Gee Whiz! America!
An essay by: Witney Seibold
Happy Independence Day.
We assume the past is “innocent’ and “simpler.” Heh.
I am in the midst of reading The Federalist, that series of essays penned by Alexander Hamilton, future president James Madison, and John Jay in support of the then-new Constitution. It contains all of the brashly supportive lingo that one would expect going in: praise of liberty, why a union is better than a confederacy, why the current system is broken, why the new system will make the nation stronger, how taxation should be constructed and contemplated, the morals of a standing military, how the three governmental branches should interact, etc. They’re also a little too fond of words like “practicable” and “chimerical.”
Something that has struck through my reading, though, is how ambivalent the work is, in respect to the character of the American people and the American rulers. One would expect what is essentially an extended puff piece to be more gung-ho, more up-with-America, more full of the star-studded idealistic patriotism that we see on postcards and presidential campaign commercials. The American people are perfect, and their rulers must be even better, right? But it is not naïvely idealistic. In fact, it takes pride in its ability to recognize just how flawed people are. It recognizes that power can likely corrupt, rulers can be stupid, and the American people will often make bad decisions. It’s why we need a Constitution: to make sure the country survives in the hands of its own people. A law that supersedes the flawed, well-rounded, real-life humanity it governs.
So the essays point out what is wrong, and will continue to be wrong, with America, but ultimately comes out with a strong and cautiously optimistic doctrine of palpable governing.
It is this ambivalence, and ultimate victory of America over flawed corruption, that drives Frank Capra’s 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A film which shows the dizzying heights of an idealist American patriot, and the sickening lows of a money-driven capitalist swine.
It’s a film that gives us, in Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) a starry-eyed boy who sees governmental corruption and subterfuge directly from the people who are governing the country, and is ultimately not deterred in his patriotism. The film also gives us jaded senators, moneymen, reporters, and secretaries, who have lived in Washington D.C. for years, and are made jaded and cynical by the system. Jeff Smith is the type who actually believes in America. The rest merely need a good job.
And it’s a credit to Frank Capra’s directing that he is able to give us an unabashedly All-American patriotic film (complete with a D.C. montage, a love story, and bold Boy Scouts taking to the streets in a down-home demonstration of The People At Work) without sinking into treacly sentimentality.
There are a few moments when the film reaches some strange sentimental highs. When Jeff Smith, newly appointed as senator, first wanders about Washington D.C. for the first time in his life, we are given a loud and extended montage of typical American tourist images: bells ringing, monuments, inspiring music, the graves at Arlington, a cute little boy reading the Gettysburg Address with the help of his misty-eyed grandpa. Even to the most jingoistic of American patriots, the section is about as corny as Kansas in August.
And there are moments when we reach some rather cynical lows. Saunders (Jean Arthur) is constantly talking about quitting her job. Senator Paine (Claude Rains) is an experienced man who will not even sneeze without the approval of a wealthy landowner. The reporters have nothing good to say about anyone. No one has any awe for the system they’re living in. Even the young boy, about 9, who seats Jeff Smith for the first time in the senate, makes cracks about senators falling asleep. The Washington in this universe is mechanical, cold, something to be endured as part of the daily grind.
We even see Jim Taylor (Edward Albert), with the support of several senators, barking orders into telephones, ordering about the newspapers he owns (in an early, pre-“Citizen Kane” stab at the runaway power of Hearst), attempting to harshly smear the name of Jeff Smith, who is obviously working hard to be heard. The effort, money, resources, and manpower that go into a corrupt, graft-driven smear campaign is daunting. Good thing stuff like that never happens today. We’ve boated swiftly past all that.
But it’s nether the corny highs, nor the cynical lows that “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is interested in. It’s the ambivalent ideals that were written about 219 years ago. It’s a film that shows that the American system can support corruption and cynicism, and often does; that some people are so blinded by glittering idols that they often can’t see said corruption; that the daily grind and hard work can shape even the staunchest senator into a state of logy and indifferent complacency; but, in the end, the founding philosophies of the Constitution will still be here to support us. Occasionally, we just need a true believer like Jefferson Smith to give us a reminder of what we’re all here for.
