An Essay on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Media, Serious

mr. smith           “Somebody’ll listen to me! Some …” This desperate yet strangely confident plea was the last Jefferson Smith spoke before he collapsed from sheer exhaustion. His plea was not so much to the Senate – even though he was speaking before them – but to the people of America. Would Smith’s heartfelt, passionate speech be heard outside the walls of the Senate despite the newspaper’s best efforts for his voice not to be heard? Would the people even bother to try and listen?

              Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film about heroism but of a more regular sort: Jeff – the hero – has no cape, no superpowers, no special training. He is a regular, honest, decent man trying to live up to his ideals in a corrupted environment. He would find, like most of us trying to wade through this world, that living up to a high moral standard without compromising can be more difficult than anticipated.

              Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political comedy-drama tale with humble beginnings. Columbia Pictures, a small but growing studio at the time, bought an unpublished story by Lewis R. Foster called The Gentleman from Montana. Frank Capra was brought on as director to bring this story to life on the silver screen. The film was initially meant to be a sequel to Capra’s 1936 film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. However, once it was realized that Gary Cooper could not reprise his role as Mr. Deeds, the sequel idea was scrapped. Capra then called upon the services of an actor he had previously worked, James Stewart.

James Stewart was born in Pennsylvania in 1908. Shy and a bit awkward, Stewart began his career on Broadway before getting into Hollywood. Impressed by Stewart’s small role in the movie Navy Blue and Gold, Frank Capra hired Stewart to star in his film, You Can’t Take It with You. A year later, Stewart starred in Frank Capra’s next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As a result, Stewart was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards but lost to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

          By Stewart’s side in Mr. Smith was Jean Arthur. Born in New York in 1900, Arthur began working in the film industry in the early 1920s. Even though she shunned media attention, Arthur began to grow in popularity. Her career took off when she starred in Frank Capra’s film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Three years later, she starred as the cynical, funny, and loveable Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith.

            Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about a newly appointed young senator, Jefferson Smith, who accidentally comes head on with a corrupt political machine run by major newspaperman, Jim Taylor. Taylor tries corrupting Smith but to no avail. When Smith is about to bring Taylor and his cronies out to the open before the Senate, Jeff’s fellow senator and idol, Joseph Paine, stands up and falsely accuses Jeff of the very things Taylor is doing. An investigation ensues, and the fraudulent evidence looks convincing. Discouraged, Jeff is about to leave town when his former secretary, Saunders, encourages him and reminds him of the ideals he had taught her. After some intense coaching from Saunders, Jeff prepares to give his final speech to the Senate – and hopes that someone will listen to him with open ears.

            Mr. Smith’s plot may be predictable for the most part, but the ending is slightly different than one may anticipate. Every character has a strong sense of believability with each serving a specific purpose. Jeff is the person the audience aspires to be – honest, respectful, and filled with child-like wonder. However, Jeff is not perfect, which aides in the character’s believability. Joseph Paine serves as a warning to the audience. A man once much like Jeff, Paine compromised years ago and lost most of his integrity in the process. Saunders is the character the audience is most like. While not quite as far gone as Paine, she uses deception when it’s to her advantage. She’s cynical but has sympathy, and a hint of admiration, for a man like Jeff. He inadvertently teaches Saunders how to live again.

One can’t find a flaw in any actor’s execution of their character. James Stewart’s delivery of the passionate, stern speech to the Senate was so inspiring and thoughtful. Stewart ability to portray Jeff’s nervousness when proposing his bill was another stroke of acting brilliance. Not only did Stewart look the part of Smith with his handsome, boyish looks but, most impressively, he was Jeff. A real-life example of this would be what Stewart did after filming Mr. Smith. Cinema Blend stated in their review, “Shortly after he (Stewart) finished filming … he was flying missions over Germany in WWII — and that only happened because he managed to talk a recruitment officer into to throwing away his physical, which initially rejected him because he was too skinny” (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Review”).

