Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

JEFFERSON SMITH – “Why don’t you people the truth for a change? People in this country pick up their papers and what do they read?

DIZ MOORE (a reporter) – “Well, this morning they read that an incompetent clown had arrived in Washington parading around like a member of the senate.”

JEFFERSON SMITH – “If you thought as much about being honest as you thought about being smart—“

DIZ MOORE – “Honest! We’re the only ones who can afford to be honest in what we tell the voters. We don’t have to be re-elected like politicians.”

I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old the first time my parents took me to see Frank Capra’s great film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The film was originally released in 1939, two years before I was born. We didn’t yet have television, let alone VHS, DVRs or Turner Classic Movies, but each year The Rocky Mountain News in collaboration with the Vogue, a small theatre in South Denver, sponsored a sort of film festival. The newspaper published ballots and readers could vote for the films they most wanted to see: the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, W. C. Fields (with Mae West) and Frank Capra’s movies (Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take it with You) always received enough votes to be screened. And my parents took me to see them.

The Rocky Mountain News and the Vogue are long gone, but the experience of my parents introducing me to these classic films was an essential part of my education and continues to have a profound influence on the way I see the world and on the person I have become—even though it was years before I had a clue what Mae West was all about.

Capra, along with John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extent, George Cukor and Michael Curtiz, were the premier directors of the “Greatest Generation.” There was no television then, no 24 hour news channels. People went to the movies. And the best work of these directors created the American mythos of that generation.  Their characters, women and men, had backbones and strong moral compasses. They stood for something and inspired us to stand for something too, not just in the movies but in real life. During WWII Capra, Ford, Hawks and Huston shot film from the front lines. James Stewart flew combat missions and eventually attained the rank of Brigadier General. Henry Fonda served three years on a destroyer and was awarded a bronze star. Cary Grant, a British citizen, worked undercover for British intelligence to expose Nazi sympathizers in the entertainment industry.

I have recorded “Mr. Smith” on my DVR, along with a number of other films I keep at the ready when I need inspiration or consolation. Mr. Smith, like Singing in the Rain, You Can’t Take It with You, The Gay Divorce, The Palm Beach Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Lady Eve, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Lili are all films I’ve saved on my DVR. All of them are musicals and comedies, some sentimental, all of them a bit fantastical; for me, they have the effect of non-prescription anti-depressants. They lift my soul, even in times like these. Especially in times like these!

I re-watched “Mr. Smith” this week and was as entertained and moved by it as ever. It is one of three collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Frank Capra, “It’s a Wonderful Life” may be the better known, but “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, which got Stewart his first Oscar nomination—and made him both star and icon—is the best film. Film scholar, Arthur B. Friedman notes “Although It’s a Wonderful Life is his best-known film, that it was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which most represented the “Capra myth.” That film expressed Capra’s patriotism more than any others, and “presented the individual working within the democratic system to overcome rampant political corruption.”

The film has a wonderful screenplay; the supporting cast is a who’s who of the greatest character actors of the era; foremost among them perhaps is Thomas Mitchell (absent-minded Uncle Billy in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) who had major roles in three of the ten films nominated for Best Picture in 1939 including reporter Diz Moore in “Mr. Smith,” Scarlett O’Hara’s father in “Gone with the Wind”, and Doc Boone (the performance which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) in the classic western, “Stagecoach.” Best of all, the leading lady is played by the peerless, Jean Arthur, as great an actress as has ever appeared in movies. That’s not hyperbole; she’s one of the very best! (I got to meet her once and she didn’t disappoint but that’s a story for another day.)

The film affirms America, as do all of Capra’s films. (In a prologue to “Frank Capra’s Dream,” a documentary appreciation of the director’s work, avant-garde filmmaker, John Cassavetes remarks, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America. Maybe it was just Frank Capra.”)

The movie reminds us that the principles upon which this country was founded are worth fighting for. At the same time it condemns the greed and corruption of the politicians and lobbyists who populated then, as they still do, what is known these days as the swamp: Washington, D.C.

Among other things, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been called one of the quintessential whistleblower films in American history. The film was cited “as a seminal event in U.S. history” at the first “Whistleblower Week in Washington” (May 13–19, 2007).

The scene, early in the film where Stewart, as Jefferson Smith, stands before the senate and takes the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States is a thing of pure beauty. Stewart’s performance lets us know that the Smith knows the oath and the constitution by heart. Today we (at least I) have to wonder if some of the people who take the oath of office to uphold the constitution have ever thought to read it, or imagine that taking of this sacred oath is more than a photo op.

At the time of its release, the unflattering portrayal of the workings of Washington so outraged real-life legislators, several of them campaigned to have the film banned.  According to Wikipedia “It was called anti-American and communist; some deemed it propaganda that aided the efforts of the Axis countries at the start of World War II. Notably, Joseph P. Kennedy, (the father of President John F. Kennedy) then U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, sought to suppress its release abroad.”

Audiences and critics alike responded differently; the movie became a box-office hit and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture but lost to “Gone with the Wind.”

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The significance of the film’s message was established further in France, shortly after World War II began. When the French public was asked to select which film they wanted to see most, having been told by the Vichy government that soon no more American films would be allowed in France, the overwhelming majority chose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington over all others. To a France, soon to be invaded and occupied by Nazi forces, the film most expressed the ‘perseverance of democracy and the American way.’”  One theater owner in Paris reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days after the ban was announced.

This time of year various television channels have developed a tradition of showing 24-hour marathon screenings of A Christmas Story, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, and the most-beloved of all, the Capra/Stewart collaboration, It’s A Wonderful Life.

It may be a good idea (given the grief, anguish, fear and, in some cases, hopelessness that many of us and our friends around the world are experiencing as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches) to follow the example of the French just before World War II, and, for just one year, replace the marathon screenings, of “It’s A Wonderful Life” with marathon screenings of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.

In an era when many schools don’t really teach American History or Government (watch Jimmy Kimmel’s interviews with people on the street), this is a perfect film for families to watch and discuss together. This story of the power of one decent and committed and idealistic citizen, Jefferson Smith’s going up against a “rigged system” may seem like a fairy tale in today’s world but it’s lost none of its power to inspire. It’s a potent reminder of who we are as a people, where we came from, who we once were, and who we can be again.

Write to your television stations, rent the DVD or watch it on demand. It’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself and each other during this season.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90 but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. “But, If Not.” Sermon, Ebenezer Baptist

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