A senator is dead, and the governor of the state, Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibbee), must select a new one to replace him. Happy is an oblivious, perpetually stressed out jellyfish who is deep in the pocket of Jim Taylor. Taylor, along with the state’s other senator Paine, wants him to appoint a stooge or proxy of some kind who will roll over on command. Taylor and Paine have a nasty idea about a dam that will not benefit any of the people of the state, it may even ruin the land and drive people out of their homes, but will create plenty revenue for Taylor’s unnamed company. Happy announces this, and the reporters in the room beat him down, knowing exactly what’s going on. Eventually, Happy’s kids, arguing like nascent politicians, recommend the head of the state’s Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith, a swell fellow who teaches boys’ band, goes on hikes, and, gee whiz, is totally more swell than Daniel Boone, even. Happy, with the careful approval of Taylor and Paine, recommends this Jeff Smith.
We first see Smith’s face at a gala banquet, announcing his selection. He is quiet and shy, and seems embarrassed to be there. When he stands, he looks so tall and frail that a sneeze would knock him back. He has a fresh, genuinely innocent look on his face, and he readily admits that he knows nothing about politics (“I can’t help feeling that there’s been some kind of mistake.”). A no-nothing Boy Ranger is perfect in the eyes of the people, and certainly wouldn’t be in office long enough and wouldn’t have the political savvy to question the complications of a bill for graft.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington…
When he arrives, he wanders out into the city, and sightsees. He is full of inspiration through the corny montages, but everyone who is expecting him begins to panic.
It’s here that we meet Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s appointed secretary. Her life has been run ragged. She’s lives in the brink of quitting her job, and has the option she doesn’t want of marrying a DC reporter named Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell). She, more than any other character, sees the corruption all around her, and is the most bored and worn out by it. She knows how to play the system, and, for a woman in 1939, has made her way to one of the higher echelons in government: secretary to a senator. But she doesn’t really care anymore.
In a way, it’s the character of Saunders that shows the first appearances of a serious feminist issue in film: the glass ceiling. Saunders has reached the top of a woman’s game, and she’s still a secretary. She knows what to do for money, and has probably done it (“When I first came here, my eyes were big blue stars. Now they’re big green dollar marks.”). She knows all the rules, knows exactly what graft-riddled shenanigans the senators are up to, and would be bitter that she’s not part of the game, were she not bored to cynical tears by the whole mess. She looks up through the glass ceiling, sighs heavily, and gets back to work.
But, despite being constantly put upon, she doesn’t come across as 100% defeated. She’s in a rut, but not destroyed. So when Jeff Smith peeks into his office, and starts making speeches about how the very sights of the capitol dome should inspire people to fight for their own liberty, we can believe that she can be revived. And she is. And Jean Arthur plays her quick-thinking heroine to perfection.
Jean Arthur is given billing above James Stewart in this film, and it’s her performance that gives the film most of its heft. Stewart is terrific, of course; he’s a terrific and iconic actor (more on him in a moment). But if he didn’t have a strong balance, a foil he can influence, and be guided by in return, he would come across less as an idealist, and more s a boob.
Jeff Smith talks about the halcyon days of his boyhood with Sen. Paine. It turns out that Paine and Smith’s father were good friends. They even, back in the day, influenced one another to be better Americans. Lost causes, Smith Sr. once said, are the only ones worth fighting for. Paine became a senator on those words. Ad now feels a connection with his lost youth looking at young Jeff.
Claude Rains was a rather ubiquitous film actor in the ‘30s and ‘40s, often appeared on television in the ‘50s, and has appeared in classics such as “The Invisible Man,” “Casablanca,” “Now, Voyager,” “The Wolf Man,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” and he played the wicked Prince John in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” I’m always pleased to see him in a film. He possesses the same British actor’s work ethic one sees all the time in that country: he gives himself to each role completely, while adding his own dry sense of fun even to the heaviest roles.
Senator Paine is a man, like Saunders, who has been beaten down by the system. But, unlike Saunders, he’s not so ready to believe again. With Taylor breathing down his neck like a particularly puffy and greasy Donald Rumsfeld, his willingness to stand up for what’s right is practically non-existent.
