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