Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the subsequent entry into World War II by the United States of America, James Maitland Stewart joined the US Air Corps.  Before the war, Stewart was a talented pilot in the private sector, amassing hundreds of hours of flight time and even participating in a cross-country race as a co-pilot.  He had invested (and recruited more investments) in a pilot-training program hosted by Southwest Airways.  He was an immensely popular actor on the home-front, starring in such films as The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn and You Can’t Take it With You with Jean Arthur.  He was well-publicized, well-known, and was an interesting character, who loved flying, loved his country, and respected his family’s military tradition.

After being drafted in 1942, Stewart was rejected because he didn’t satisfy the weight requirement.  More than once, Stewart would try to get accepted into the Air Corps, only to be rejected because he was too tall and too lanky.  After work in the MGM gym, Stewart finally made weight.  But, this was only the first in a long line of rejection for Stewart, who, more than anything at this point in his life, wanted to fight for his country.

For Stewart, the opportunity to serve was part-blessing, part-duty.  His family had a long military tradition dating back to the Civil War, when both his grandfathers fought for the union, and beyond to the War of 1812 and the American Revolution.  When one’s whole life is the result of choices made by men and women who spilled their blood and fought for freedom, generation by generation at a time, then it is not difficult to see how ingrained in that person’s psyche the notion for patriotic self-sacrifice becomes.  Stewart, born in Pennsylvania, and making his living in California, had covered the United States and fallen in love with it.  More importantly, he had fallen in love with this home.  Sure, the United States is our home, but don’t the United States only exist for one purpose: so that our communities can live and thrive?  That’s something Jimmy Stewart understood.  You don’t live in the entire nation, you live in one little spot of that nation, in one house, on one street, in one neighborhood, in one town.  Freedom is an individual thing.  Community is about groups.  The nation was designed to protect it.  About his hometown of Indiana, PA, Stewart said this in 1958 (to the Boy Scouts…keep that in mind for later):

“Through the years Indiana has been something of tremendous importance in my life. It’s true there is something special about the place where you were raised—your hometown. I have found through the years during the times when I’ve been here in Indiana that almost every direction I look, and so many faces I see, immediately cause a picture to be formed of an event, a happening in my life that I remember well. I think the main thing that has kept Indiana so close to my heart is the fact that Indiana has been, and still is, the headquarters of Mr. Alex Stewart and his family … My father has been almost fanatical in his determination to keep our family together—and he has done it. Time and distance haven’t seemed to have affected this headquarters in Indiana. I’ve settled down three thousand miles from Indiana. I’ve traveled to points in the world three times that distance. At times I’ve stayed away several years at a stretch, but I somehow have never felt that I was very far from here … somehow I don’t feel that I have ever been away.”

Ten years earlier (1948), upon being appointed as Pennsylvania ambassador by the Governor of the state, Stewart said, “Indiana means home to me. It is a town for me to cling to, because my mother and father are here. I was born and reared here. I have a great love and pride for Indiana. I love every bit of it.”

That love of family and that love of community were strong motivating factors for Stewart in his quest to fight for the United States of America in World War II.  But, his inability to satisfy the weight requirement was only the beginning of his uphill battle.  The truth was, he was a celebrity.  He was a Hollywood boy.  He was a cultural icon.  Because a lot of his “career blocking”, if you want to call it that, in the military by officers above him was due to the fear that he would get hurt, Stewart couldn’t help but feel a little out of place.  His first phase of military service was defined, really, by one word: shelter.

It is obviously very difficult in a world defined by self-sacrifice to be the person relegated to the sidelines, in order to be protected at all cost from any harm.  But, that was Stewart’s experience for a long time in the military.  On one hand, he was a national icon; and if he got hurt, it would be a devastating cultural blow.  On the other hand, he wanted to serve, and his willingness to serve was a good rallying cry for other like-minded young men who wanted to serve their country.  You have to think that Stewart felt a little like he was too old, or too rich and pampered and famous to be taken seriously in a man’s army.  Whether or not he felt that way, and whether or not that was true, he was certainly granted a…different…type of service for the first several months to one year of his time during the war.

Not unlike the fictional Captain America, Jimmy Stewart became a touring poster boy for the war effort.  Starring in propaganda films like Winning Your Wings” and doing radio broadcasts (including an all-star broadcast celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Bill of Rights with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston, and Lionel Barrymore), Stewart felt like he was nearing “the hope-shattering spectre of a dead end,” as was stated by Starr Smith, in a Stewart biography entitled, simply, Bomber Pilot.  When Stewart started receiving instructional assignments across the Western states, this fear became realized.

