Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Written by Sidney Buchman, Lewis R. Foster, and Myles Connolly
Directed by Frank Capra
A senator from an unnamed state in the Western U.S. dies, and the governor is forced to name an honorary replacement until the next election can be held. He receives from pressure from his state’s other senator Joseph Paine. Paine is cahoots with corrupt political boss Jim Taylor to get a stooge onboard to help them pass a land purchase bill. The bill will sell the government land they own under false names, enriching them and leaving America with the debt. Encouraged by his children to pick a new local hero and scout leader, the governor names Jefferson Smith as the honorary replacement. Smith is naive and overwhelmed by the patriotism stirred in him once he arrives in Washington. His deceased father has a past with Joseph Paine from when they fought for labor rights in the past. As Smith learns about the working of America’s capital he discovers the ugly truth about the nation he loves.
There is a first inclination to see Capra’s portrayal of the individual through a lense of conservative bootstrap ideology. We have a film centered around a hardworking, industrious male protagonist who succeeds and achieves. But if we look closer we see a person who is connected to their community and derives their strength and power from that town. It’s A Wonderful Life’s protagonist George Bailey is a more complicated character than Jefferson Smith but also helps to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between individuals and the collective whole. It’s incredibly on the nose in that film, but a little more subtle in Mr. Smith.
Jefferson Smith arrives in Washington D.C., and the audience is treated to a montage of American iconography blazing past the screen at breakneck speed. This presentation of symbols is undercut near the end of the film when Smith, having learned the truth about Paine sits despondently in Lincoln Memorial. His secretary Saunders finds him there, ready to leave Washington after being scandalized. He tells her everything he believed about America was a lie, but she manages to rally him into coming back to the Senate one last time to stage a filibuster and speak some Truth into the gathered quorum.
The politics of Capra in this film are quite muddled in the modern framework. The enemy is monied elites who seek to abuse the government to enrich themselves further. The good guys are honest, straightforward folk in rural America. The victory is by helping Joseph Paine see the error of his ways and allow the Boy Rangers to build their national campground on the site of the land that was part of Taylor’s graft. So the enemy, like in Wonderful Life, is big business greed that wants to corrupt the small American town. There is so much of this brand of politics that walks a wavering line between conservatism and socialism. The “capitalist interest that seeks to exploit the collective” screams of socialism, but the purity of pure rural folk is a sentiment often used by modern Conservatism to rally up votes. Capra and the ideological GOP both hold big cities in some sort of contempt, places where evil greedy people dwell. Jefferson Smith’s father was killed by corporate stooges after he used his press to publicize the fight for workers rights in the mining industry. He is a direct victim of capitalist greed.
Capra was profoundly anti-Communist, but his body of film work almost exclusively espouses what I would view as socialism. The worker and community are the places of spiritual purity, and the banker/corrupt senator/political boss are venomous snakes who seek to exploit us. If you follow the trajectory of Capra’s career, his films have their height in popularity at the time when socialism was seen as a potential solution to economic and social woes in America. As World War II wound down and after, his box office returns declined and his work was viewed as possibly dangerous propaganda against the “American Way.”
Mr. Smith is such an odd film to look at in our current political climate. It’s much less on the nose than something like Chaplin’s Little Dictator. Capra never really makes a statement about his era, instead offers up general sentiments about Liberty. I can see how this film would quickly be adopted by ideologies that don’t scrape below the surface because it appears as simple “Rah, rah, America! Less government!”. But the film actually calls on the need for government presence, Smith wants the feds to build his camp. There’s also a brief interlude with Smith running around punching reporters in the nose because they lied about his feelings on Washington. When he finds their local watering hole they confront him back, explaining how he doesn’t deserve to serve because Smith never earned it and he doesn’t see the whole picture. They are exactly right, and it is that moment that pushes Smith to the film’s conclusion. I expect most of the MAGA people probably stop with him punching reporters in the face as a justification for holding up contrary news as “fake news.”