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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - an Apparently Timeless Story

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

2 hrs. 9 mins Comedy, Drama 1939 8.1 stars

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: James Stewart - Jefferson Smith

Jean Arthur - Clarissa Saunders

Claude Rains - Senator Joseph Paine

Edward Arnold - Jim Taylor

Guy Kibbe - Governor “Happy” Hubert Hopper

Thomas Mitchell - Diz Moore

Eugene Pallette - Chick McGann

Beulah Bondi - Ma Smith

Harry Carey - President of the Senate

Astrid Allwyn - Susan Paine

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Jean Arthur (seted next to Thomas Mitchell) helping the cause from the Senate Gallery

Jean Arthur (seted next to Thomas Mitchell) helping the cause from the Senate Gallery

Synopsis Part I

The movie begins with a crisis; a federal senator has died. It is the governor’s duty to name a replacement, but in this state the governor and every other leader is heavily influenced by a powerful businessman who runs all the newspapers and radio stations. That businessman is Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold) and that governor is Governor Hopper, known as Happy Hubert Hopper (played by Guy Kibbe). Although Governor Hopper ordinarily goes along with any recommendation given to him by Taylor he has reservations about the candidate which Taylor has put forth this time. The reason he has these reservations about the suggested replacement is because the people in the state overwhelmingly do not like this choice!

In the governor’s mansion at the family dinner table his kids suggest a man by the name of Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) to fill the vacancy. Smith is an outdoorsman who has taken an interest in working with boys and has created a ranger type club, in which the governor’s own boys are quite active. He is somewhat of a hero in that state. Taylor accepts this choice reluctantly, but does so because Smith is popular with the people and because he is not politically connected at all. Taylor plans to just have him fill that vacant seat until Election Day rolls around. Taylor, along with others in that state, has a scheme cooking to get rich. One of the participants in this scheme is the senior senator, Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains) – the scheme involves buying land at Willet Creek and erecting a dam.

After the governor formally appoints Smith a dinner is held in his honor. Smith who is not a public speaker nervously stands at the podium to give a speech. He heavily compliments Senator Paine who he reveals was his late father’s best friend and who has subsequently been his idol. Senator Paine is surprised, not realizing exactly who Smith is, but delighted.

On the train ride to Washington, Senator Paine relives his days as the best friend of Smith’s father and says that the elder Smith, a newspaper man, fought for truth and justice against all odds and obstacles and was known for defending lost causes.

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After arriving in Washington, Smith is spellbound by al the famous sights around him. He wanders off away from his handlers and has several hours of sightseeing, alone. Eventually he returns to his office and begins to set up. He meets his secretary, Saunders (played by Jean Arthur) and he meets Diz, a journalist and friend of Saunders (played by Thomas Mitchell).

Smith confides in Saunders a desire as senator to pass an [appropriations] bill to purchase land and place a boys’ camp on it.

Smith has a night out on the town and a number of photographers take pictures of him in bad circumstances or at a strange angles then add captions in the morning paper that make the new senator seem bizarre or absurd. Smith goes right away to find the various photographers and journalists to confront them. He punches a good many of them. Yet as the reporters continue to lambast him accusing him of simply being a stooge he begins to believe them and ere long he sees himself that way, as a stooge.

President of the Senate Enjoying the Filibuster

Harry Carey is amused by the filibuster

Harry Carey is amused by the filibuster

Synopsis Part II

Back at his office he decides he’s going to write a bill, one that would enable his dream of a boys’ camp to be realized. Saunders explains to him, and by extension to us as well, what the various steps are in getting a bill passed. It’s a very lengthy process.

Smith, undeterred, begins immediately. Hours elapse and it’s late. Smith begins to tell Saunders about a philosophy his father lived by, “Always try to see life around you as if you’d just come out of a tunnel”. Smith’s talk is dreamy, ideal and romantic. Saunders begins to like him. Saunders understands how rough Washington can be. Knowing about Taylor’s and Paine’s scheme that is afoot to construct a dam at Willet Creek Saunders is shocked when Smith’s proposed bill calls for a boys’ camp at Willet Creek, the same place!

