Thursday, October 21, 2021

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington Continues To Reward Viewers While Remaining Relevant


82 years ago this week, the Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington had its world premiere. For those unfamiliar, Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a naive, idealistic youth leader who is hand-picked to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. It's not long before his idealism collides with the political corruption at home and inside the Beltway. Despite attacks on his character he strives to keep moving forward. In short, it's story of disillusionment and dirty politics. In the end, the good guys win--after all, it's a Frank Capra film--and viewers can feel all warm inside. 

When the movie was released it created quite an uproar inside the Beltway. Politicians were angry at the way they were portrayed as corrupt power brokers devoid of ethics. The public loved it, though, as good triumphs over evil in this tale. Ironically, it was banned by fascist nations in Europe because it showed that Democracy actually works. (Honest, good people can win.)

The film begins with the death of a seated senator from Montana. The party bosses can't agree on a choice to replace him, then settle on a true greenhorn, Jefferson Smith. When Smith arrives in Washington DC he's overwhelmed with awe by its monuments and historical buildings. 

When Senator Smith discovers he's being manipulated, and that a project that would really inspire youth is going to be bulldozed, he's helped by Clarissa Saunders, his Washington insider assistant, to fight back. 

Jean Arthur's role as Saunders adds a nice dimension to the film. Early on she's a cynical Washington insider who recognizes that Smith is out of his depth. At one point she says to a colleague, "I wonder if it isn't a curse to go through life wised up like you and me."  When Smith begins his earnest effort to fight the machinery, she steps up initially because that is her responsibility. His idealism, however, begins to rub off on her.  

The reality is that many in Washington began as idealists who compromised their ideals. One of these is Joe Paine, the sitting senator who selected Smith, but who knuckles under to the "boss" who runs Montana, controls the media and the rest of the machinery that has been assembled for the power brokers. When they set out to destroy Smith personally, Senator Paine hardens himself to stay in line, but it's painful to watch. 

Character Assassination

My copy of this book had a red cover.
In the film we see that when it comes to holding on to power there is no limit to the depths people will go to destroy another person's reputation. It brought to mind a novel that our high school Civics teacher had us read--The Man, by Irving Wallace. The 1964 bestseller was about about Douglass Dilman, a black man who becomes president through a series of coincidental events. The Vice Presidency is vacant because the VP died in office. The President and Speaker of the House are in Germany when a building collapses. Dilman, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, is suddenly in the White House.

What I recall most is the great lengths his enemies go to to assassinate his character. They stage a rape in the White House, and the media runs with it. All the visceral prejudice toward the black male comes to the surface and an attempt at impeachment takes place. 

The book made an impact on me that is with me to this day. It makes me distrustful of the media lackeys and lapdogs who serve as public executioners. It also provided a realistic, albeit jaundiced, portrayal of the corridors of power. You can read more about the novel here.


There were several moments in Mr. Smith that struck me. One of these was in the latter part of the film in which political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) orchestrates a media blackout in Montana so the public hears only their interpretation of events. Smith is an enemy of progress, is unworthy of representing Montana.

We see scenes of protesters with signs and rough men stealing the newspapers from the pro-Smith newsboys. I couldn't help but think of how busloads of people just happened to show up at Trump Tower the day after the election in 2016. The whole thing is presented by the media as impromptu outrage, but clearly the signs were produced well in advance or the paint would not have been dry. It was comical.

(EdNote: This kind of thing goes on from both sides, but it was especially evident that day.)

Another highlight was hearing Senator Paine explaining to Jeff why it is important to play ball with these powerful people, even if they are corrupt. This is clearly the distilled foundation of his self-talk to justify his behavior.

Senator Joseph Paine: I know how you feel, Jeff. Thirty years ago - I had those ideals, too. I was 'you'. I had to make the decision you were asked to make today. And I compromised - yes! So that all these years I could stay in that Senate - and serve the people in a thousand honest ways! You've got to face facts, Jeff. I've served our state well, haven't I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I've had to compromise, had to play ball. You can't count on people voting, half the time they don't vote, anyway. That's how states and empires have been built since time began. Don't you understand? Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that's how things are. Now I've told you all this because - well, I've grown very fond of you - about like a son - in fact, and I don't want to see you get hurt. Now, when that deficiency bill comes up in the Senate tomorrow, you stay away from it. Don't say a word. Great powers are behind it, and they'll destroy you before you can even get started. For your own sake, Jeff, and for the sake of my friendship with your father, please, don't say a word.

* * * 

It's easy to see why politicians didn't like the film when it came out. It's a little like Todo pulling aside the curtain to show the real "wizard" of Oz. Nevertheless the public loved it, and it is still highly rated to this day by viewers. 

Purportedly the film is based on a novel about a real person who went to Washington from Montana, a Senator Burton Wheeler, who was dragged through the mud for investigating the Warren Harding administration. If you recall your history, the Teapot Dome Scandal took place under his watch.

* * * 

TRIVIA: 1939 was a great year for films. Classics that year included Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Son of Frankenstein, Goodbye Mr Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hound of the Baskervilles, among others. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, nothing has changed.
Look what the Dem machine is doing to Senator Sinema. JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIE. "Resign!"
"We played the tune, and you won't dance. You're not one of us."
So pathetic

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