Lost in the Movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

When I selected a still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to accompany my introduction to this series, I halfway-apologized for picking such an idealistic, and presumably naive, image to accompany talk of the presidential election. I shouldn't have, because a) I (and hopefully you as well) still have some of that idealism, which Capra is the king of tapping into, and b) Mr. Smith, while idealistic about its hero and (ultimately) his crusade, is remarkably cynical and critical towards the Washington establishment, essentially painting the Capitol as a grandly-designed speakeasy inhabited by slimy crooks. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington posits idealism as something that has to stand up to the harsh realities that infringe upon it, or as Jean Arthur's hardbitten secretary tells the crestfallen Jefferson Smith, gesturing towards the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln ensconced in his memorial: "All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that!"

When I first saw Mr. Smith about ten years ago, I did indeed think the hero was a fool. Or an idiot. But though his naivete is taken to somewhat ridiculous extremes, he's really just a heightened version of any citizen who's ever believed in the American Dream, or the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration. There are two schools of thought on this: one is that it's foolish to put faith in the words or ideals this country was based on, since the actions so often run contrary to them. The other is that out of these noble if unrealized promises, we can perhaps guide ourselves somewhat closer to the ideals they enshrine. Clearly Frank Capra, and Jefferson Smith, tends toward the latter view.

Indeed, Senator Smith - a boy scout leader celebrated for dousing a forest fire, and then appointed to fill a congressional vacancy by a governor who thinks he'll be a safe, silent choice - has an almost metaphysical view of American idealism. Here he is relaying his late father's words of wisdom: "And he used to say to me: 'Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see daylight again after coming through a long dark tunnel?' 'Well,' he'd say, 'Always try to see life around ya as if you'd just come out of a tunnel.'" Indeed, another indication that the film is not as simple-minded as it may initially appear is Smith's backstory - his dad was killed as a result of overzealous investigative reporting. Underpinning Capra's optimism and flag-wrapped wonder is a sense of the danger and corruption of the universe; and hence the heroism in his movies doesn't feel like a cheap trick but a hard-won survival skill.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington crackles with the pent-up spitfire energy of Depression-era filmmaking. If you look closely, Capra fills his master shots with jump cuts, goosing the picture along by subtly choosing the best bits of every take. There are few matches between action when he cuts around - again, he submerges continuity for the sake of energy. The film reaches - and sustains - its long climax with a filibuster staged by Smith to obstruct the passage of a corrupt dam project (which has been attached to a relief bill - sound familiar? Makers of toy wooden arrows, I'm looking at you). Capra intercuts between Stewart's fast-paced, and increasingly exhausted, monologue (he stayed up for days to achieve the sweaty, raspy effect) and the kids around Smith's state trying to get the word out. The political machine's goons and stooges try to stop their efforts; at one eyebrow-raising point they even slam their car into a cart full of the screaming little tykes.

The movie has a good villain as well, and I'm not thinking of political boss James Taylor (playing himself - no, just kidding, played by Edward Arnold). Claude Rains embues Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine with a palpable pathos: we believe that this man has auctioned off little pieces of his soul until there's hardly anything left. He has a nice home, beautiful daughters, a distinguished reputation, lots of power and prestige, and a straight shot at the presidential nomination around the corner. But you just know he lies awake at night, chewing over decades of regret. To the extent that the movie's conclusion, a bit of a cop-out, works at all, it's because Rains has clued us in to the conflicted humanity of Paine from the get-go. Rounding out the cast are Jean Arthur, convincingly motherly as she sheds her cynicism and stage-manages Smith's filibuster from the peanut gallery, and Thomas Mitchell, a gin-soaked reporter who represents the flea-bitten virtue of the press. I'd say that Capra lets the press off the hook, but then I'm reminded that he also shows all the Taylor-controlled newspapers of Smith's state printing lies and smears about their representative on order from the big boss. So much for that notion.

