AFInity: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
By Kim Hollis
July 31, 2009

That Washington, D.C. news sure is sexy!

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

James Stewart has more movies on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list than any other actor. Yet, despite thinking that he's one of the finest actors ever, I've only seen three of the five that appear on the list. I'd been a little wary of watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington since Frank Capra directed, as I've found some of his work to be annoyingly saccharine. Given that the film is a political drama that takes place primarily on the floor of the Senate, I was dreading it a little bit. I mean, there's a reason I don't watch C-SPAN. Still, it's regarded as one of Stewart's finest performances and has been the subject of parody on my beloved Simpsons not once, but twice. It clearly has a solid place in movie history, but does it really live up to the hype?

In fact, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rather impressively feels topical even today, 70 years after it first appeared in theaters. Better yet, it's compelling viewing, with fine performances, an upbeat (though deeply cynical) story, exceptional dialogue, and laughs that are timed in all the right places. The movie isn't a comedy, but Capra is wise enough never to let it take itself too seriously, which allows some necessary levity in a story that could easily lead to real disillusionment if pondered too intensely.

The story is simple enough, really. After a senator (from an unnamed state) dies, the governor must pick his replacement. Wavering between selecting the candidate supported by a corrupt media mogul and the one chosen by some populist committees, Governor Happy Hopper instead ponders the advice of his sons, who suggest Jefferson Smith (Stewart), the head of the Boy Rangers and an all-around wholesome fellow. Ultimately, the governor flips a coin to decide between the mogul's candidate and the committee candidate, but it lands on its side – right next to a newspaper featuring a story on Smith. Seeing this as some kind of sign, Governor Hopper chooses Smith, and is able to sell him to the shady mogul Jim Taylor as someone who'd be easy to manipulate in Washington, D.C.

To that end, Smith's sponsor in the Senate is the other senator from their state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Paine had been friends with Smith's father all the way up to his death, and speaks to the naïve young man about how impressed he was that the senior Smith took on the most difficult and impossible causes. His words belie his true intentions, though. Paine is beholden to Taylor for his own position as well as any future political aspirations, which include a run to the White House.

Jeff's genuineness and integrity only become a problem for Taylor, Paine and their ilk when the Boy Rangers leader drafts a bill for the creation of a boys' camp in his home state. The problem is, the proposed location for this campsite happens to be in the same spot that is part of a dam that is to be built as a part of a Public Works bill designed specifically to provide graft to Taylor and his cronies. Naturally, they have to find a way to discredit the person who would oppose them, which provides the source of the movie's conflict.

It's fascinating how easy it is to find corollaries to some of these characters in modern politics and media. Though it admittedly feels unlikely that someone as green and innocent as Jeff Smith could ever find his way into Washington, D.C. politics, it's nice to imagine that something so refreshing could happen in this day and age.

It would make all the difference in the world if such a person were as likeable and well-intended as Jefferson Smith. These qualities shine through thanks to the delightful performance from Stewart. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came early on in Stewart's career, and it's difficult not to marvel at how young he appears. His "aw, shucks" attitude is ideally suited to the role of Jeff Smith, and we suffer with him as disillusion sets in as much as we rejoice when he celebrates his victories, both small and large. Stewart was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and although he lost to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, he did win the following year for The Philadelphia Story. Film historians suggest that a cumulative effect for such excellent work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington played heavily into the win.

Although Stewart is at center stage, a remarkable supporting cast backs him up. I found myself absolutely enchanted by Jean Arthur, who plays Clarissa Saunders, an aide who is put in place by the Taylor machine. She finds herself undeniably charmed by Jeff, which leads her to help him with his quixotic quests. Arthur plays the character as whip-smart, sassy, and sharp, but there's also something just perfectly adorable about her. Even though there's an intimation at one point that it's amazing that she can do all the things she can do – considering she's a woman, and all – she comes across as confident, capable and the kind of person you'd want on your side. If you want proof, check out this clip.

Claude Rains has the supporting role of Senator Joseph Paine, and I found myself really digging his nuanced take on the character. Of course, it's not the only time he would play a person with so many shades of grey – his portrayal of Captain Renault in Casablanca is one of my very favorite performances in a film ever, and it's because Rains never takes the easy approach. We can always tell there's more to Senator Paine than simple corruption and greed. This is a man who is struggling with his decisions and the direction his political career has taken, even as he feels compelled to cooperate with the machine that helped to put him into place. He hates what he has become but cannot escape it.

I might have been most surprised, though, by how much I enjoyed Harry Carey as the President of the Senate. He doesn't have a huge role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he makes the most of the time he has onscreen. Initially, the viewer might believe that he's a crotchety old guy, but as the movie progresses, we see him awash in admiration for the young idealist Jeff Smith. I loved watching him every time he smiled in a combination of delight and consternation.

While it sounds like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could almost be a fluffy, lightweight film, there lurks beneath it a darkness and dissatisfaction with the way the political world operates. Although we're obviously meant to be on the side of the angels (Smith and Saunders), there's a feeling of inevitability with regard to the Jim Taylors of the world. Even as one is taken down, five more will pop up in his place. We see how easily the public can be misled, and it can come to a point where it's hard to know who or what to believe. Saunders is a perfect vehicle for this cynicism – we see politics through her viewpoint, to a large degree. She's so weary of it all that she wants to quit, and it takes something entirely fresh and unique to remind her of the possibilities that exist when a man really exists to serve his constituency. Considering the subtlety of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I'm actually finding myself looking forward to watching Capra's It's a Wonderful Life through new eyes during the holiday season.

As far as its place on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list goes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an entirely deserving entry. It's a film that feels singularly American, focusing on the ways that one individual can make a difference even as corruption and greed dominate. It paved the way for movies with similar themes, from All the President's Men to Silkwood, The Insider to Erin Brockovich. It established Jimmy Stewart, one of our greatest actors, as a force to be reckoned with. It is timeless and still maintains relevance in 2009. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the kind of movie the 100 Years... 100 Movies list was made for.

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