The balloons have fallen, the confetti has been swept up and the “vote for” signs have (mostly) been gathered and tossed. Last week was Election Day and there was the usual carping from all sides about apathetic voters, corruption in Washington, and lies in advertising. In short, it was the perfect time to rewatch another entry in “The Ten Percent” – 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact, I’m toying with a crusade to make it a requirement for every theater across the country to show this Capra classic the weekend before Election Day. Just imagine the America Jefferson Smith champions. More after the jump.
1939 may have been 75 years ago, but the Washington of Mr. Smith is depressingly familiar, although the filibuster rules have changed and, personally, I think they ought to change back. I want a real, live talk-on-your-feet spectacle if you want to hold the floor. 1939 was also a banner year for Hollywood, seeing the release of a number of films that are rightly considered classics, including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Gunga Din, as well as Mr. Smith. At the time, Mr. Smith had a rocky reception – at its Washington premiere (a full-out Hollywood event, featuring searchlights and a military band), some viewers walked out and several politicians were enraged enough to try to stop the film’s distribution. (This negative attention wasn’t limited to politicians – at a party after the screening, a drunken newspaper editor took a swing at Capra – for including a character who was a drunk reporter.)
In Mr. Smith, a naïve young man (Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewart in the role that made him a star), is appointed senator following the sudden death of the sitting politician. The political machine of the unnamed state (the movie is based on Lewis R. Foster’s story The Gentleman from Montana) is worried that Smith won’t toe the line and there’s a deal due to have its final vote that simply can’t be undone by an idealistic young man who actually believes his civic lessons. The governor, tired of being dismissed by the power brokers who put him in office, has been persuaded by his highly energetic brood of children and insists that Smith is the right choice: Smith is “a big-eyed patriot, knows Lincoln and Washington by heart, stands at attention in the governor’s presence, even collects stray boys and cats . . .” Oh, he’ll do what he’s told, all right. The machine, run by ruthless newspaperman Taylor and a once-decent, now-corrupt senator named Paine (exquisitely played by Claude Rains), grudgingly agrees and Smith is sent to Washington, with a suitcase under one arm and a crate of pigeons under the other.
The problem with the Taylor/Paine plan is that Smith really, truly, deeply believes in those American ideals, including the wacky notion that elected representatives should represent the interests of the people, not corporations and well-financed political machines. He seems immune to the glitz of Washington parties (really, the Paine girl and her friends are just this side of being floozies, aren’t they?) and is genuinely struck speechless at the sight of the Lincoln Memorial. Yes, he has to be schooled on how to write a bill (a task undertaken by his spunky girl assistant [it is 1939, after all], played to perfection by Jean Arthur), but he’s got the unshakeable belief that, by golly, what’s right will come to light.
It’s Frank Capra, who also gave us It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and that perennial Christmas favorite about suicide, It’s a Wonderful Life, so you know things are going to turn out just fine. Capra immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of five and worked hard to make a success of himself. He clearly valued hard work and felt a duty to his adopted country. Those themes – including the value of putting the other guy first due to a basic goodness in human nature – pervade his films. There are those who deride Capra’s films as too simplistic and wholesome, too full of “Capra-corn,” but their enduring popularity says otherwise.
Perhaps today, more than ever, we need a little Capra-corn. We need to believe that things aren’t really so badly mucked up that good people can’t roll up their sleeves are put things right. Just as Jefferson Smith inspired world-weary Washington insiders like Saunders and Diz, let him inspire you, too. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is fiction, true – but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a great place to look for a role model or two. Go on – you can be cynical again tomorrow. Watch Jefferson Smith gawk at the marble wonders of Washington. And if you don’t get just the tiniest lump in your throat during the Lincoln Memorial scene – well, I’m not sure I want to know you.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.