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.
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.