#32 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year
Sometimes, because of something that’s happening in the world at large or inside your own four walls, you’re especially open to a particular message. You’re a student, waiting for your teacher to appear. If this message comes in the form of a well-crafted film, it can alter the way you see the world or yourself. The film—or novel—can become part of your own life’s story.
The best art becomes part of our very DNA.
And sometimes, your heart is so stone cold on an issue that not even one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time can pierce through.
Such was my unfortunate, unsatisfying experience with Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
When a United States senator dies suddenly, the state’s governor appoints Jefferson Smith to serve out the remainder of the term. Jefferson Smith is no politician. He’s basically a Boy Scout Troop leader, bursting with honesty and pure patriotism.
He comes to Washington with an earnest desire to do good and completely naive to the inner workings of the federal government. When he tries to pass a bill to build a boy’s camp, he inadvertently jeopardizes the underhanded scheme of Senator Paine and a political boss. The two have conspired to secretly buy up land and then sell it at a premium when they pass a bill to build a dam on the property.
This property, of course, is where Jeff Smith wishes to build his boy’s camp.
Jeff Smith has his illusions destroyed as he uncovers the plot. Senator Paine and others work to undermine Jeff at every turn, first manipulating him, then intimidating him, and finally framing him for the crime of buying the land.
Jeff refuses to give up, and the film ends with Jeff’s magnificent filibuster on the floor of the senate, where he vows to keep on fighting for justice and American values no matter what the corrupt elites do to stop him.
He ultimately passes out on the senate floor from exhaustion, and in an attack of conscience, Senator Paine admits the truth of his guilt—and Jeff’s innocence—in the scheme.
It is the triumph of idealism over cynicism, which is usually just the kind of story I love.
But a week away from the most contentious presidential election in my lifetime, poor Mr. Smith just didn’t land for me.
You too probably have strong feelings about the upcoming election, regardless of your political party. Depending on who you support, you may be feeling pessimism, optimism, despair, or hope.
But red, blue, or independent, I can’t believe anyone is feeling idealistic about American politics at this moment in our history.
For better or worse, the polite masks have been ripped away to reveal the raw power struggle that drives the bloodsport of national elections.
In this light, Mr. Smith looks hopelessly naive. The film’s corrupt act of buying up land to sell at a premium wouldn’t even make today’s newspaper, much less the front page.
The delight of watching so many classic films has been how fresh and relevant they feel.
But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is eighty-one years old, and feels even older. It speaks of an idealism that was possible before Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11.
Director Frank Capra himself became disillusioned after World War II, and his later films took on a darker tone.
But if I cut away the personal baggage brought to watching this film in 2020, it is easy to see why Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is beloved. It is a treasure, and was one of the first films chosen by the National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.
First off, you have James Stewart, one the greatest and most beloved characters of all time in the title role. This is the movie that rightfully made Stewart a star. He plays Jeff with a wide-eyed wonder that never fully dims despite discovering that his hero Senator Paine is rotten and weak.
But it’s Clarissa Saunders, played wonderfully by Jean Arthur, who is really at the heart of the film. Saunders is Jeff’s world weary secretary, who knows how Washington really works and is disgusted by it all. She at first thinks Jeff’s innocence is an act, then dismisses him as a hopeless rube.
Almost against her will, she teaches Jeff the ropes and tries to protect his innocence. In one of the film’s best scenes, she explains the arduous process it takes to actually write a bill and pass a law. As the film goes on, his idealism melts her cold heart, and in the final act she has become a true believer. Her understanding of the rules—both written and unwritten—of the senate are the key to Jeff’s successful filibuster.
It is Saunders, more so than Jeff, who is the stand-in for the audience. She has the most satisfying story arc—a cynic finding her idealism, so much so that she convinces Jeff to keep fighting for his “lost cause” when he considers quitting in a moment of weakness.
So maybe I—maybe we—should all take heart that if even cynical Saunders can rediscover her idealism in the heart of an honest politician, maybe we can do the same.
If we can find one.