'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and the Evergreen Ills of American Politics

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and the Evergreen Ills of American Politics

Eighty-two years after its release, Frank Capra’s classic remains the most relevant film about America’s broken political system and the elites who exploit it.

Frank Capra’s legacy primarily hinges on the holiday stature of It’s a Wonderful Life, but the director’s collaboration with Jimmy Stewart seven years before on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still serves as a touchstone for lazy editorial-page writers who make reference to its famous filibuster sequence every time a piece of legislation comes before a divided Senate. Beyond those contexts, Capra remains a pariah with Capraesque now a pejorative reserved for the likes of Hallmark movies or critically reviled rom-coms.

Curiously, in “these polarized times”™ Mr. Smith has undergone an allusion renaissance. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr penned a bizarre open letter to the Republican Senate majority last fall urging senators to abdicate their duty to confirm a successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in an election year because, despite his assessment of the film as“corny” and “wish fulfillment,” it serves as a model of finding one’s conscience. Hollywood trade Deadline followed suit last April in a piece that purportedly traces the film’s influence on Americans’ understanding of the filibuster, but is really a veiled admonition against Senator Joe Manchin that deems the movie a “relic.” Although the film has become the go-to shorthand for cornfed patriotism in political circles, references to it must remain couched in designations that it is a stodgy and simplistic artifact of long-abandoned American ideals. Containing it in such terms is in the interests of the well-watched upper crust’s members because the views of America that Capra clearly expresses in Mr. Smith are the greatest threat to their cultural dominance.

Capra released his autobiography in 1971 as an outsider, a reluctant retiree from Hollywood with an unchallenged stint as the 1930s’ greatest director. However, his relegation to the realm of the unfashionable did not dilute his patriotism or populism. “Someone should keep reminding Mr. Average Man that he was born free, divine, strong; uncrushable by fate, society, or hell itself; and that he is a child of God, equal heir to all the bounties of God; and that goodness is riches, kindness is power, and freedom is glory,” Capra wrote in a time when the spectre of paranoid pessimism governed the industry’s greatest works from The Godfather to Rosemary’s Baby. He had plenty of reason to be bitter. Once a director who transcended his roots as an Italian immigrant to win three Oscars in six years and become the marquee draw for Columbia Pictures throughout the New Deal Era, he sacrificed his career for the war effort, helming the documentary series Why We Fight as a way to bolster morale. Unfortunately, upon his return, the famed chronicler of American idealism failed to regain a foothold in a country so restored by victory it no longer needed him as an anecdote to the Great Depression’s desolation. He made It’s a Wonderful Life as a catalyst to work through the postwar trauma he shared with Jimmy Stewart before falling into an endless cycle of misfires in the wake of that now-classic’s initial box-office failure.

However, even in decline, Capra espoused a fundamental belief in America’s principles in the face of adversity that made Mr. Smith such a resonant work. Released during Hollywood’s Golden Year of 1939 alongside The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights, the film features Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a yeoman scoutmaster for the Boy Rangers. In the aftermath of a sitting senator’s death, the state’s political boss, Jim Taylor, attempts to shore up an existing sweetheart land deal also involving the renowned Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and the deceased. When the governor acquiesces to public opinion and appoints Smith over the machine’s objections, Taylor and Paine initially perceive the junior senator as a manageable rube. But Smith possesses both a reverence for the Founders’ ideals and a desire to honor those he represents as he works to found a national boys’ camp while serving as a good steward of his constituents’ tax dollars (his proposal is not a new government program, but a federal property lease boys would repay with coins over time). As Taylor and Paine realize the proposed site includes the land central to their scheme, they set out to destroy Smith’s reputation at home and in Congress. Left with no support beyond the unwavering allegiance of his scouts and the encouragement of his formerly cynical chief of staff turned love interest, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith fights to the point of exhaustion with the filibuster as his only weapon.

Though it exudes an insider knowledge of Congress’s workings, the film remains vague about the state Smith represents, the party he belongs to, and the specifics of Roosevelt politics. Contemporary political films assign moral authority to leftist agendas with abandon, but Capra is far more concerned with exposing the easy corruption and compromised ideals of the American ruling class. In a time when the New Deal’s advocates deified it as the solution to all of the country’s ills, Mr. Smith depicts a government that has created most problems itself and is willing to destroy the very people it claims to protect if they stand in the way of public service as a bipartisan path to enrichment. It took a 1992 biography to out Capra as a lifelong Republican who vehemently opposed Roosevelt, but the director was adept at crafting a populist ethic rooted in humanism on display in the other two films in his America Trilogy—the Gary Cooper vehicles Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941)—as well as It’s a Wonderful Life.

Capra’s antipathy for opportunistic elites aside, Mr. Smith remains generous toward wayward politicos from Saunders and her rediscovery of civic duty to Paine and the scruples he eventually develops. At the same time, Capra constructs the film around a ruthless depiction of a media establishment fueled by grasps at celebrity and kickbacks from Taylor in its relentless pursuit of Smith’s destruction. While the filibuster sequence has entered the realm of the canonical, the film’s most impressive moments come when Smith’s scout troop circulates the truth via its Boy Rangers newspaper as Taylor’s goons resort to theft, assault, and attempted vehicular manslaughter to prevent a challenge to the machine’s media hegemony. In a year after the legacy press demonized contrary discourse on COVID origins, vaccine safety, and the Trump administration’s pandemic policy as conspiracy theory before tacitly admitting such possibilities or retconning headlines, one only wishes more current filmmakers possessed Capra’s clarity or at least demonstrated a working knowledge of history—cinematic or otherwise. Upon Mr. Smith’s release, Congress and the National Press Club pleaded with Hollywood to ban the film before engaging in a smear campaign to paint Capra as a communist. Weeks later, it became the last Hollywood film France’s Vichy government allowed to screen during the Nazi Occupation, cementing its antiauthoritarian appeal. Although his career faltered soon after and his public perception has devolved into little more than a guilty pleasure for jaded hipsters, Capra’s artistic heights remain unassailable. As Mr. Smith reveals, he provoked without spite and inspired without sacrificing the darkness—aspirations far beyond the grasp of our current cinema of safe spaces and quotas.