After the bill is written Smith introduces it on the floor of the Senate to the shock and alarm of Senator Paine.

Senator Paine tries to distract Smith from his duties, and then tries to get Taylor to hold off on his plans, but Taylor won’t budge. Eventually Paine accuses Smith before the entire Senate of disgracing that institution and he essentially frames him for a crime he did not commit and they seek to oust Smith from the Senate.

Dejected, Smith seeks solace at the Lincoln Memorial. There Saunders finds him and gives him a good pep talk. Encouraged by Saunders the disgraced Smith surprisingly shows up in the Senate to defend himself. He is recognized by the chair and he starts a filibuster. The filibuster draws a great deal of attention and creates a lot of headlines. His action begins to play well back in his home state much to Taylor’s chagrin.

Taylor is not a man to be outdone. He controls the newspapers and radio stations in that state and he therefore is the top opinion shaper there.

Realizing that Smith’s actions will be portrayed negatively in the press, Saunders gets Smith’s own paper, a paper for his boys’ clubs, to ramp up printing portraying Smith’s side of the story. Taylor responds by attacking the various boys’ club chapters who are distributing those papers.

Finally after 23 hours, hampers of correspondence are brought into the Senate by Senator Paine. The letters and cards which are contained in those hampers indicate disfavor of Smith by his constituents, but they are as Diz calls them, “Taylor made”.

Finally Smith confronts Paine to his face reminding him of the ideals Paine use to stand for before he became corrupted. Then in shear exhaustion Smith faints and collapses. Paine leaves the Senate chamber and tries to shoot himself but is stopped. He goes back into the chamber and confesses all.

Senator Smith Bedragled After Hours of Filibustering

James Stewart as Sen. Smith is by now extremely tired.

James Stewart as Sen. Smith is by now extremely tired.


The story told in this movie is apparently timeless. It is a Washington story with a touch of David and Goliath tossed in.

Jefferson Smith is a clean cut all American who has no aspiration to get involved in politics; he is an outdoorsman, the eagle scout type with interests in wildlife, in the proper training of boys into men and a conservationist. He is also a patriot and a history buff. He has never traveled far from home, facts which can be deduced from the spellbinding effect that the city of Washington with all its monuments and all its history has on him. He is blessedly naïve and idealistic.

In interesting example highlighting the skill which James Stewart had as an actor can be found in a scene where Smith meets Paine’s daughter, Susan and is instantly smitten and as a result is terribly nervous. Here Stewart does a fantastic job of fumbling, and being careless. This has become a trade-mark style for him and can be seen in other parts he plays.

It is not just the story of a naïve young man coming inexperienced to the Senate; it is the story of an outsider coming inexperienced to the Establishment and any outsider who comes and bucks the system is hated by the Establishment. The Establishment will stoop to extremely low levels to rid itself of such an outsider. Therein lies the drama of the movie. But this movie is from 1939; we would never see that happen today, right? We’re more evolved than that, right? What would an old movie have to say to us today?

Jefferson Smith is the hero of countless boys all across his state and they have two parents apiece that vote. That and his inexperience naiveté make him the perfect candidate for the role of stooge when an opening comes available in this state’s congressional delegation, that of Junior Senator. This is perfect for the political leadership of that state which has graft on its agenda.

Smith is obviously wet behind the ears and we can see that when he takes the stage to accept from the governor this appointment. His first few words in the Senate also show nervousness and inexperience. His first speech in the Senate introducing his bill for a boy’s camp reveals again the same nervousness and downright stage fright he is dealing with, but when he is confronted, because of that bill he finds his voice.

During Smith’s acceptance speech he reveals that there had been a “best friend” relationship between his father and the senior senator, Senator Paine in their younger days. This news was a surprise to Paine who didn’t realize that this man they got to play stooge was the son of his long deceased best friend. It is a fact that will come to play a crucial role in the unfolding drama. Smith’s father was killed for his ideals and was a champion of lost causes even up to causing his own murder. Those genes lay latent in the younger, seemingly naïve Smith. Those ideals and that determination to fight to the end for them had also once inspired the older Senator Paine. But years of Washington had corroded the heart of Pane and he had drifted into the comfortable world of a career senator who had become as they say, “fat, dumb and happy”. In other words he himself had become addicted to the fame, fortune and power that came with that position. He himself became a stooge of the swamp.

