#26 Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”
Jefferson Smith

Frank Capra and James Stewart team up to bring the world Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

When an unnamed state’s senator (Montana) dies unexpectedly, the remaining senator and governor devise a plan to get Jefferson Smith (James Stewert), a popular leader of the boy rangers (boy scouts), elected to senate hoping that his small town mentality will allow them to manipulate him into voting however they want him to on various bills.

Mr. Smith quickly makes an impression in Washington when his overqualified secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), decides that she is tired of wasting her talents baby-sitting an under-qualified senator. She decides to ambush Smith with a gaggle of reporters in exchange for a nice little bribe.

Mr. Smith, who is unused to dealing with the media, is manhandled by the various members of the press and is represented negatively during his first day at the senate.

Smith immediately begins a one man wrecking crew to seek physical vengeance for the acts that the various journalists have committed against him. This leads Smith into a bar that is predominantly filled with members of the press. They quickly end his rampage by pointing out that, while they may have taken advantage of him, this is only an indication of how unqualified he is for the job. They even suggest to him that his inexperience is why he was elected.

Smith is immediately humbled. He confronts his fellow senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who, in an attempt to distract Smith, suggest that he work on proposing a new bill as a way of showing his experience.

Smith retains the help of his overqualified assistant and immediately begins work on a bill that would see a national camp opened, and paid for, by the boys of America. But when his plans interfere with a bill that Paine had already submitted, Smith runs into problems.

It seems that the bill that Paine has submitted is not exactly on the up-and-up, he, along with the State’s governor, stand to make quite a bit of money off of it.

Smith discovers this, and is about to bring the transgression before senate, but before he can Paine forges several documents and discredits Smith as a senator guilty of graft.

The senate quickly becomes a battleground between Smith and Paine that threatens to tear apart the senate. It is Smith, integrity, and the truth, in a battle against Paine, the governor, and miles of red tape, in a battle that will decide whether lies or truth will rule the senate.

This movie was tagged as Capra’s greatest work when it was released, and for good reason. Capra displayed his skill with a surgeon’s precision. He lets the film develop at it’s own pace and this is so important. The start of the film, which could have been unwatchable had it not been for the genuine performance of Stewert, sets the pace of the film perfectly. As the Story progresses, so too does the pace, eventually leading to a climactic end that gives the viewer very little time to react to what has happened and demands to be thought about long after the credits have rolled.

As skilled of a director as Capra was, this movie would not have been possible without the performance of James Stewert. While the film was slow his nice-guy demeanour and stuttering voice keep the viewer glued to the film. When the film picks up, little exists besides what is on the screen.

This is the truly great thing that the film accomplishes. While it is being viewed it is an exercise in external minimalism. The problems of the world seem to disappear, and the only two things that matter are the misplaced hair falling on James Stewert’s sweaty forehead and his ever-increasing raspy voice.

When the film is over though, so to is its experiment with minimalism. It holds a magnifying glass to the corruption and greed that plague the political landscape. One of the senators of Montana walked out of this film’s premier because he felt it negatively portrayed his profession. Adversely, the film was banned by many European dictatorships for fear that it would show the affective nature of democracy.

This film was controversial, and probably still should be, but it is also an entertaining ride. It is hard not to get captured in the idealism of the naïve Jefferson Smith, and it is even harder not to recognize the importance of his character, just as it is hard not to recognize the importance of this film.

I’m going to end on another quote by Mr. Smith…

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”