What's the Big Deal?: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

For lump-in-the-throat patriotism and all-American optimism, it's hard to beat the combination of director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart. The three movies they made together -- You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) -- are widely regarded today as inspiring tales of mankind's goodness. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains the standard for Little Guy Stands Up to Political Corruption stories. But was it always viewed so favorably? (Spoiler alert: no.) What is it about Mr. Smith that makes film buffs go to Applausetown? Please yield the floor so we can explain.

The praise: In a year that also included Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gunga Din, Ninotchka, and Of Mice and Men, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still managed to get 11 Oscar nominations. Its only win was for its story (Story and Screenplay were separate categories then), but it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor (twice), Editing, Sound Recording, Score, Art Direction, and Screenplay. Jimmy Stewart won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, and the film made the New York Times' best-of-the-year list. It ranks No. 26 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the best American films ever made, up from No. 29 on the 1998 list.

The context: Frank Capra was 6 years old when, in 1903, his family emigrated from Sicily to the United States. His life came to personify the type of fervent patriotism often associated with turn-of-the-century immigrants. He enlisted in the Army during World War I, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1920, and made American propaganda documentaries during World War II. (It's usually a pejorative term, but "propaganda" is OK if it's in favor of the right side.)

Between the wars, he made Best Picture winners It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It with You, as well as Best Picture nominees Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Lost Horizon. After World War II came It's a Wonderful Life, another Best Picture nominee. His Prelude to War (1942) -- commissioned by the U.S. government and used to inspire new soldiers -- won the documentary Oscar. He avidly supported the anti-Communism cause in the '50s. They don't get more American than Capra.

And if you put him with Jimmy Stewart, well, forget about it. Together, Capra and Stewart produce pheromones that smell like apple pie. The humble, aw-shucks Pennsylvania boy was fairly new to Hollywood (he'd had some success on Broadway) when Capra put him in You Can't Take It with You. A year later, when Gary Cooper was unavailable to star in Mr. Smith -- it was supposed to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town -- Capra realized it was perfect for Stewart. He cast Jean Arthur, who had also appeared in YCTIWY, as the female lead.

Watching the movie now, it seems almost absurdly patriotic, so earnestly, unabashedly pro-American that anyone making the same film today would be mocked as jingoistic. Yet when the story it was based on was submitted to the Production Code Office for approval, the head of the office, Joseph Breen, feared it was too anti-American. "The generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government ... might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government," he wrote. (The film deals with an idealistic young senator who faces corruption in Congress.) He said that if Columbia went ahead with producing it, the film would ultimately need to emphasize that "the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation."

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonBreen reversed his position after seeing the finished screenplay -- "It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it," he wrote -- but not everyone shared his view, not even after the movie was produced and exhibited, with all its Yankee Doodle musical orchestration and its truth-and-justice-loving protagonist. Some of the senators in the movie are scoundrels, after all, and some real senators took umbrage at the depiction. Alben W. Barkley, then the Senate Majority Leader, called it "silly and stupid," saying it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks." Imagine that! What's amusing is that the kind of low-level graft the politicians are guilty of in the movie -- none of them are murderers or anything like that -- is now routinely associated with both houses of Congress. If you made a movie about the Senate today, no one would take you seriously if you didn't make some of the senators corrupt. But in 1939, the mere suggestion of such a thing was offensive, at least to some people.

Timing was also a factor. The film was released in October 1939, less than two months after the outbreak of war in Europe. Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain (and father of JFK), sent a message to Capra saying he feared the movie would damage "America's prestige in Europe" with its suggestion that -- gasp -- not all elected officials were entirely pure of heart, and that it shouldn't be distributed abroad. The Boy Scouts of America had refused to lend its name to the organization Mr. Smith endorses, leading to the fictional "Boy Rangers." Jimmy Stewart had been a Boy Scout himself (of course he had) and would prove to be a lifelong supporter of the group, but the Boy Scouts didn't know yet how awesome it would be to have Jimmy Stewart in their corner.

Most of the film's reviews were favorable, though, and it was a huge box-office success. The opinion that it was a bad idea to show the world a warts-and-all depiction of the U.S. government was quickly overwhelmed by sentiments much closer to the way the movie is viewed today: that it ultimately depicts the brilliance of the American system, and supports the view that one man can make a difference in improving the lives of his fellow men.

Or, as film critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in the New York Times:

Mr. Capra is a believer in democracy as well as a stout-hearted humorist. Although he is subjecting the Capitol's bill-collectors to a deal of quizzing and to a scrutiny which is not always tender, he still regards them with affection and hope as the implements, however imperfect they may be, of our kind of government. Most directors would not have attempted to express that faith otherwise than in terms of drama or melodrama. Capra, like the juggler who performed at the Virgin's shrine, has had to employ the only medium he knows. And his comedy has become, in consequence, not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom, to simplicity and honesty and to the innate dignity of just the average man.

