Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

I wanted to get an older movie watched again in the ongoing DailyView. I have been doing several movies of the last three decades or so, but it was time to head back in time once again… this time to a movie that holds a surprising amount of relevance in today’s world, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The Frank Capra classic starring James Stewart as Mr. Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers, was appointed by a crooked governor to replace a senator who had died. Smith, honest and true, if not quite a bit naïve, admired his state’s other senator, Senator Paine (Claude Raines), who knew his father, a former senator too. Smith arrived in Washington with his eyes filled with patriotism, fawning over the monuments and statues, unable to see the nefarious actions of those around him.

Senator Paine was involved with Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a businessman from his state, to push through a bill to build a dam that would provide Taylor with more money. In fact, Taylor is shown as a political influencer, manipulation the press and controlling what many senators would do.

When Smith discovered the truth, he was preparing to reveal it to the Senate when Paine, backed by Taylor, framed him for a crime.

Jean Arthur played the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary. She does a great job in the film as a disillusioned cog in the wheel of Democracy who slowly becomes inspired by the actions and words of Jeff Smith.

Smith engaged in a filibuster to get his message out, showing a whole different world than today’s Senate. At this time, the filibuster meant that the senator performing the filibuster had to stand and continue to speak on the Senate floor. If he would have yielded his time, the filibuster would have ended. That is perhaps the way the filibuster should return to in today’s divisive political landscape.

It is a powerful film showing how easily it is for senators to slip under the control of other forces and how that can limit the work of the lawmakers. Even at this point, the Congress had a feel of corruption, a group of men (all men at this point) who had their own concerns and were only worried about being reelected. Sadly, it feels as if this is still a major problem in the Senate today.

It was funny. At one point, Saunders mentioned that there were 96 senators, and I thought to myself, what about the other four? I had not realized till a few minutes later that this movie came out prior to the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states, and the 96 senators would have been the proper number.

James Stewart is great in his role, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actor. He was a perfect star to portray the honesty and naivety of Senator Jeff Smith. His wide eyes told the audience how important this was to Smith and gave the people the hope that this institution could give it its best.

If only there was a Jefferson Smith in the Senate today.

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