Classic Movie Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


Title: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Release Date: October 17, 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

When I watched this movie as a child, I was gobsmacked by the depiction of rank corruption in the government. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about political corruption throughout US history, I just didn’t expect it in an old Hollywood film. For all the criticism of Frank Capra of making sentimental “Capra-corn,” this movie is cynical and dark. I mean they show flunkies of a political machine attacking children and driving them off a road, fer chrissakes!

The story begins with the death of a senator from a unnamed party in an unnamed state (Capra is very careful never to mention either of these things, ignoring the specific people and places where corruption thrived giving this movie an unfortunate “bothsiderism” undertone). The governor (Guy Kibbee) is torn between selecting a replacement suggested by his party’s political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) or a reform candidate suggested by citizens’ committees. His sons convince him to instead nominate a popular scouting leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). Since the appointment is only for a few months, everyone believes that the noble but naïve Smith will keep his mouth shut and just occupy the seat for a short time.

Stewart does a great job of portraying Smith, at first awed by the symbolism of Washington DC and the majesty of the Senate. Smith’s mentor and the senior senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) advises Smith to work on some small legislation to keep him busy. Despite Paine’s public persona as honest man, he’s working for Taylor’s machine, and wants to keep Smith from learning about a bill which contains a dam-building graft scheme.

Smith works with his world-weary and cynical assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) who teaches him how the sausage is made in the Senate while at the same time his optimism begins to rub off on her. Unfortunately, Smith’s bill for a national boys’ camp uses the same land as dam project. To cover their tracks, Paine and the Taylor machine frame Smith for corruption. Which leads to the final act, the famous and dramatic filibuster in the Senate.

This movie is considered inspirational, although I find it uninspiring that Smith only succeeds because he is able to make Paine feel shame, and then Paine makes a full confession. After all, Senators today won’t even apologize for mistakes they’ve made in the past, much less admit to corruption. In the past four years we’ve seen members of the Senate choosing to look the other way in full knowledge of corruption and crimes that affect the very heart of our democracy and the lives of millions of people. So I don’t believe that standing against corruption like Smith will change the hearts of the wicked, but I do believe it is correct to stand for America’s best ideals and what is best for the country, nonetheless.

This movie features some terrific acting, especially from Stewart, Raines, and Arthur. I particularly like the depiction of Saunders as an intelligent and independent woman within the government, something else you don’t expect to see in a movie from the 1930s. I also like Capra’s direction and some of the subtle choices he made to undergird his theme. For example, when Smith is reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, an elderly Black man (possibly born in slavery) is seen in the background.

This is definitely one of the great films of all-time and one that remains relevant to our times.


Rating: ****1/2