But, he was persistent.  In what might have been the most well-advised meeting with a boss in his entire career, Stewart made a formal appeal to Lt. Col. Walter E. Arnold, Jr., who respected Stewart’s resolve and recommended him to a new unit. It wasn’t until that assignment with the 445th Bombardment Group out of Sioux City that Stewart would finally get his chance to shine.

The 445th was deemed battle-ready in August of 1943, and Jimmy Stewart was named commander of the 703rd Squadron.  Stewart would go on to fly 20 sorties deep into enemy territory and around Europe, as well as many other uncredited flights.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat, and he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.  He had one of the fastest tracks to colonel in history, moving to that position all the way from a lowly private in just four years.  In 1959, he was promoted to Brigadier General.  After he was retired from the Air Force, he was promoted to Major General on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan.

Jimmy never liked being called Jimmy.  He always preferred James. But, as studio execs will do, as long as he was in Hollywood, he would go by Jimmy.  He was the “everyman.”  He was the young, approachable gentleman who could connect with middle America.  “Jimmy” was a box office name.  But, after his stint in the military, Jimmy Stewart would become James.  He was an American hero, and deserved an American hero’s name.

Now…what does this have to do with anything?  Obviously, James Stewart played the lead role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, and this is a review of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but what’s with all detail?  Well, I find it incredibly interesting to look at this chapter in the life of James Stewart and compare it with what Mr. Jefferson Smith undergoes in his little trip to Washington D.C..  The character whom Stewart was playing in 1939 would turn out to have far more in common with Stewart himself then Stewart may have been willing to believe at the time.  And I can’t help but think that somewhere along the way, during his fight to be legitimate in the Air Corps, Stewart felt a little bit of déjà vu.  Marc Eliot, in his biography of James Stewart, drew the same parallel: there is a striking similarity between Mr. Smith and Stewart, and that only goes to show how much more real and true the message of the film can ring.

Jefferson Smith was a good, talented, interesting man from a small town in the Western United States.  (The film never mentions the state, but it was based on Lewis R. Foster’s unpublished short story, “The Gentleman from Montana”, so we can only assume…).  After the death of one of the two state senators, the governor, according to law, was required to pick a replacement to fill in for the deceased until the upcoming election.  He picks Smith to fill in.

Why Smith?  Because a lot of the lobbyists wanted a reformer who could clean up corruption, while the lobbyist, powerful boss-man Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold, who had starred alongside Jean Arthur and James Stewart in the previous year’s You Can’t Take it With You), wanted another stooge to fill in, a man who could be easily swayed and would not—would not—negatively effect the upcoming bill filled with plenty of pork for him and his people.  The two opposing sides, one calling for a hero, the other calling for a puppet, forced the governor to pick a man who was both.  Jefferson Smith was a crusader for small town America, and was famous for his gallant volunteer efforts with the “Boy Rangers” (basically, the Boy Scouts).  Despite the wholesome image and lack of political corruption, the governor knew that Smith would be completely naïve to the process of governing and could be easily malleable or manipulable.  It was the perfect pick.

Smith, though, never realized just how he was being used.  For him, he was granted the immeasurable opportunity and blessing to serve his country.  He was a lover of history.  We watch those first few sequences in Washington, D.C., when he shouts in awe about the Capitol Building and the Lincoln memorial, when he sneaks away to join a tour bus throughout the city, and when he can’t stop babbling to the page boy on the Senate floor about how amazing an opportunity it is that he gets to sit at the desk that once belonged to Daniel Webster.  He doesn’t know that he’s being laughed at until a tough encounter with the media begins to teach him that the romance of Washington is either dead was never even there in the first place.  He soon starts to feel like a worthless member in the glorious body that is the United States Senate.  He feels useless, used, and lost.

When the senior senator from his state, played by the always-fantastic Claude Rains (who starred in such films as Notorious, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Lawrence of Arabia), tells him that he should try to introduce a bill, Smith becomes ecstatic.  But, he doesn’t know the half of how to do it.  From here, his relationship develops with Clarissa Sanders, played by the incomparable Jean Arthur.  Clarissa helps him to draft a bill that will introduce a national camp for boys in his home state.  But, this innocent-enough bill turns out to be a game-changer, because the proposed spot for the camp lands right in the middle of an upcoming government dam project, a project which the center of a graft scheme that political boss Jim Taylor has had in the works for a long time.

