Trump’s conspiracy-mongering nonsense now that he’s been beaten by one of the largest vote margins in modern history is really not much of a surprise. Nothing is ever his fault, after all. So it really seemed inevitable that, faced with this loss, he’d throw millions of dollars at doomed recounts, file dozens of frivolous lawsuits, and spread complete falsehoods on Twitter. When the facts don’t support you, you can just claim it’s all a conspiracy.
Looking at that whole situation adds another layer to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as Frank Capra’s 1939 film starring James Stewart as the nation’s most blameless and starry-eyed holder of political office now harbors a potentially harmful narrative. Its premise is that this particular guy is incorruptible and the target of some vast conspiracy, one in which seemingly an entire state can just be ordered by one corrupt insider to destroy him and drag his name through the mud. It is exactly the sort of thing Trump and his Z-team of hysterical lawyers are all screaming now. Surely, they’d love for you to believe that Trump, like Jefferson Smith, is some innocent political naif who’s been framed up by those blackhearted power brokers in Washington.
Of course, I don’t think Capra intended that at all, and it is still, gosh darn it, impossible not to love the movie. Neither Capra nor anybody in 1939 could have looked ahead and seen the trash fire awaiting our nation’s highest office 80 years later. And the fact the conspiracy here is aimed at some petty fight over a public works project is exactly the kind of quotidian bullshit that really does animate most political corruption.
The unexpected death of a respected United States senator sends the political world into a sudden uproar. (We are never told what state he represents, but it does have some prairie in it, at least.) Faced with the responsibility to appoint a successor right away so that a crucial budget package can be voted on, the feckless governor (Guy Kibbee) vacillates between two picks whom one faction or another hate. Eventually his eight children browbeat him into appointing the bestest scoutmaster in the state, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). This is acceptable, for the moment, to the mastermind of the state’s political machine, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who believes Smith is inexperienced enough to be controlled.
Smith is quickly taken under the wing of his fellow senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, looking and sounding nothing at all like the smarmy fellows he played in some of his other famous roles). Smith is so taken in by the majesty of the District of Columbia that he goes missing for hours just gazing in awe upon the Lincoln Memorial. When he does finally make it into his new office, his legislative assistant, Saunders (Jean Arthur, playing it tough as nails and dry as sand), and Diz, the besotted reporter who’s eager for a story (Thomas Mitchell), can’t believe he’s for real.
Smith’s one idea is that he wants to create a boy’s camp, a place where young men from all over the country can go for some outdoorsy recreation and good old American values. It will not strain the federal budget, he claims, because these boys will each kick in a dime to pay back the loan. Rather than scream at him that this is socialism or that the camp has a pedophile ring in the basement, Paine tells him to go ahead and draw up a bill, for which he enlists Saunders’ help. The scene in which she cynically rattles off the entire process by which a bill becomes a law (unless it fails in the eleventh hour) is actually very instructive. I work in a legislature, and Jean Arthur may as well be some of the people I know now, 80 years later.
What Smith’s friendly political mentors come to realize when he reads his bill into the record is that he’s eyeing the same land for his boy’s camp that Taylor’s political machine wants to use to build a dam that will generate a ton of kickbacks. Saunders can’t bear to keep this secret from Smith, who refuses to play ball with Taylor and Paine. Unable to threaten or bribe him, the men immediately hatch an elaborate conspiracy, framing him as the owner of the land in question and accusing him of seeking to illegally benefit from a deal. This involves getting one of his acquaintances to testify against him and forging land transfer documents with his falsified signature on them.
It’s … kind of ridiculous. And it comes after a scene in which the capitol press corps—those damned lying journalists!—print a bunch of falsified quotes in the newspaper about him, which is really the kind of thing that would get such reporters fired in a nanosecond. Everybody but Smith is corrupt, the movie’s logic goes, so he’s justified in doing things like grandstanding with a filibuster to hold off the big budget deal, being that the graft he’s sought to expose is included in it.
Capra was not going for a paranoid persecution tale, though, I don’t think. If the movie seems like it wants to skirt around huge issues like the Depression or the war in Europe, if it seems like it is being all too careful not to mention political parties or states (the words “Democrat” and “Republican” are never once uttered in it), it’s because he was making a movie about what he considered to be the idea of America. Capra, the director of that modern-day classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the “A Christmas Carol” of America, immigrated to the United States from Italy at the age of five. He had but to look across the Atlantic to his family’s homeland to understand the full import of American Democracy.
The movie is about an individual versus the vast systems that compete with the common American’s interests. And considering we are more or less the only developed nation that has adopted a pandemic strategy of, “Well, people with more money than you want you to die at work, so…?” it’s really hard to fault Capra for his viewpoint.
The most exciting (and corniest, but who cares) part of the movie comes when Smith rallies and starts an epic 24-hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate, arguing his case and then reading the Declaration of Independence and the Bible as reporters breathlessly bark out their stories over the wire. Taylor, meanwhile, has the power to simply stop every paper in the state from reporting the story, except for Smith’s own boy scout paper! We are treated to scenes of fresh-faced kids getting firehosed and run off the road by Taylor’s goons. It’s clearly in earnest. I love it.
Smith’s message fails to get through to his constituents, and when he receives their vitriol on the floor of the Senate, he gives out. But Paine is so wracked by guilt at the whole ordeal that he comes clean at the last second. It’s an odd choice, since the film really ends here abruptly, with no scene of Smith processing his victory, nor of Taylor getting any comeuppance. I can find no evidence that there was an original ending in which Smith lost, but like the ending of Get Out, we’re given the precise details of exactly how that would look.
The intent behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is too good-hearted to fault the movie much. A scene in which Smith stands before the Lincoln Memorial and watches as a child reads off the 16th president’s words seems corny unless you have been to the Lincoln Memorial yourself—a place where the peoples of the world really do come in reverence. Capra said that scene actually played out right in front of him in real life while he was struggling through the movie, which he also was worried was too pat and saying too little about the world of 1939.
Throughout his filmmaking career, Capra returned time and again to the narrative of one good man struggling against cynical forces arrayed against him—Stewart even returned in that same lead role in It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a movie that celebrates that righteous individualism. It’s just hard not to also see it as a reminder that these same trappings of American pride can be twisted by the wrong people to the wrong purpose.
Kenneth Lowe stands guilty as framed because Section 40 is graft!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.