Today some would have you believe that we've found our own Mrs. Smith: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, a Washington outsider plucked from obscurity and thrust into national politics, suddenly coming under attack from all sides. She even took on entrenched, powerful politicians in Alaska, blowing the whistle on corruption! Well, I wish that Palin was the modern incarnation of Mr. Smith. But notice the differences in their strident patriotism: Palin appeals to cultural tropes, self-identifies as a "hockey mom" and makes anti-intellectual populism the be-all, end-all of her supposed "outsider" virtue. Jefferson Smith, for all his initial naivete and incompetence, couches his idealism in American history, in the Constitution, America as an ideal, a set of principles, not a geographic land blessed by God out of some arbitrary favoritism. Though admittedly, he has been known to pal around with terrorists.

Anyway, to what extent was Palin really plucked from nowhere? According to the New Yorker, she was courting this nomination for a long time in advance, and made an all-out effort to charm the very "Washington elite" that she rails against today. From that same article (and I swear I only read this after I'd written the rest of this post!): "John Bitney, a top policy adviser on Palin’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, said, “Sarah’s very conscientious about crafting the story of Sarah. She’s all about the hockey mom and Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington—the anti-politician politician.”" My friends (as one of Palin's pals likes to say), we live in a very self-conscious era. In fact, were Capra to remake Mr. Smith today, Jefferson S. probably would have staged that forest fire. Then again, that was probably true in 1939 too.

In a comment responding to my introduction, Graham of Movies et al expressed disappointment that I'd be reviewing Mr. Smith rather than Meet John Doe which, from the sound of it, may better mirror the contemporary (and truth be told, oft-historical) intersection of populism and exclusionary authoritarianism. The short answer is that I was more familiar with Mr. Smith and, as the foremost American political classic, it seemed a better pick. But I could also point out that the series will only get darker as it progresses, so we might as well take a moment to appreciate the hard-won optimism of Capra. In other words, after a breather tomorrow, we're heading into that dark tunnel rather than out of it, so enjoy the daylight while you can.


Graham said...

This is a very good write-up. As happened to me when I finally watched It's a Wonderful Life for my inaugural Film Ignorance piece, you went to this movie looking for a piece of corny American optimism and got a very strange brew in it's place - an amalgam of corny American optimism and it's supposed nemesis, cynical American realism. Understanding Capra is about understanding how his optimism was born out of a certain cynical realism - something you'll get even more of if you watch Meet John Doe.

I also think your Palin comparison is spot on, although again (as you yourself allude to) it's John Doe who is perhaps more applicable here. Mr. Smith has the tint of the everyman about him, but he's no anti-intellectual, and he's no panderer. As you point out, labeling Palin a Smith-like figure is more than a little disingenuous. It's hard for me not to see Palin as a John Doe figure: a folksy puppet, who looks and sounds like a regular person, and maybe even is, but it doesn't matter who they are, because someone else is pulling the strings.

I'll follow along with this series as much as I am able, but I'm not an expert on documentary film, so I'll be going in blind on many of the entries - like your next one. Just out of curiosity: are you doing a piece on Street Fight? I've never watched it, but it's always looked intriguing.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I've always loved It's a Wonderful Life - and seen the darker side - but my first impression of Mr. Smith definitely wasn't as nuanced.

As for the rest of the series, I'm seeing most of these docs for the first time too and truth be told my interest is more in their subject matter than their form (some are straight-ahead jounralistic TV programs). I'll be trying to open up my write-ups to discussion of the issues involved - which will include health care, the crisis in conservatism, the past 8 years, North Korea, Iran, Darfur, the roots of the credit crisis, and especially the war in Iraq. So feel free to check them out & leave your thoughts even if you haven't seen the particular doc in question.

I haven't seen Street Fight and since (aside from Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore) I'm focusing on issue docs rather than campaign ones, I hadn't planned on looking at it. But in the process of scheduling this series, I discovered a lot of other interesting-sounding political documentaries and added them to my Netflix queue, so I may return to some of these (including Street Fight) in the months to come.

Joel Bocko said...

Also, I kind of doubt Jefferson Smith's wardrobe cost $150,000 (even adjusted for inflation...and gender).

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