Frank Capra directed many celebrated films during “Hollywood’s Golden Era.” He made films before “talkies”, but his greatest movies came after the advent of sound. Often those films commented on the society of his day. After his success with It Happened One Night (in 1935 it won all the top Academy honors: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Writing) he had increased autonomy at Columbia pictures.
All his subsequent films, even the WWII propaganda pieces he made for the American war effort, deserve viewing and most of them are available on DVD. Of these films three stand out as pointed political commentary before the WWII period: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Progressively they move from a mostly bright outlook, to a considerably darker view. As the middle film in this trio Mr. Smith exhibits some optimism, but shows the dark side of politics in America without hesitation.
After the old style Columbia opening and credits, which hint at the quality which must almost certainly follow from the names in the cast, the movie opens with a newsman “Nosey” (Charles Lane, a character actor Capra often favored) on the phone calling in a story to his paper about US Senator Sam Foley dying, attended by “state political sidekick” Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, excellent in this role as usual). The scene switches to Sen. Paine calling his state’s Governor Hubert 'Happy' Hopper (Guy Kibbee). Paine informs ‘Happy’ of Foley's death and tells him to call Jim Taylor with that news and also his plans to head home that evening. Happy calls Taylor (Edward Arnold) who tells him to not get excited. However, as governor (post 17th amendment), Happy must appoint a new US Senator.
The prospect of a new US Senator attracts the attention of many politically involved people, who swarm to see the Governor with their suggestions to fill the post. Happy tells Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette) he must see the citizen groups, but Chick suggests he talk with Taylor. Happy joins Jim Taylor in a conference with Sen. Paine. After Taylor calms Happy, he leaves and Taylor and Paine resume their discussion of a piece of graft centered on the Willet Creek Dam they are pushing through Congress. Sen. Paine expresses doubts about pursuing the plan with a new Senator from their state, but Taylor pushes the dam, and also his man for the senatorial appointment.
Between a rock and hard place with Taylor and the citizen groups and their respective ideas for Senator, Happy has dinner with his family where he finds his children also have a favored candidate for Senator, head of the Boy Rangers: Jefferson Smith. Using an apolitical and unscientific process Happy selects Smith (James Stewart). At a special dinner Smith recalls how his father and a younger Joe Paine worked together in the past. Smith’s mother (Beulah Bondi) and Paine exchange nods before a group of boys make a presentation and Smith is off to DC. On the train Jeff and Senator Paine reminisce about the days when Jeff’s father: the young editor and Joe Paine: the young lawyer worked together. When they arrive in Washington, Paine’s daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn) meets them at the station, along with political operatives (one played by William Demerest).
After Smith causes an uproar amongst Taylor’s operatives when he takes an unplanned tour of the capital, McGann calls Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith’s congressional aide, to alert her about Smith. After his tour, Smith meets Saunders and her pal: newsman Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell), at the Senate offices. The next day the Vice President (Harry Carey Sr. -- President of the Senate – excellent in this supporting role) assists Sen. Smith in taking his oath of office. Smith meets the majority (H.B. Warner) and minority (Porter Hall) leaders and assumes the office of US Senator.
After several unpleasant encounters with the press corps, Smith feels he should actually do something while in Washington other than “decorate a chair.” Without knowing about any of the details of Smith’s idea for a “national boy’s camp,” Sen. Paine suggests Jeff put a bill together for it. Paine says that Saunders will help him with it. At first Saunders lacks interest in the bill, but when she hears Willet Creek as the site for Smith’s camp she helps him put the bill together. The situation moves toward conflict.
Capra also paired Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in the earlier You Can’t Take It With You, but Stewart’s Mr. Smith is a much stronger leading role than his part in the prior film. In addition to the great performances by the main actors, as in so many other Capra films, the minor roles are also played superbly. As an immigrant, Capra loved his adopted homeland, but saw the flaws in its government. This film shows, without varnish, the system that had taken hold in Washington DC, even as early as 1939.
Most Constitutionalists and many libertarian minarchists may enjoy this film more than the most thorough-going anti-statists. However, its portrayal of the corrupting influence of politics trumpets the danger of the State. Although Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still has a tone of optimism, it paved the way for Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty in 1940 and Capra’s own Meet John Doe in 1941, both of which show more cynicism for American politics. If you have no illusions about the American political system, or perhaps even more appropriately: if you do, give Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a view. I think you’ll find something to enjoy and from which to gain insight.