MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON – FRANK CAPRA
With the possible exception of some echoes in the somewhat anomalous and slightly pessimistic Meet John Doe (Warner Bros., 1941), Capra ended this series of comic Columbia successes with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). This picture, perhaps even more than its clear cinematic predecessor Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), demonstrates the wonderful mixture of entertainment, social consciousness, idealism, and corruption which was the earmark of these movies. Thus, even without his talented previous script collaborator, Robert Riskin, Capra was able to re-create that delicate balance between pleasure and instruction so evident in the movie’s plot.
The movie’s story is fairly simple but is open enough to contain both sentiment and pathos. Following the unexpected death of his unnamed state’s senator, Mr. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed by the corrupt organization of Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) to fill the remainder of the dead senator’s term in office. Taylor chooses him because he believes that Smith’s naiveté (his only other leadership position was as head of the “rangers,” or boy scouts) will allow the unimpeded passage of a pork barrel land bill. At first Taylor seems correct: Smith amuses the Washington sophisticates and reporters with his country manners and his well-honed duck call. However, with the typical serendipity of the local yokel, Smith proposes a national boys’ camp exactly on the site of Taylor’s pork barrel land deal. Now he must be dealt with.
Taylor turns to his minion, Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) from Smith’s own state, and sets about to discredit Smith’s proposal by falsifying documents to show that the camp is Smith’s own pork barrel. With Boss Taylor controlling radio and newspaper, except for the Rangers’ boyish publication, things look bleak for Smith. Following his secretary Saunders’ (Jean Arthur) directions, Smith attempts to triumph over political adversity with a one-man, twenty-three-hour filibuster. As Smith collapses in exhaustion at the end of his heroic effort, Senator Paine, in a fit of remorse, admits his complicity and exonerates Smith and the American Way.