But he’s not a villain. He knows what he is doing is wrong. He has family connections to young Smith, and actually likes the man. He even says so. He looks on his own situation with pity. He wants to do the right thing, but cannot due to his personal weakness (He says “I will take no part in crucifying this boy.” And later ends up being the one to put in the last nail). In other words, he’s a perfect tragic character, played by an actor capable of making him well-rounded.
Smith sits in the senate for the first time, and is nervous and excited about finally taking part in the system he’s learned so much about. He gets to meet Paine’s daughter, the pretty crush-worthy babe Susan (Astrid Allwyn)(I liked the scene where Jeff first talks to Susan, and the camera focuses not on the character’s faces, but on the hat that Smith fidgets with and drops several times).
Smith goes to press meetings, and doesn’t know any better than to not tell the whole truth, or to make goofy-looking birdcalls for the photographers. Of course the articles are written way out of context, and gleefully mock the young man as a green neophyte. Then there’s an amusing montage of Smith charging about Washington, punching out every and all reporters that get in his way. Eventually he is cornered in the local dive bar where the reporters all support their own alcoholism and told, rather gracelessly by Diz, that he is indeed a patsy.
This confrontation inspires him to ask Paine for help. Paine, thinking it will keep him busy, tell Smith to work on that bill he mentioned earlier… what was it… a National Boy’s Camp? Write that. He is enthused by the suggestion, and gets to work right away. Saunders carefully lays out how difficult it is to get a bill passed these days, and implies that even writing a bill is more work than its worth. Smith is not deterred, and asks that they stay up all night drafting this thing.
It’s at this point that Smith gives the speech that lets us know once and for all how much he believes in America. The speech is beautifully written, and we also see that Saunders is softening to him. She is either falling in love with this boy, or is being refilled with the idealism that first brought her here. It turns out later that it’s a little of both.
That speech: “You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading “Land of the Free” in books. Then they get to be men, and they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free. To think and speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”
If that speech doesn’t make you want to, at least for a moment, learn a little more about America, I don’t know what will.
Smith’s bill, though, mentions the very same place, Willet Creek (quaintly pronounced “crick”), that Taylor wants to build his dam. Taylor, and by extension Paine, now much make sure that this idealists bill doesn’t come to pass, and that the idealist isn’t around to see it shot down. Saunders knows what’s going on, and goes out to drink. She even kind of agrees to finally marry Diz (marriage being the only option for a woman to escape in those days). Smith is held out of the senate on the day in question by the on-demand wiles of Susan Paine. Smith, without knowing it, is going down.
Saunders and Smith meet up in his office, and she finally, drunkenly, reveals the scheme for the Willet Creek dam. Smith is crushed. When he decides to come clean about it in the senate, Paine starts the ball rolling on a manufactured scandal. Smith, he says, owns the land around Willet Creek, and would be using the “payments” for his proposed camp to line his own pockets. There are hearings and forgeries. Smith has no defense, and ends up just leaving.
Saunders confronts Paine, and Paine weakly admits that his hands are tied. She ends up finding Smith, sulking on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. She, now inspired by his own sense of decency, thrusts it back at him. She has been changed, and knows that together she and Smith can possibly take on the tired old machine of corruption in this town, all while playing by the rules.
Their scheme is an extended climax in which Smith, not yet booted from the senate, holds the floor, and uses his words to convince the rest of the senate that the corruption does not need to be given into. The filibuster is a grand right written into the Constitution, and, darn it, Smith is using it in its most dramatic form.
“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”
While he talks, he hopes that the support of his home state will come flooding into the room, but Taylor, Hearst that he is, halts the tide of news. All support for Smith is silenced. There’s even a scene of a guy in a suit and fedora knocking over a Boy Scout and taking away a pile of his home-printed newspapers. The boys work tirelessly. Taylor works tirelessly. Eventually, Paine himself brings in baskets of letters, demanding that Smith stop speaking. They are all fabricated letters, and Paine is now willfully and intentionally destroying smith right to his face.
