senate of today filled with a quorum of intellectual and moral lightweights, that it is never that easy. Corruption takes care of itself and the lazy press prints whatever is fed to them. There are no dramatic exposés or eleventh hour public confessions; life isn’t that tidy. Fortunately we don’t always go to the movies for real life. Capra understood that audiences would not be satisfied with the anticlimactic reality, so he gave them one of his patented happy ending, which is meant to confirm our faith in our country, the government, and our fellow man. But is that really what we take away? Things are set straight by an unlikely change of heart, not a system that efficiently weeds out the dishonest and greedy. If we have to rely on guilt to preserve the integrity of our institutions then we’re in trouble. Luckily we can pretend, for a couple of hours at least, that all is right with the world.

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7 Comments

Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Pictures

7 responses to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Best Movies of 1939 (#5)

  1. One of the greatest of all American films, and one of two Capra films that has achieved the top level of greatness. It belongs for sure among the the best films of 1939, and Stewart gives one of the greatest performances in a year when Donat and Olivier matched him.

    Wonderful piece, though I’m hardly surprised.

    • It also speaks to the depth of movie quality in 1939 that this movie only comes in at number five. Any other year this could have easily ended up in the top spot.

      I can see, though, that we are going to have some major disagreements about the acting category. I’ve never been a fan of Donat’s performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips so I suppose there will be more to say about later.

  2. Capra both goes easy and over the top in Smith, the extreme and possibly inflammatory bits being when Taylor’s thugs go violent on Smith’s child supporters. To me this film seems like a midpoint in Capra’s thinking about the system and the role of power and virtue in it, pointing toward the still more ambitious and still more problematic Meet John Doe. Smith has slipped in my esteem over time, but it still deserves to be reckoned with among the films of ’39.

    • Though uncomfortable to watch, I was never bothered by the kids being roughed up. That seems truer to me than the easy out, pat ending. I can’t argue against your diminished esteem for the movie (it is flawed), but I think there is enough that is downright great for me to forgive the end.

  3. Pingback: The People of Japan and our excellent friend’Murderous Ink,’ FilmsNoir.net DVD giveaway, Stage Play ‘Iphigenia at Aulis,’ and films ‘Certified Copy’ and ‘Black Death’ on Monday Morning Diary (March 14) &laqu

  4. It’s a while since I’ve seen this and what mainly sticks in my mind is the astonishing filibuster and Stewart’s great performance. Your review makes me want to see it again before too long.

    • Yes, Judy, Stewart is fantastic in this picture. I always like hearing that an essay inspires someone to see a movie and I’ll be curious to hear how you react to the movie with it fresh in your mind with a fresh viewing.

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