Patriotic Movie Review: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Rating: NR
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: October 19, 1939
Directed by: Frank Capra
Genre: Drama

It has been said that most politicians go into their careers with a sense of idealism, believing they can really bring about change and help their fellow countrymen. There are corrupt politicians, but many of them become corrupt after their election, when they are introduced to the temptations that power brings. What if there was one politician so bright-eyed and unscathed by corruption that he could change the hearts and minds of fellow politicians to help weed out that corruption? "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" takes on this premise with heartfelt,  aplomb and without irony.

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is the leader of the Boy Rangers, who wish to establish a national camp for boys. He is a political novice whom state party leader Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) thinks will be easy to control. That's why Smith is appointed as the new state senator when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The other state senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), and Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) team up with Taylor to try to corrupt Smith right away so that he will vote their way in order to further their nefarious political agenda.

They assign Smith a smart, endearing young chief of staff named Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) who takes an instant shining to the well-intentioned Smith. What they don't realize is that she will eventually become his staunchest ally, giving him encouragement when he needs it most. And he will need a whole lot of help and encouragement because lobbyists have conspired with Taylor and Paine to start a scheme building dams that will make them big money. The illegal scheme will hurt a lot of innocent people, so, of course, Smith opposes it. He decides to filibuster the bill, leading to a scene that is legendary in its idealism and occasional madcap humor to this day. It all leads to an entertaining ending that is the very definition of the term "Capra-esque."

Director Frank Capra helmed a series of films that were full of idealism in an era that wasn't nearly as cynical as the modern era. Movies such as "Deeds" and "You Can't Take It With You" have the madcap fun of a screwball comedy with an optimistic undertone that makes the films irresistible, even to the most jaded of cynics. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" follows this pattern completely, even when it shows how easily a good-intentioned person can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Smith is so wet behind the ears, he looks like he just got out of the shower. Yet his naiveté, which could be exploited in a very cynical way, is instead portrayed as an asset. Smith's idealism is perfect for the situation because as long as he keeps his wide-eyed innocence, he can incite change and make good things happen. Because of this, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is the rare political movie that has a happy, even if unrealistic, ending.

Stewart, like Capra, was known for a bit of a trademark character before "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He often was typecast as an underdog who got into trouble through no fault of his own and as ordinary Joes put into extraordinary circumstances. This film was perfect for him, because it played into his strengths as an actor and gave the audience the type of character they would expect from Stewart at the time. In his later years, he would go on to play against type, portraying cruel men with little or no conscience. Though he was great in those films, nobody would ever forget him as Jefferson Smith because it was just too good and too memorable of a role.

There simply aren't many movies made in the 1930s that still resonate today and can be watched without grumblings about the film being out of touch. In fact, many modern-day movie viewers lament the lack of technology in many of these older films. Sure, some of the events in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" could have been different had there been mobile phones or e-mail, but then a lot of the charm would be gone, too. An updated remake of this film would lose all its magic, which is probably why it has only been tried once in nearly eight decades, in the 1977 film "Billy Jack Goes to Washington." In an age in which Hollywood will remake just about any film, the fact that "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is nearly untouchable is proof of its lofty and well-deserved perch in film history.