Smith passes out. His cause is lost. Saunders weeps. The president of the senate (an amused Harry Carey, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in this film), with his supportive grins and snickers, wishes thins were different.
But then Paine charges in and finally breaks down. He admits it. His conscience finally comes to the surface. Smith’s fighting was not in vain. Perhaps things can change.
Jefferson Smith is not only the conscience of the film, but reveals a very important lesson about coming of age. One may have to stare evil in the eye, one may have to lose innocence, one will have to give up their naïveté, but one does not have to lose every bit of their ideals in order to grow up. Jefferson Smith, rather than going home defeated, ideals crush by a system that is obviously corrupt and too powerful to defeat, bravely (not foolishly) stands up. Coming of age is not a cynical giving up of anything vaguely positive as some films would have us believe. Coming of age is deciding what is worth believing in, and coming to learn why you believe it. Learning about yourself, and figuring out what it is you will fight for.
Smith is not an innocent child who learns to be a jaded adult like the other adults around him. He learns to be a mature hero. He sees what is worth fighting for, and he fights for it. At the film’s outset, he’s not much of a fighter; he is nervous and quiet. He’s an idealist who loves America and its ideals, but probably hasn’t thought too much about the full glorious practical applications of the Constitution. He doesn’t merely become an adult, he becomes a good person.
Saunders loves Smith. She never says it, though, but writes it in a note. She never shows any kind of romantic interest in Smith, and their time together is about exchanging ideas, working together, being a team. I am very pleased with this non-romantic romance. Most films to feature a romance, and all romantic comedies of the time, show a Shakespearian RomCom version of romance: the characters will inevitably end up together for the sake of the story. They fall in love as a plot device, not due to romance. We, the audience, all know that they hero and heroine will end up together, and we wait for the complications to die down (see my essay on “Swing Time” for more on this.
Smith and Saunders never have any mushy moments. There’s too much at stake, both for the characters and for the audience, for us to stop and have some lovely words. The loving words would have felt cheap and would have slowed the film to a maddening pace (and if there are ay critical quibbles to be had with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” they’re all about how 130 minutes may be a bit too much).
Saunders is a working woman, and doesn’t have time to be the swoony dame. Smith is too focused on his tasks and defense to think about love. Yet we feel o.k. that they’ve fallen in love. He inspired her, and she, newly-inspired, inspired him back. It’s a gorgeous relationship that Arthur and Stewart give a real chemistry.
Director Frank Capra directed 53 films in his days. He’s covered diverse subjects that range from Sangri-La to the Depression. His films have all differed in intensity and style (some are even triflish).
But he is most remembered for his work on films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Along with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “It Happened One Night,” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” he’s created a reputation for small-bodied idealists coming to learn to be heroes, even if it’s on a small scale.
Idealists taking on the Big Guy, and often succeeding.
He takes ideals and squeezes out all of the irony. He makes idealism look like the first step in triumph over evil, and turns it into simple human goodness. He knows how to deal with pain and defeat and cynicism (the goodness/idealism would sound hollow without this skill), but it’s the sheer optimism that always wins out.
Most Capra films will leave you with a quiet sense of triumph.
Capra’s own life sounds like the subject of a film: Born in Sicily, he moved to America as a teenager, and studied engineering at what would become CalTech. He gave up engineering when he discovered the poetry of Montaigne, and began writing, but had to return to Italy when his father died to take over the business. He was drafted to fight in World War I, but caught the Spanish flu, and was sent home. To make money, he decided to attend a cattle call for one of John Ford’s movies, which led to odd jobs on the Columbia lot, which led to carpentry work on a film, which led to his instant love of film. He eventually started making his own silent shorts. The rest, as they say, is history. He died in 1991.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was released in 1939, often cited as one of the most significant years in film history, also being home to “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Rules of the Game” et al.
See the film, or see it again. Experience the freshness of the politics. Know that the past was not a halcyon time of peace and prosperity, but a cynical, ambivalent time just like today. There was still greed, graft, and corruption. And there was still the occasional hero. And know that the country we have set up for ourselves is still based on a little bit of everyday human kindness and a philosophy that’s still vibrant and vital.