Or, The AFI List Project #26 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
I promised, ages ago, that I would deliver a political post at some point. Well, this isn’t quite what I had in mind when I made that promise, but sometimes fate has other ideas, and it happened that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was next on my list. The timing, it seemed, was right.
If you haven’t seen it, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an early collaboration between director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart – the pair would later go on to make the even more famous It’s A Wonderful Life – and in its most cringeworthy moments is just as saccharine as you might fear. The montage of Jeff Smith’s first day in Washington, as he visits all the major sights associated with the capital, is particularly revolting; it includes a scene at the Lincoln Memorial where he listens to a young boy read the words of the Gettysburg Address to his grandfather, while a black man watching the scene sheds a tear. (Seriously, you could never make this stuff today.)
The premise of the film is that a Senator from an unnamed, apparently Midwestern state dies, and the state’s spineless governor must name a replacement. Caught between the political machine that he relies on to remain in office and the cries of outrage from his constituents, he chooses a third path and appoints unassuming Boy Scout leader Jefferson Smith (Stewart), who will join Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, apparently the Donald Sutherland of the 30s and 40s) as the state’s delegation; Paine was incidentally a friend of Smith’s father and his boyhood hero. Jeff Smith is a fervent believer in the greatness of America – it isn’t shown, but on the trip to Washington he is said to have talked for two consecutive days reciting American history, and he can quote Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln from memory – and his greatest ambition is to get the Senate to found a boy’s camp in his state. Unfortunately, he soon runs afoul of his Paine, who, as it turns out, is party to a graft scheme involving the same land where Smith wants his camp to be built. Smith, decrying the graft on the Senate floor, becomes the target of a campaign to smear his name and impeach him from the Senate.
What struck me most, in political terms, about Mr. Smith was how astonishingly modern Capra’s political sensibilities were – or, perhaps more accurately, how little the tropes and complaints we make about politics have changed since 1939. Politicians are either corrupt or impotent; profit is the name of the game; honesty is attacked while dishonesty and disinterest are rewarded. The political process is portrayed as torturous and difficult. The dam project at the center of the graft scheme is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified earmark to a deficiency bill. Re-election is the greatest concern of politicians, and the best way to motivate them to action. And, of course, Smith is the consummate Washington outsider of legend, the kind that’s supposed to be immune to the corruptions and temptations of the capital.
We are talking about Hollywood here, so of course that gloomy outlook proves too cynical: when all seems lost, man’s better nature prevails. But it truly is man’s better nature, and not the inherent justice of the American system or any other such nonsense, that saves Jeff Smith in the end, which to me seems to be a crucial point from both a political and a cinematic point of view. Smith’s demand for justice is fundamentally political: he wants to be able to hold the Senate floor without being impeached until such time as his constituents hear of his plight and respond with their support. This approach doesn’t work, though, and understandably so, given that Smith’s political enemies control the presses and use that power to condemn Smith. Redemption must come through other means.
From the standpoint of story, this is of crucial importance because it preserves human relationships as the basis of the drama. If Capra had gone the sentimental, democracy-loving route of having the people of Jeff Smith’s state rise nobly to the occasion to call for his pardon, the result would have been unsatisfying: the ‘good guy’ might have won, but he would have owed his victory to a faceless mass; and, of course, the people of his state saying that he was a ‘good guy’ wouldn’t have cleared up the legal problems of graft and corruption.
Equally important, though, is that we know that politics doesn’t work that way, and would have recognized it as a cop-out solution immediately. We know that Jeff Smith is a great guy, honest as the day is long, because we have spent the last hour and a half getting to know him, but there’s no reason that his constituents would know that — and, when you consider as well that he is a new Senator, appointed rather than elected, pitting his word against that of a well-liked and long-serving opponent, the case for a ‘political’ solution becomes ever weaker. The story works out in the only way that seems realistic – which makes it the only way that can be satisfying.
One final note: the film’s portrayal of the power of the press is both one of its most salient features, fully acknowledging how dependent we are on our access to good information, and one of its most dated features. It is fully believable, in the context of 1939, that the story could unfold the way that it does, because people’s access to information is limited to the newspapers and the political machine, we discover, can control all of them. In today’s world, that could never happen: not only would Jeff Smith not need to wait for the news to get back to his home state, as he does in the film, but every moment of his filibuster, every word that he spoke, would be tweeted, Facebooked, streamed, and otherwise made available for immediate consumption in real time. Granted, so too would the claims of his enemies, but the strategy of silencing the opponent – which is essentially the strategy of the machine in Mr. Smith – couldn’t work today. And that is, I think, the greatest argument for how Capra chose to resolve his story. After all, the way we conduct politics changes, but political corruption and political idealism, the ideological conflict underlying Jeff Smith’s travails, are as old as the very idea of government.