It is Smith’s word to him, reminding him of those ideals, spoken by a weakened but unbowed junior senator that in the end broke the older corrupted senior senator that justice might prevail.

This movie also has a romance in it – that between Smith and his secretary, Saunders. Smith as we have established was characterized as being uncorrupted by Washington. Saunders while not corrupted was certainly calloused and cynical. Smith was from the rural world of prairies and forests of mountains and streams, of fresh air. Saunders was from the inner city. She experienced the things Smith mentioned to her. They were the things of dreamy wonders.

The biggest impression that Smith made on Saunders came from the words of his father, just as the words of his father had also touched and changed the corrupted Senator Paine. The words of Smith’s father, now the words of Smith, reminded Paine of who he once was and it was too much for him to bear. Note that Paine shouts, “I’m not worthy to be a senator” as he confesses that Smith has been right all along.

The filibuster scene is famous in cinematic history and for many Americans who have seen the movie it is the image that appears in their minds when the word is used. It’s seen as a great American tradition by some, though it’s done in other countries and it originated in ancient Rome. It is a mechanism that can hold up the entire deliberative process of the senate, but at tremendous cost to the senator as he or she must remain standing and speaking for the duration.

In the end right wins out over wrong.

Senator Smith Going Through Hampers of Negative Correspondence

James Stewart (standing next to Claude Rains - Sen. Paine) with "Taylor Made" letters in  his hands

James Stewart (standing next to Claude Rains - Sen. Paine) with "Taylor Made" letters in his hands


The movie did well at the box office and was nominated for 11 academy awards (it won only one and that was for “Best Written/Original Story”) It was also nominated for Best Film by the National Board of Review. But it was not well received in Washington. The press corps didn’t like the way they were depicted; the Senate didn’t like their portrayal either. And some ambassadors didn’t want the movie shown where they were serving because it made the American Senate look foolish and corrupt. But fascist and communist dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin also banned it because it showed democracy working.

From IMDB:

“In 1942 when a ban on American films was imposed in German occupied France, the title theaters chose, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” for their last movie before the ban went into effect. One Paris theater reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days prior to the ban”.

“Frank Capra received many letters over the years from individuals who were inspired by the film to take up politics”.

“One of the real senators from Montana walked out of the screening he attended in disgust”.

“Ranked #5 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring movies of All Times (2006) and #26 Greatest Movies of All Times (2007) also by AFT”

“The Movie is loosely based on the early career of US Senator Burton K. Wheeler (democrat, Montana), who was falsely indicted when, as a freshman senator in the 1920s, he fought corruption in the presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.” Since he was still in office at the time of the film’s screening he is quite likely the senator who walked out of the screening in the previously mentioned tidbit.

“The character of Harrison Paine was reportedly based on the then junior senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, then known as "the senator from Pendergast," for the political machine which backed his early career in politics. The capitol of Paine's and Smith's unnamed state is "Jackson City." The capital of Truman's state of Missouri is Jefferson City.”

From Wikipedia:

“The ending of the film was apparently changed at some point, as the original program describes Stewart and Arthur returning to Smith’s hometown, where they are met by a big parade, with the implication that they are married and starting a family. In addition, the Taylor political machine is shown as being crushed; Smith riding a motorcycle, visits Senator Paine and forgives him; and a visit to Smith’s mother is included. Some of this footage can be seen in the film’s trailer”.

“Smith’s filibuster and the tacit encouragement of the Senate President are both emblematic of the director’s belief in the difference that one individual can make.”

Senator Smith Confronts Senator Paine About Fighting for Lost Causes

James Stewart telling Claude Rains in the Senate Chamber

James Stewart telling Claude Rains in the Senate Chamber

Movie Trailer

Modern Syle Trailer

See Life as if You've Just Come out of a Tunnel

The Dramatic Ending

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