It's 2012 and another Presidential election is upon us with negative campaign ads and both parties spouting venom toward each other. This seems like a good time to go visit a Hollywood political classic directed by the great Frank Capra about Washington politics and a young idealistic man's journey into the chambers of Congress called MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). Hollywood is excellent at the cynical political film whether it be ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) or THE CANDIDATE (1972) or the recent THE IDES OF MARCH (2011). These films show the dark side of politics and it's not pretty. But Hollywood can also make the fanciful political film where the little guy goes up against the political establishment and comes out victorious. Gary Ross's DAVE (1993) is a great example of the David vs Goliath story in Washington but director Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is the film that set the bar.
The only Frank Capra film I had ever seen (and his most famous) is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). That film is so wonderful that I had never wanted to see any of Capra's other films. Although not a prolific director, Capra's golden period was 1934 through 1948 with a break during World War II where he made several films for the military. Many of director Capra's films like MR. DEEDS COMES TO TOWN (1936), MEET JOHN DOE (1941) , and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE have as the main protagonist an Everyman who is a bit naive, honest, incorruptible, and innocent. In actor Jimmy Stewart, Capra found his perfect Everyman. Stewart's Aw Shucks Midwest demeanor, enthusiastic optimism, and Norman Rockwell All-American good looks fit perfectly with Capra's stories about the common man standing up against compromise and corruption.
With a screenplay by Sidney Buchman based on a story by Lewis R. Foster, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON begins with the death of Senator Sam Foley from an unnamed (probably Midwest) state right before an important vote. Foley's fellow Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains) returns to his home state to help pick someone to replace the late Foley. Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) gets to choose the replacement and already all parties have their candidate. The political boss of the state Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) wants Horace Miller. The Governor's constituents want Henry Hill. But the Governor's kids (who look like LITTLE RASCALS leftovers) want Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), a youth leader for the Boy Rangers who recently helped put out a forest fire. Hopper flips a coin and in true Capra style, the coin lands straight up on its side. Governor Hopper chooses Jefferson Smith much to the political machine's chagrin.
But Senator Paige, known as "the Silver Knight" was a friend of Smith's deceased father. He thinks he can be a role model for Smith yet keep the politically naive Senator away from a bill sponsored by Paige that will see the Willet Creek Dam built in their state, a useless piece of pork belly spending being pushed by Jim Taylor. Smith arrives in Washington with his suitcases and a crate of pigeons. The press portrays Smith as a bit of a stooge. Smith tracks down each reporter and punches them out even chasing one reporter into the Washington Press Club. Senator Paige sends his best secretary Clarissa Saunders (another Capra regular Jean Arthur) to take the impressionable young senator under her wing. Saunders will help guide Smith through the labyrinth of Congress, explaining how a bill becomes law and protocol in the Senate chambers.
To keep Smith from interfering with the Willet Creek Dam bill, Paige suggests Smith sponsor his own bill on a topic he feels strongly about. Smith decides to sponsor a bill to have a National Boy Rangers Camp built in his home state. The only problem is Smith wants the Camp built on the same piece of land that will soon be under water if the Willet Creek Dam is built. Paige tries to steer Smith away from his idea, explains that sometimes compromise is the best way. Smith stubbornly refuses to budge and Paige turns to Taylor and his political machine who concocts a story that Smith owns the Willet Creek land and that he's trying to use his proposed bill for personal gain.
Paige tries to expel Smith from the Senate. Smith wanders around Washington, visiting the Lincoln Memorial and reading the words "Government for the People, By the People." Washington D.C. doesn't seem to have the same interests as Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Smith. Smith wants to quit against the graft and greed. But Saunders, who's falling in love with Smith, convinces Smith to fight for the common man, for the Boy Rangers, for his ideals. Smith returns to the Senate floor and begins a filibuster to block Senator Paige and Boss Jim Taylor's Willet Creek Dam bill from being passed. Saunders and her newspaper buddy Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) try to get the news out to Smith's home state but Taylor owns the newspapers and radio and blocks news of Smith's filibuster, printing lies about Smith instead. Smith holds the floor, delaying the vote on the bill, preaching the ideals of democracy until Senator Paige caves in and requests that not Senator Smith but himself, Joseph Paige, be thrown out of Congress.
It's clear that director Capra sees Mr. Smith as an Abraham Lincoln type. Smith even visits the Lincoln Memorial a couple of times -- when he first arrives in Washington and takes an impromptu tour of the capital by bus and later, as Paige and Taylor try to defame Smith, he visits the Lincoln Memorial by foot and reads Lincoln's inspiring words that will give him the confidence to fight back against the Washington status quo. "Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln, " Saunders asks Smith. "You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along ... I think he was waiting for you, Jeff." Although Smith's home state is never mentioned, it wouldn't surprise me if it was Illinois - Lincoln's birthplace. However, a second viewing makes me think it's Missouri.
