A comedy both shiny and monstrous, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington uncritically blurs the line between populism and fascism, inadvertently exposing the dangers to democracy during the Great Depression. Written by Sidney Buchman from a motion-picture story by Lewis R. Foster (who won an Oscar), and produced and directed by Frank Capra, the film was originally intended as a sequel to Capra’s marvelous Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), with Gary Cooper reprising his celebrated role as Longfellow Deeds. (One would never guess this from the misleading commentary that Capra’s son provides for the film’s DVD.) Regrettably, the later film has little of the charm of Mr. Deeds, for which Capra won the second of three directorial Oscars. (He also won for It Happened One Night, 1934, and You Can’t Take It with You, 1938, both of which also won the best picture Oscar.) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is, additionally, a structural and a formal mess. It reaches no conclusion; it just stops, exhausted. It’s a bad, shallow, mean-spirited entertainment.
Yet few do not like it. It is the kind of film whose uncritical nature invites an uncritical response. One easily buys into its preposterous message that political corruption is the worst evil facing American democracy. Indeed, corruption in one form or another would remain a familiar, convenient target in American films, reaching its zenith of thematic absurdity in the criminally heartless Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973), which advances the notion that the thing that should most worry us about big city police is their appetite to arrange financially for their children’s college education. How dare them break the law to do this! Focusing on such relatively trivial matters, and, in the case of Serpico, on a matter grounded in the humanity, not inhumanity, of the police thus condemned, is a foolish way of turning a blind eye to much worse and more pressing matters. Capra’s Mr. Smith fiddles with nonsense while America burns.
The plot is precious and farfetched. The junior U.S. senator from an anonymous state—let’s say Montana, since Foster’s story was originally titled “The Man from Montana”—ups and dies, requiring the state’s governor to name a successor. This fictional Montana is “owned” by boss Jim Taylor, whose selection the governor sidesteps in order to preserve the viability of his own political career. Governor Hubert Hopper chooses Jefferson Smith, a youth leader, as the perfect man to win popular support while offering no resistance to Taylor’s domination through the state’s senior U.S. senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, once a friend of Smith’s deceased father, when they were both young and idealistic, as Smith is now, believing that the only causes worth fighting for are “lost causes.” (Commentators note that Jefferson Smith bears an Everyman-name, but so does Taylor, while Paine’s name suggests a potential president, and Hubert “Happy” Hopper’s anticipates a future mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota.) For Taylor and Paine, much is at stake. Paine and the deceased junior senator, at Taylor’s behest, were pushing through the Senate a bill that would provide them all, especially Taylor, with a windfall. An unnecessary dam would be built on a creek the land around which, using dummy names, Taylor has been buying up in order to sell to the government. To distract Smith from his and Taylor’s shenanigans, Paine encourages Smith to prepare a bill on some pet project of his own. This is a rural boys’ camp, and the trees hit the fan when Smith innocently proposes as its site the same area that Taylor and Paine’s machinations have sewn up. The problem, apparently, is that the corrupt officials fear that Smith’s inquisitiveness will expose their scheme, although it is just as likely that they might have finessed the matter. (What difference does it make what project they need to sell the land to the government for?) Anyhow, Paine accuses Smith of owning the land in question in the Senate, prompting Smith’s filibuster to get the truth out. Eventually, Smith collapses, and Paine, guilt-ridden, attempts suicide and reveals the truth about himself, Taylor, and Taylor’s crooked machine.
I am leaving out the richest aspect of the film: the growing romance between Smith and Saunders, the secretary assigned to him. Saunders, who is given the film’s best line (referring to Smith’s mother: “She called me Clarissa!”), is as savvy about Washington as Smith is naïve, and his idealism penetrates her cynical veneer, much as it reconnects Paine, despite his resistance, to the idealism of his younger days.
Throughout the film, there is no hint of the economic crisis that, even toward the end of the decade, persisted in the United States. No one is poor; no one is out of work. Nor is there any hint of the march of Nazism and Fascism in Europe. Therefore, there is no need to relate one to the other to suggest the vulnerable nature of the country and its institutions. All America has to worry about is Jim Taylor. Good grief!
There are cute bits, such as when one of Taylor’s operatives, a portly man, gets stuck in a phone booth; but there are also agonizingly cornball bits, such as when Jeff fumbles with the inside rim of his hat while talking to a girl, Senator Paine’s daughter, for what seems like the first time in his life. There is a patriotic montage, including Smith’s visit to the Lincoln Memorial, that is something of a howler, especially when a little boy recites the Gettysburg Address while a black visitor’s eyes fill up with tears. It is for such moments that the word Capracorn was coined.
But it’s the insularity of the whole thing that is most distressing. For this aspect of the film lends a frightening edge to the hero’s parochial nature, suggesting a fascist-in-the-making. His legion of supportive Boy Rangers, alarmingly, comes to resemble Hitler youth. It takes one’s breath away that Capra resists applying any sort of analysis or critical distancing. Compare, the same year, John Ford’s beautiful Young Mr. Lincoln, which sounds out the potential for demagoguery in American democracy. Beginning with the film’s bucolic first movement, Ford premises Lincoln’s exemplariness in order to suggest that Lincoln’s susceptibility to being demagogic—the film relates his need for crowd adulation to the deaths of both his mother and Ann Rutledge—reveals something besides individual defect; for, using the past to comment on current hard times, and mindful of Germany’s example, Ford worries where a frightened people may let leaders lead them and where these leaders may be willing to go. Not so Capra, whose Mr. Smith, at the very least, courts fascism by endorsing a U.S. senator’s strident populism.
Jean Arthur as Saunders, Claude Rains as Paine, and Harry Carey as the president of the Senate (the nation’s vice president, that is) are all marvelous. There are, in fact, only two bad adult performances in the film: Edward Arnold is bloated and unconvincing as Taylor, and Astrid Allwyn is unfeeling as Paine’s daughter. It is appalling how thinly Capra conceives of Susan Paine.
James Stewart became a star by playing Jefferson Smith, winning the best actor prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. (He would win again, for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, 1959.) He is very good. However, the parochial nature of the role keeps his performance from becoming anything substantial or worthwhile.