Suddenly, Mr. Smith is being attacked on all sides, his character being smeared, his reputation being scarred, and lies being told about him before senatorial overview committees.  He begins to learn the truth about why there is such rampant opposition to his innocent bill, and his entire universe begins to shatter.  Suddenly, he is faced with a much darker Washington, one full of corruption, one that, assuredly, the Founding Fathers never intended to create.  He is a lonely man in a world of violent oppressors, and he is truly hopeless.

What ensues is one of the most fantastic, pure, powerful, versatile, dark, and intense acting performances ever put to film, when Mr. Jefferson Smith undergoes the impossible fight, not only against his enemies, but against his own self, to filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate.

It is a story that I’ve never forgotten, one I watched for the first time in my high school history class, and one that I have watched many times since.  The movie plays with tone and emotion unlike anything that Frank Capra had ever done before: the first two-thirds of the movie are more comedy than drama.  Then, the last third of the movie comes along and can best be described as dark and difficult.  Of course, the drama of the third act is always tempered a little bit, thanks mostly to Harry Carey and Thomas Mitchell.  (Carey—and Rains, for that matter—was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film.  Mitchell, who actually won Best Supporting Actor in 1939, won for a different role entirely, in Stagecoach. As long as we’re on the subject, let me point out that Mitchell was incredibly busy that year…he had roles not only in Stagecoach and Mr. Smith, but also in Gone With the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

The comedic element of the film hasn’t aged as well as the dramatic element.  What I mean by that is that modern audiences will likely not even notice the comedy, because it’s not a comedy in the modern sense.  I mention this in my essay on the genre.  That André Bazin used Mr. Smith as one of his premier examples of American comedy goes a long way to show just how funny the movie is meant to be.  Capra does a lot to invoke a lighter mood in the first two acts of the film: more scenes take place during the day, and there is more light in the frame.  As the movie goes on, though, Washington is shown as a darker place.  The lights as the cross Stewart’s face in the filibuster scene are incredibly telling, just like the lights over his face in his later collaboration with Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life.  

In both of these movies (Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life), Capra makes comedies that become dramas.  They are not dramas with comedic elements attached.  While we often remember him more as a “feel-good” director, we often don’t give Capra the credit he deserves when it comes to his ability to set a mood.  He was incredibly aware that his comedies had a valuable humanist element to them, and would go to great lengths to make sure that the intention of each line of dialogue was reflected by the mood of the filming.  If a line was supposed to be funny, it would be framed that way with the lighting, the score, and the movement of the objects in the frame.  Today, a lot of modern viewers aren’t used to this sort of fluidity when it comes to mood.  We like our dramas to be dramas, and we like our comedies to be comedies.  As a result, a lot of modern viewers watch a movie like Mr. Smith and only see the comedy as a “cheesy” inclusion into the drama.  Rather, it needs to be seen the other way around.  The drama is a humanist result of the comedy that is playing out on the screen.

What sets Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life apart from the other Capra films is this element of darkness.  Where most Capra movies deal with one bad guy surrounded by a bunch of good guys, these two movies show a good guy with a few loyal friends who is surrounded by forces that want to do him bad.  While Capra is a director who liked to film hope, he never filmed more hopeless moments than those scenes with George Bailey on the bridge or Jefferson Smith with crinkled-up, forged letters from purported Boy Rangers in his fists.

Not unlike the real-life Stewart’s military experience, Mr. Smith was made an outcast by the powers that be, and felt the disappointment that comes with realizing that his lifelong beliefs about the institutions which he loved and respected were far less than true.  But, the message of Capra’s film is simple: even when it seems you are alone, you have the strength to make things right, and to fight for your own “lost cause.”  I wonder how much of that powerful story Stewart took with him into the military, and how much of Mr. Smith’s resolve he learned to have for himself.  Maybe I’m being too cliche by comparing the two.  But, the stories are so strikingly similar that it is difficult not to make the comparisons.

Many great movies were made in 1939.  I’ve made that very clear.  This is, without doubt, one of my favorites from that year, and will always have a special place with me.  It’s a story about lost causes, and about the rite of passage that is facing the public.  It’s about what it really means to be a public servant.  It’s about relearning what we have learned…coming back to our roots and realizing that all the good gets buried in corruption.  It’s about getting rid of that corruption, one metaphorical filibuster at a time.  Let me wrap this up with one of the many monologues we get from Mr. Smith’s filibuster:

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”

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8 thoughts on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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