Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

AFI Rank: #29
Year Released: 1939
Director: Frank Capra
Actors: James Stewart, Jean Arthur


NOTE: The plot of this movie is fairly simplistic, so my review is going to include the plot in order to comment on the movie. If you haven't seen the movie and want to enjoy it completely spoiler-free, I advise watching it before reading any reviews, including this one! Most reviews of this movie explore at least a portion of the plot.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is clearly a bit apple-pie heavy, but it's still a fascinating voyage. James Stewart is an extremely naive leader of what in essence is the boy scouts in a state much like Texas. The movie is careful never to name the state, the organizations, or even the parties present so that the movie can transcend those details and apply in all places and times. A corrupt political group in his state draw him into their web when they need a patsy to replace their dead senator compatriot. Their hope is that James will be so starry-eyed at Washington that he'll just nod and agree with whatever the lead senator, Paine, does.

The viewer gets a virtual tour of the highlights of DC - the Lincoln Monument, Washington Monument, and more. James treasures these symbols of democracy. His battle-weary secretary, played by Jean Arthur, is far less impressed with her new charge. She has no interest in babysitting a child.

There are some nice touches, such as when James realizes the desk he's seated at was used by Daniel Webster. It is impressive to realize how much history is embedded in all these locations. And indeed at first he's quite happy just to follow Paine's lead. That is, until he gets ridiculed by the local press for being a do-nothing seat warmer. He realizes that this is in fact true, and that he's ashamed of it. He tries to get more involved in the process. To distract him, Paine encourages James to work on a bill to help out children. But James ends up discovering the dirty dealings instead, and rises up against it.

What follows is an interesting look into some of the rules of political proceeding, how rules can be twisted, bent, and used for intriguing purposes. Jean gets drawn into the cause and ends up helping James. James launches into a 23 hour filibuster in hopes of news of his situation getting to supporters in his home state. There are both good and corrupt politicians in the mix, but even the good ones are caught up in believing the lies and disdaining the wet-behind-the-ears interloper who is causing so much grief.

Yes, it seems unlikely that within a matter of days that a brand new senator can uncover a dense plot, dig out the ringleaders, and then figure out a way to stop it. But many other movies have equally unlikely premises, like Rocky being chosen to fight a national bout and aliens descending on the US. Often we enjoy watching movies about unlikely situations, to see how they will go.

Here are my real issues:

I was upset that James went around physically assaulting multiple people in his anger about bad press - and nobody cares! He's literally punching people in the face and because he's a senator it's not supposed to matter. I would have liked to see him treated like any other assaulter, to learn a lesson.

I was more disappointed to research how filibusters work and find that it seems like the whole situation would be completely impossible. It seems that at this time a filibuster in the Senate could easily be ended if 60 senators vote for it. Since at that point the entire senate had been convinced of James' unethical behavior and wanted to get rid of him, why didn't they just vote for him to stop talking? Also, I'm pretty sure no bathroom breaks are allowed - could James really have lasted 23 hours?

Large numbers of boys were being harmed in his home state - including being run off the road! Surely someone got photos of these incidents and could send them to Washington as proof of the dirty dealing? It seems unreasonable that all of that went on and nobody cared.

I was let down by the ending. James went through all of his effort and then is deluged with enemy-sponsored telegrams trashing him. He gives up and collapses. Only then does the Deux Ex Machina appear like a bolt of lightening, with Paine revealing all. And then BOOM the movie is over. Surely it could have been more natural with the boys somehow proving the truth of James' claims, or the time James bought allowing some other research to come to light? It almost feels as if all of James' efforts meant little.

So yes, I do think it's well worth seeing, and it is great to get views of Washington DC. I enjoyed the way the characters grew and changed during the movie. But I wish they'd taken more care with the details, so I didn't keep feel twinges during the movie.

Finally, Jean is a great strong female character. It's always nice to have that in a movie. Even so, the Bechdel test still fails. She only talks to another woman once - and that's the seductive woman trying to distract James from his task at hand. And they only talk about James. With all the men everywhere, it's a great shame that we see the only place appropriate for a woman is as a secretary - and even then she's praised for "doing well **for a woman**". I suppose I should be grateful that in 1939 they even allowed a female inside the Capitol building, but still, it is a bit depressing.

Still, with all of that being said, it's well watching Mr. Smith to get an understanding of a classic that many other films reference.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100