The movie: A senator dies at a most inopportune time, just as a bill that favored his interests (and the interests of the Hearst-like newspaperman who backs him) is about to go through. To replace him, the governor -- who's in on the deal, as is the other senator from this state -- appoints Jefferson Smith, a local hero who runs the Boy Rangers and who is presumed to be naive and malleable. The governor and his cronies assume Smith will do whatever they tell him. To keep him busy, they have him go ahead and write up a li'l ol' bill of his own. He does this -- and it inadvertently conflicts with the underhanded stuff they've been keeping him in the dark about. The puppet has turned against its masters! (Or something.)

Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonWhat it influenced: The film was so popular at the time, and so enduring ever since, that it's unlikely anyone has made a movie or TV show about a wide-eyed politician in the last 70 years without having it in mind. If you skim the "movie connections" page at the Internet Movie Database, you'll find numerous TV episodes whose titles are variations on it -- The Simpsons had "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" -- as well as a 2006 documentary that asks, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (Well, sure, if he's appointed by a corrupt governor seeking to curry favor with a powerful industrialist.)

The film has become a symbol for one-man-against-the-system scenarios, particularly those that deal with the political process -- see, for example, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, or Eddie Murphy's The Distinguished Gentleman. More officially, a TV series actually based on the film ran on ABC from 1962-63, with Fess Parker in the Stewart role. And in 1983, NBC had a short-lived series about a super-intelligent orangutan who went to work for a Washington, D.C., government consulting firm. The show and the monkey were both called Mr. Smith.

What to look for: You'll have a lot of fun playing the "Boy, if they made this film now..." game. The things Smith is falsely accused of, even if they were true, would hardly get a mention in today's newspapers, let alone cause people to demand his ouster. It's almost hilarious how the people in the movie cannot believe that a senator could be influenced by a businessman, as if special interests were simply unheard of, or that senators could be outraged that their newest member seemed to be showboating for the press.

Also, Smith is an unmarried man of about 30 who works with young boys. There is NO WAY a guy like that goes to the Senate in 2010 without tongues wagging. I'm just sayin'. It was a different time.

Notice also how the film -- despite being set in Congress -- goes to great lengths not to be political. It begins with a disclaimer that it's entirely fictional and isn't based on anyone real. No political parties are ever mentioned in the dialogue. Heck, we aren't even told what state anyone is from (including Mr. Smith!). Nowadays, you can make a movie about a specific politician and barely even need to fictionalize it.

The Lincoln Memorial and the Gettysburg Address figure prominently in Smith's idealism. Capra clearly had a great reverence for Abraham Lincoln. Think about this: The film came out 71 years ago, making it about as old to us as the Civil War was to the audience at the time. There were people in the audience who were alive when Lincoln was assassinated. I don't know how profound that is, but it's interesting to think about.

Stewart was Oscar-nominated for his performance, as was Claude Rains as his fellow senator, Joseph Paine. Both are excellent -- even, I daresay, by the modern standards of acting. I submit that it is impossible not to love Jimmy Stewart, both in general and in this movie specifically. Rains, as the same sort of conflicted character he would play in Casablanca a few years later, is mesmerizing, if slightly melodramatic (and more than a little British for a U.S. senator).

Harry Carey was also nominated for his role as the president of the Senate (which means he's the U.S. vice president, of course). This is a puzzling nomination, as his work consists mainly of sitting at a desk, pounding a gavel, demanding order, and occasionally covering a smile as he admires Mr. Smith's tenacity.

Finally -- and this also falls under the category of "maybe it's meaningless, but it's interesting" -- notice how fatness and age correlate with corruption. The fatter a character is, the more crooked he is. Stewart, of course, was a beanpole. Likewise, youth is favored. It's old men who are shady. Smith is young, and the Boy Rangers who rally behind him are even younger. There's the subtle suggestion that the innocence and energy of youth are what will save us from the complacent old fat cats. Sen. Paine is middle-aged and stout, but not really old or fat -- and he's the one who's conflicted about his allegiances. Eh? Eh? Seriously, I should write a book about this stuff.

What's the big deal: As mentioned, there are multiple details about the film that are quaintly out-of-place today. It is adorably corny. Yet consider this: It's also surprisingly relevant. The baseline of political corruption may have gotten higher, but we Americans, in our heart of hearts, still adhere to the ideals of the film. We believe that the Mr. Smiths can effect change, even if they are outnumbered by the Sen. Paines. We believe in the principles outlined here, however rarely we may seem them practiced. In fact, it's that scarcity that makes the movie all the more poignant. It's heartening to be reminded not only that there was a time when men like Mr. Smith (and Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Capra) flourished, but there was also a time when you could make movies about them.

Mr. Smith's secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), speaks for us when she says, to a similarly cynical friend, "I wonder if it isn't a curse to go through life 'wised-up' like you and me." Wouldn't it be nice, she wonders, to be as "naive" as Jefferson Smith? In practice, such innocents would be devoured by the political system. That was probably as true in 1939 as it is now. But we like the idea of it. Mr. Smith reminds us of the great things we believe America is capable of, and it makes us unashamed to be proud of them.

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Eric D. Snider (website) went to Washington once, but it wasn't nearly as eventful as this.