One thing I have learned to avoid in a public setting is politics. Those who know me best are aware of what I believe. Anything that you might glean from my reviews would be mere speculation. Until I tell you directly, whoever you are, what my stances are, you will not have the whole truth. As a practicing Catholic, there are tenets of the Church to which I adhere that have been politicized. I blame this more on the political parties in this country than Catholicism. There was also a time in this country when Catholics were solidly democrat. These days more of them vote republican. I prefer following my God given conscience, and that is the theme of today’s film, number twenty-six on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
You will note that the title is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not that he is elected. Allow me to explain why this is noteworthy. Senator Sam Foley (not pictured), from an unnamed state, dies in office in the middle of his term. This means that Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibbee) has to name a replacement. It is not an enviable task. The reformers want their candidate, while newspaper man and machine politics boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) has his preferred selection. Jim, confident of the sway he has over the governor, is sure that he will be listened to on this matter. Yet, unable to decide between the two, the governor’s children put forward choice: Jefferson “Jeff” Smith (James Stewart). He is a hero to young people in the state, having started a group known as the “Boy Rangers.” Think Boy Scouts of America, and you have the idea. Jeff is a complete unknown, but Governor Hopper sees this as an advantage. He gets Jim to go along with this selection because they think they can keep Jeff in line. When he is introduced to the public, his unassuming, shy nature wins him some initial praise. With this, he does as the title suggests, naïve but full of democratic and patriotic ideals. He then promptly gets lost in our nation’s capital as the worried staff search for the junior senator all over the city. He is fine, he just wanted to take in all the sights about which he had adoringly read. Once he gets to the office, though, it is to the relief of his secretary, the long-time jaded Washington worker Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). Feeling that she has been had one too many times, she resolves to quit her post, but is convinced to stay by the senior senator from Jeff’s state, Senator Joseph Harrison “Joe” Paine (Claude Rains). Jeff idolizes Joe, who had been close friends with Jeff’s father. To this end, Jeff pledges to throw himself into the work of being a legislator. This gets off to a rough start as the press come to his office and make a fool of him. He does not find this out until after he has been sworn in to the upper chamber of our Congress, his perceived buffoonery being brought up during the process. In response, Jeff marches out of the chamber and proceeds to punch in the face every reporter he recognizes from earlier. Undeterred, he wants more than ever to do something to help. Joe suggests that Jeff try to get his idea for a bill passed, one that would create a summer camp for city youth to spend in the country. With this in mind, he sits down with a weary Clarissa and drafts the legislation in one night. He perseveres despite her warning of the well-worn pitfalls that usually defeat such measures. The next day, in a shaky voice, he presents his bill to the full senate. There is one major problem. The land that Jeff has earmarked for the proposed camp is along a creek where Jim and his interests desire to have a dam built. This information is being kept from Jeff by Joe, who arranges to have his daughter show Jeff around town on the day that this little fact would be brought to light in committee. Joe does this because he is in Jim’s pocket, but, for the moment, wants to keep up appearances with Jeff. Clarissa learns of this and is displeased for two reasons. First, Jeff going out with another woman says that he is not interested in her, and he had reawakened feelings in her she thought long dead. In other words, she is falling for him. She also knows that the powers that be in Washington will align themselves against Jeff to defeat his camp, which is the second reason. She cannot take any of this and decides to leave the city. Joe is beginning to sour on the situation, too, but Jim comes to town and reminds the senior senator where his loyalties lay. Jim tries to intimidate Jeff as well, but, predictably, the young man will not be cowed. Thus, when the senate next convenes, Jeff is about to speak out against Jim when Joe steps in and accuses Jeff of acting in his own self-interest. Joe presents falsified and forged evidence that Jeff had bought the land in question before becoming a senator, and thus is putting forward this measure to enrich himself. Jim also pays off a number of witnesses to corroborate this story. Seeing himself defeated, Jeff makes one last visit to the Lincoln Memorial where Clarissa finds him. She encourages him not to give up. The following day, with her help, on the brink of being thrown out of office, Jeff maneuvers himself into a filibuster to try and prove his innocence. It captures the nation’s attention, though Jim makes sure that not a word of it reaches his home state. Jeff is about to keep it going for nearly twenty-four hours, and begins to earn the grudging respect of some of his colleagues. However, towards the end of this period, Joe brings in over fifty-thousand telegrams supposedly from people back home, urging Jeff to stop. He vows to keep going before he faints from exhaustion. This is what finally brings Joe to his senses. Having been prevented from committing suicide, Joe re-enters the chamber and affirms everything Jeff has said. This is where the movie comes to a dramatic end.
Interestingly, at the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s opening credits, there is a disclaimer about the events contained therein being fictional, and that any likeness to real ones is purely coincidental. You do not see such legalese much in early films, though it is almost a matter of course in modern ones. I am not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it speaks to Hollywood wanting to expose a dirty truth about politics, but being able to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability. The truth that this Catholic sees in the film is almost entirely embodied in the character of Jefferson Smith. One of the best things about him is how he sees himself as the champion of lost causes. Like Christ on the way to Calvary, Jeff takes to the senate floor knowing that he is going to be reviled despite being wholly innocent of that which he is accused. To the outsider, such acts of martyrdom are seen as a lost cause. Thankfully, God looks at them differently. And this is not just this crazy Catholic reviewer going out on a thin Christian limb. As a part of Jeff’s filibuster, he reads from 1 Corinthians 13:13. Many texts render it as, “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Jeff gives the translation that the Church accepts today, replacing “love” with “charity.” This has been done in recent years with the Mass, too. Not to get too far afield here, but this has to do with the Greeks having three different words for “love,” and “charity” being closest to the original intent. Either way, charity is a loving act. It means a selfless giving of oneself, a principle by which Jeff is willing to live and die. This should be admired, and it has its roots in Christianity.
If only all our politicians were like Jeff in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Again, this is not meant to be an indication of any political stance. Instead, I hope it relates more to what I think of the quality of this film. It is one that, as I understand it, used to be widely shown in civics classes. I suspect these days kids would find it too boring. That is a great shame. Hopefully this recommendation will lead to a renaissance for this movie.