Surprisingly, the filibuster scene that is the highlight of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is also the scene that grinds the film to a halt at the end. I always assumed that Mr. Smith makes a one impassioned speech in front of the other Senators and they give him a standing ovation and cue the credits. But Smith makes several speeches as he tries to hold the floor and block the bill. Director Capra cuts away to Taylor and his machine working overtime to destroy Smith and Senator Paige losing his grip on what he's become but Smith's dissertations, although well acted by Stewart, go on much too long. Mr. Smith's filibuster not only halts the passing of the bill, it stops the great momentum that MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON had going for it. But MR. SMITH does a great job of showing the mechanics of Congress even down to the young Page Boys who deliver bills to the Senate leaders. Today's Pages are college graduates not young boys.
Since this was only the second Capra film I've seen, two things jumped out at me. Capra uses the song Auld Lang Syne in MR. SMITH just as he did in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. For MR. SMITH, the patrons of a farewell dinner sending Mr. Smith off to Washington break into the song early in the film whereas in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE George Bailey's friends and family sing Auld Lang Syne in the last scene. Director Capra also likes to stage scenes in a house or room full of people. Out of the chaos, Capra finds humor and dignity. In MR. SMITH, he has crowded scenes on the Senate floor, the Press Club, and Jim Taylor's office. In IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the Bailey house is besieged by friends, family, and strangers as they bring money for George to save the bank. Capra handles the big scenes with great skill.
Capra worked with many of the same actors throughout his career and MR. SMITH has two of his favorites in Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. Jean Arthur worked with Capra in MR. DEEDS COMES TO TOWN and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938). I liked Arthur much more in MR. SMITH then her performance in Howard Hawks' ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (also 1939). She seemed a little more at ease in this comedy as wise-cracking Clarissa Saunders than in the male dominated ANGELS. Having seen enough Jimmy Stewart movies now, I've realized one of his trademarks that is overlooked is Stewart's frantic, frazzled look when his world is about to collapse. Whether it's Stewart's reaction to Uncle Billy losing the bank deposit money in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or waiting for Lars Thorswald coming up to his apartment to kill him in REAR WINDOW (1954) or Joseph Paine trying to discredit him in front of the Senate in MR. SMITH, Stewart can look like a wild animal with its back against the wall, his eyes darting back and forth, his hair askew. But he always pulls it together, sometimes with a little help from his friends and loved ones.
Director Capra has a great touch for picking supporting actors to play the villains and comedic relief in his films. In MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Claude Rains is excellent as the conflicted Senator Joseph Harrison Paine, who once was a champion for lost causes before he became devoured by Taylor and his greed. Paine struggles with wanting to be a teacher and role model for Smith but having to answer to the hand that got him elected Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Taylor is a typical Capra character, gruff and corrupt, driven by his own selfish interests with no regard for the little guy or lost cause. He's an easy target to root against yet in Capra's films, the bad guy doesn't completely seem to lose. Senator Jefferson Smith may have held up his dam but it might still get built. Even in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George Bailey's friends all chip in to help rescue George's Savings and Loan but Mr. Potter still has money and power. I thought actor Edward Arnold was actually Lionel Barrymore who played the mean Mr. Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Their performances and mannerisms are so similar. Ironically, both actors would actually co-star in Capra's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.
Rounding out the supporting cast for MR. SMITH is froggy voiced Eugene Pallette as one of Taylor's lieutenants Chick McGann. Fans of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) will recognize Pallette as the portly Friar Tuck. Harry Carey plays Henry - the President of the Senate - one of Senator Smith's few allies in the Senate chamber. Carey would receive an Academy Award nomination for this role, one of eleven nominations MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON would receive. And one of my favorite character actors Thomas Mitchell who plays Diz Moore, Clarissa's columnist friend, is actually underutilized in MR. SMITH. Mitchell and Jean Arthur play off each other quite well but I wouldn't say it's one of Mitchell's better supporting roles. Mitchell will have a much juicier role as Uncle Billy Bailey in Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
The credits both at the beginning and end of MR. SMITH remind us that "any similiarity to any name, character, or incident is unintentional" but in reality, today's Washington D.C. has many, many Joseph Harrison Paige's and Jim Taylor's that choose partisanship and excess and compromise over the lost cause and helping one another. The Senate and House of Representatives are full of millionaires with their own agendas. There are very few if any Mr. Smiths (or Ms. Smiths for that matter) who would even be elected today which is sad. But MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON offers a timeless window that maybe one day, candidates will be elected for their honest values and beliefs to help everyone, not just one special interest. Just like idealists Frank Capra or Jefferson Smith, we can dream of liberty for all, can't we?