Jean Arthur was also as equally convincing in her role. From her teaching Jeff how a bill becomes a law to her zinger one-liners, she’s the one who often brings the comedy. Her delivery is superb. Even her encouraging talk to Jeff near the end of the movie was incredibly well-done.

Overall, the movie is simply made but its themes are not. Integrity was at the forefront with gratitude following close behind. There were various degrees of integrity in the film. Jim Taylor completely lost his integrity and his humanity. Joseph Paine lost most of his integrity but his conscience pricks, however slight, at him for every lie. Clarissa Saunders has some integrity, but cynicism has jaded it. Jeff has integrity so ingrained in his soul that he could be the very definition of it. Jeff doesn’t budge when threatened or offered a bribery. Jeff is also the only main character with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for his country and for life itself. Taylor, obviously, had neither and cared only for his own self-gain. Paine and Saunders lost it after years in the hubbub of Washington chipped it away.

           Mr. Smith is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago. Despite the portrayal of a corrupted set of senators, the film is quite patriotic. The montage of Jeff walking through the sights of Washington gives you a sense of pride for America and all she has accomplished. Especially so when Jeff walks into the Lincoln Memorial and sees a young boy reading the words of Lincoln to his grandfather while an African American man emotionally watches on. Jeff’s eloquent statement to his secretary, “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders,” is a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more.

How the film portrays the media and the gullibility of the people bears striking resemblance to how things are today – and it’s worse now. The media, like Taylor in the movie, tells us how to think, what to think, how to feel, what the truth is – and we’re stupid enough to believe every word. And, more alarmingly, we believe what we want without evidence to back it up. In the movie, as soon as Paine accused Jeff of wrongdoing, the crowd in the Senate immediately began booing Jeff, already deciding he was guilty. People do this today and to a far worse degree. Upon hearing an accusation, people often decide someone is guilty and deserves swift punishment even though no actual evidence was given.

The portrayed corruption in the Senate in the movie is also quite fascinating. This aspect was considered controversial – both at home and abroad. Paul Tatara from TCM (Turner Classic Movies) stated in his review that, “Several politicians angrily spoke out against the film in newspaper editorials …. Sen. Alben W. Barkley viewed the picture as “a grotesque distortion” of the Senate” (Tatara, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: The Essentials”).

Cinnema Blend noted that, “When the ban on English and American films was made in Nazi occupied France in 1942, the film the theatres picked for their last movie was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — one particularly patriotic theatre owner reportedly screening the film for 30 consecutive days prior to the ban” (“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: Review”).

Even though it was controversial at the time, it was depicted correctly. Government today is more corrupted than ever before. One might think that Mr. Smith is for the politicians. I would say that it is for the American voters. We often bemoan the lack of honesty in our government and how little they care about integrity. If we wish to fix this, we must first look at ourselves. We vote the politicians into office. If we care about integrity and honesty, shouldn’t we vote out the dishonest ones and seek new candidates? To change the outlook of our government, we must first change the culture. If we don’t care about integrity and don’t live honestly, why should we expect the politicians to? People often say they love their neighbor, but they don’t. They say they are tolerant, but they are not. Words without the actions to back them up are empty. It is no credit to any of us if we solely love and tolerate people we agree with.

And so, I highly recommend this movie to everyone. It’s a thought-provoking film that will also make you laugh. A rare find these days. Once we finished watching the film, perhaps we can be on a look out for a Jefferson Smith in our country. How will we know if we find him? If his actions back up his words. If he refuses to back down for integrity reasons and not for political ones.



                                                                      Works Cited

Tatara, Paul. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: The Essentials.” Turner Classic Movies.

                          Movie Review Query Engine. Ozark Technical Community College Library, Springfield MO. 22 October, 2019. Web.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Review.” Cinnema Blend.

                               Movie Review Query Engine. Ozark Technical Community College Library, Springfield MO. 22 October, 2019. Web.

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